After spending a little over a week in the quaint capital of Laos, Vientiane offers a much-welcomed respite from the hustle and bustle of other over-populated Southeast Asian cities.
The city of 700,000 boasts a colonial past with buildings of French architecture found mainly along the Mekong River and baguettes are sold openly on the streets.
Most businesses operate from 10am till 8pm with the exception of a few outdoor beer gardens that offer a limited night life. There is only one modern shopping centre in Vientiane, which is tiny by Kuala Lumpur’s standard, although the World Trade Centre is near completion.
There are no KFCs and McDonald’s here. The sole international chain is run by Swensen’s with its Pizza Company branches. But therein lies the charm of Vientiane.
Besides entries on Wikitravel and Lonely Planet, here are the five things we think you should know about Vientiane and Laos.
Pepsi vs Coca-Cola
Many countries in the world favour the red over the blue. Not in Laos though.
In Vientiane, Pepsi is ubiquitous. It is sold in all restaurants, pushcarts and convenience stores. Umbrellas and awnings adorned with its logo are aplenty. By contrast, most restaurants and pushcarts don’t stock Coca-Cola.
The reason behind this is due to Pepsi operating its own bottling plant in the country much earlier than Coco-Cola—first mover’s advantage.
Although the Vietnam War is named after Vietnam, Laos wasn’t spared carnage. Cluster bombs, favoured by the American military, were dropped in abundance especially in the mountainous regions around the country’s border with Vietnam.
The aim was to cut off the Ho Chi Minh trail, a logistical system that ran from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) through the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia by the Viet Cong.
These cluster bombs contained tiny explosives, knowns as bomblets or bombies, where upon the opening of the hull mid-air, these bomblets scattered and covered a large area.
Some of them were designed to detonate upon contact with land, while others were set to explode at a later time. However, due to design flaws, around 30% of these bomblets never exploded. Many of them are still lying on the ground, endangering the lives of many Lao people who come into contact with these unexploded ordinance (UXO) through farming activities and outdoor cooking.
COPE Visitor Centre is an exhibit of the UXO and offers personal stories of the Lao people who survived and families whose members were killed. It also showcases many prosthetic limbs made from metals salvaged from the UXO in a highly interactive if somewhat poignant setting.
Like Thailand but not “same same”
Most Lao people speak and understand the Thai language. Many are keen followers of Thai soaps. Both languages share some similarities when it comes to pronunciation. Both nations are overwhelmingly Buddhist where temples dot every city block. However, that is where the similarity ends.
Thai’s laissez-faire attitude towards sex doesn’t apply in Laos. In fact, it is illegal to enter into a sexual relationship with a Lao national outside of marriage.
Sticky rice, blood puddings and Beerlao
Unlike many Asian countries where rice forms a staple, in Laos, it is sticky rice. The grains are steamed in bamboo baskets and served al dente. A side of greens and herbs often accompanies the main dish, whether it is rice or noodles.
Whether it is clear soup or Lao laksa, maroon-coloured blood puddings are must-haves in Lao noodle dishes. With a texture of agar-agar, the blood pudding is odour-less and tasteless despite its origins. If you ever need a reason to try, it is rich in iron.
Beerlao is also a quality and surprisingly delicious and fragrant alcoholic beverage. The beers range from the blond Beerlao Original, Beerlao Gold to the dark Beerlao Dark. It’s more popular among the locals than foreign names such as Tiger Beer and Tuborg.
Foreign aid contribute tremendously to the development of Vientiane and Laos. Infrastructure such as buses and buildings are often donated or jointly built by countries seeking to spread their influences such as Japan.
The majority of businesses in Vientiane are owned by the Lao Chinese community. Their standard of living is comparable to the middle-class people of neighbouring countries.
Toyota Land Cruiser and Lexus LX SUVs are commonly seen and seem to be the preferred vehicles. The college-going and professionals can converse in English. In Vientiane, there are very few beggars and homeless people.
However, as a stark reminder that it still has some way to go, there are men who urinate on the streets.