How we spent our days - things to see and do.........
Vientiane is the capitol and the largest city in the country. It sits on the Mekong River and is about 1,000 years old. It is a fairly small, with a population of under 150,000, and is definately a walking city. We were usually up early, took advantage of the comp. breakfast at the guesthouse and headed out to town.
Walking about the city, one sees the colonial influences of the French in some of the architecture......and in the breads! The baguettes are wonderful. [Aside from keeping the baguette and some of the old colonial buildings, there is little left of the French. English is the language of choice for the younger generation.] We spent nearly every day in Vientiane pounding the pavement and gravel roads - with the L.P. tour book in hand. It proved invaluable for us on this trip. No, I am not getting royalties, but we would both recommend it highly for the maps and general tourist information. By the time we finished with our trip to Lao, the book was well dog-eared.
In my opinion, Vientiane is most famous for the Mekong, the temples and the morning market. Aside from getting to know the people themselves, these are the keys to seeing the city. We spent the mornings and sunsets walking along the Mekong, with the afternoons at the markets, shopping on the city streets or touring temples.
That Luang is perhaps the most famous symbol of Lao nationalism and Buddhist religion in the country. It is also the most spectacular structure, especially when the sun is on the gold leaf with full force. It was built in the mid 1500s.
Morning Market - Talaat Sao
The best market in the entire city is the Morning Market "Talaat Sao." It runs all day and carries a wide selection of Lao textiles, silver, household goods, imported electronics, clothing, etc. This is the central market for the city and is not geared as a tourist trap. There are literally hundreds of vendors operating in the Market. The highlight is definitely the Lao textiles. We spent hours with the dozens of vendors over the course of a few days in Vientiane, chatting with the vendors (or attempting to chat in our VERY limited Lao) and browsing their shops.
Recommend you check out "Lao Antique Textiles." Ms. Chanthone Thattanakham is the owner of the shop in the Morning Market and she also has a gallery in town. Her prices are not the lowest, but she has perhaps the best collection of new and older Lao textiles for sale in the Morning Market. We bought several new weavings from her as well as a few older traditional baby carriers. She is friendly and has no problem with english. She is one of the more established vendors at the Talaat Sao. She will accept major credit cards (3%) service charge on most cards.
Another shop worth checking out at the Talaat Sao is "Lao Clothing Store." Ms. Phonesavanh Vongphranakhone is the owner of the shop. She has a nice selection of new traditional Lao textiles. Her focus is primarily on material for skirts. According to my wife, she does a fine job at sewing a skirt and can turn a piece around overnight for a modes fee.
High End Textiles
For the high end Lao textiles, I recommend you visitCarol Cassidy in her Vientiane workshop and gallery. Even if you are not in the buying mood, the gallery alone is worth a visit to see truly high quality traditional Lao weaving. Carol Cassidy started a workshop in the early 1990s in Vientiane to revive the traditional Lao designs. She and her husband run the for profit business and have over 20 hand looms and employ and train local weavers. According to a Financial Times article, her weavers earn some of the better wages in Lao, US$80-200/month and the women receive three months of maternity leave and health benefits. The textiles are featured in the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. and Ms. Cassidy has brought her works to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York for a one-woman show in 1995.
There are too many to list or hope to review here. Note that Vientiane is not at an economic state where there are large numbers of locals eating at upscale restaurants. So, if you are expecting a large selection of places with aircon and menus in english, etc., you may be disappointed. You will find two categories: (a)many nice, very simple local places and (b)those that cater to the expats or tourist crowd. There is a very clear line between the local places that those that cater to the foreigners. We enjoyed both! Local places tend to be informal and often open-air. Many of these are along the Mekong. [Don't be surprised if more than one will refer you to the River when you ask for the toilet. This is a true story.] One upscale place that is worth a mention is Kualao Restaurant. Located in an old colonial style building right on a corner. While it is very posh by local standards and the clientele is largely expat/tourist, the food is very nice. Not too watered down. If you want a break from the heat and a nice meal in wonderful surroundings, splurge and give it a try:
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