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Friday 1 November 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Laos - Vientiane

After a deliciously calm and soothing spell in Luang Prabang (see reviews Part I and Part II), we made our way south to the sleepy capital of Laos, Vientiane.  The road between the two is still in very poor condition, and whether by private car or bus, it is a long, uncomfortably bumpy 12 hour journey which many break with a stay in Vang Vieng. As there is now a low-cost direct flight option from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (with Laos Central Airlines), we decided to take a very civilised 30 minute flight for only £41 each.

Despite being the capital of Laos since 1563, when King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane fearing invasion by Burma from the west, the population is still under 1 million, and it feels more like a provincial town than a major city.  It is a place for strolling, cycling or sitting in a cafe.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Hotel Khamvongsa, a family run hotel in the old part of central Vientiane. This was a simple guest-house until it was extended and upgraded by the current owner in 2009. We stayed in a bright, spacious room, decorated in French colonial style for a mere £27 per night.

The hotel is only 100 metres from the Mekong river, and a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Rue Setthathilath, in a quiet location opposite the Buddhist temple, Wat Inpeng.

Breakfast was served in the restaurant, and was good, with fresh tropical fruit, pastries and cooked Laotian options. I would recommend this hotel as a good value, clean and friendly place in Vientiane.

Where to Eat

We had dinner at Makphet (meaning chili in Lao). This is a restaurant run by Peuan Mit, an organisation founded by Friends-International in Vientiane in 2004, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare to address the needs of street children and young people in Laos.

Popular with ex-pats and western tourists, the place is run to train young students some useful cooking and hospitality skills in a country for which tourism is a major source of income.

The dishes are Laotian in concept, although somewhat modified for western tastes.  Makphet was the most expensive restaurant we ate at during our visit to Laos, and we were warned that service could be erratic, but knowing that proceeds were going to a good cause, we went with an open mind.

I enjoyed all the dishes that we ate at Makphet. The Madam Khambot's pork and pumpkin laap with mint (£4.20) was an interesting version of Laos’ national dish, with the addition of fried cubes of pumpkin to the mix of minced pork and herbs.

The Banana flower salad with grilled pork fillet served with garlic and tamarind dressing (£4.20) was also good although a tad sweet for my taste. There was quite a lot of coconut added to this dish which although delicious was not mentioned in the dish’s description.

My favourite dish was the salad of beef fillet marinated in Lao whisky, pan-seared and served with tomatoes and frangipani flowers (£4.60). The beef was pleasantly tender and very well seasoned.

We also had a dish called “Ancient Fish” (£6.25) - this consisted of crispy battered fish fillet pieces seasoned with tamarind sauce and served with a deliciously tangy green mango salad.

The grilled aubergine dip (£1.80), known locally as Jeow, was also good and very spicy as expected.

Unusually, there was only one white and one red wine on offer in the restaurant.  We went for a bottle of  2012 Wolftrap, a blend of Viognier, Grenache and Chenin Blanc from South Africa, it was crisp with a good depth of fruit, and very good value at £16.

What to Do

There are few sites of interest in Vientiane, but it is still enjoyable just to stroll around, and stop at the various temples, shops, cafes and bars scattered around town.

Cycling Around Town

We hired a couple of bicycles for 90p per day each; there are numerous cycle hire shops around the centre of town. Make sure the bikes are roadworthy and enjoy a day cycling around Vientiane, a rather flat town which is ideal for cycling. We visited all below sites on our bikes.

Pha That Luang

This is the national symbol, and most important religious monument in Laos.  It is a three-layered gold-painted stupa, thought to date back as far as the 3rd century in its original form as a Hindu temple.  It became a Buddhist temple after missionaries brought a holy relic (believed to be the sternum) of Lord Buddha.  It was rebuilt and ransacked several times, before King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and ordered the re-construction of Pha That Luang in 1566. Originally covered in gold leaf, it was plundered or destroyed on a number of occasions,  and finally reconstructed after WWII, sadly without its gold encrustation.

It is around 2km east of the centre of town, but is easily reached by cycle or tuk tuk, and the inner courtyard has many Buddha statues.  Entry costs 40p.

Temple Visits - Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture, with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, rather than in the Lao style. It is believed that its original design is what has kept it safe as the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane in 1827 used the compound as their headquarters and lodging place. It is the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane.

The French restored Wat Si Saket in 1924 and again in 1930. Wat Si Saket features a cloister wall with more than 2000 ceramic and silver Buddha images.

Visit the Black Stupa (That Dam)

Located at Thanon Bartholomie, near the US embassy, this stupa is the mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane, and was last renovated in 1995.  It is thought to date to the 16th century.

Bicycle Touring

We tried to join this tour, but unfortunately it was full on the day we were in town (they only accept 12 people per day). By all accounts, it is an excellent way to tour the city and its surrounding villages on a guided bike tour (http://www.vientianebycycle.com).

Travel Essentials

Hotel Khamvongsa  
P.O. Box 2338
Khun Bu Lom Road
Ban Vat Chan

Our double room cost £27 per night.

Makphet Restaurant
Behind Wat Ong Teu parallel to Sethathirat Road

Lao Central Airlines

A budget airline founded in 2010, this company currently flies only between Luang Prabang and either Bangkok or Vientiane. Currently flights from Luang Prabang to Vientiane cost £41 one-way, with Bangkok flights costing £83.

There are several companies that offer buses, during the day or overnight, for around £15 one-way, but given that a flight is so affordable and quick, there seems little reason to use this route unless you wish to join the sozzled teenagers floating downstream inside inner tubes in Vang Vieng. It must be admitted that the landscape around Vang Vieng is achingly beautiful.

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