THE woman in the khaki military shirt was busy playing pool on her computer. I approached her small booth on the Laos/Thai border and coughed gently. She looked up briefly to inspect my visa, pushed it back into my hand, and went back to a tricky shot on the eight ball.
Like most things in Laos, even the welcome is done with the minimum of fuss. This land-locked nation is one of the least-populated and least-visited countries in Southeast Asia, and tourists are something of a new phenomenon.
Laos hosts many natural and architectural treasures, but until recently its Communist government wasn’t keen on you seeing them. Things are more relaxed now, and a visit to the capital Vientiane is the ideal way to start an exploration of the country.
To enter Laos you’ll need a passport photo and US$30, and in return you’ll receive a 15-day visa. Should you want to stay longer, it’s best to apply at the Lao embassy in Bangkok. From the border, it’s a 30-baht, 24km-ride to the capital Vientiane on board a jumbo, a truck with two wooden rows of seating in the rear.
Once you check in to your guesthouse you’ll probably be handed the government guidebook, which features some delightful pieces of advice. On the subject of vaccinations it says: “Hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis: if you have not been vaccinated, it’s too late!” Or there’s the even less reassuring: “Bite from a tiger? Very bad, especially in rainy season. You will be comforted knowing that your family is going to get news from you, reading the daily newspaper.”
Needless to say, tiger bites are rather rare and the only real dilemma you’re likely to encounter is choosing whether to have a croissant or noodles for breakfast. Vientiane is one of Asia’s smallest capitals but the one thing it has in abundance is food, often with a post-colonial French flavour. The morning market sells fresh baguettes for 20 baht, packed with lettuce, a spicy and sour sauce, pork skin, mayo and ham. Wash this down with the super-strong local coffee.
The city, which hugs a bend in the Mekong River, has a handful of attractions, and also the national symbol in the form of Pha That Luang. From a distance this temple seems to be straight from the set of Thunderbirds; a square base with sharp spear-like shapes guarding a large central missile. Up close it becomes more ethereal, with arched prayer gates and the elongated spire that resembles a lotus bud.
Back towards the city centre is Patuxai, a large arch with obvious similarities to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Although it looks impressive, its origins are quite accidental. America donated cement to Laos in the 1960s to help build a new airport, but the government had other ideas and used it to create this as a war memorial.
Wat Si Saket is the city’s oldest surviving temple, as it was the only one that wasn’t destroyed by marauding Thais in 1828. The fact it was spared is largely to do with its Thai-style, and today it stands unpretentiously just off the riverfront. Yellow-stained walls form a cloister around the perimeter, which in turn houses hundreds of small, bell-shaped niches. These are each home to two small Buddha images.
All the city’s main attractions can be seen in a couple of days. Once you’ve experienced these, the only thing left to do is sample the city’s famous saunas. Wat Sok Pa Luang, 2km south of the city centre, is a herbal sauna retreat in the middle of a small forest. You’re not likely to be too stressed from exploring Vientiane but in case you are, this is the perfect antidote.
The Transport Company runs daily buses from Bangkok to Nong Khai. Call 0 271 0101 for the regular bus or 0 279 4484 for the air-con version.
To fly to Vientiane from Bangkok, call Thai Airways on 0 260 0070. If you want to save money, take the cheaper flight to Nong Khai and then get a short bus ride to the border.