After our horrific night bus journey to get to Vientiane (and a nap), we spent 2 days exploring the city. As the capital of Laos, I was expecting a lot more from Vientiane, and I have to say I found it pretty lackluster and boring. It wasn’t bad per say, it was just kind of like any other capital city except with less to do. Maybe we just didn’t look hard enough, but we really struggled to fill two and a half days there. In hindsight, I would have rather stayed in Luang Prabang for an extra day, OR made a stop for a night in Vang Vieng, which is another area of Laos that is based things to do outdoors and along the river. But you live and learn, right?
After checking in and having a nap, we roused ourselves (with lots of grumbling), and went off to find some lunch. We decided to rent a motorbike the next day as we had the entire day to go out and explore, so during lunch we scoured the internet looking for something to do (that wasn’t temples, I should add) for the afternoon. Being tired and sore/stiff from the bus ride, I helpfully suggested that we go get massages to work out some of the aches and pains. Rich was skeptical, as he really did not enjoy the Thai massages we’d previously had, but after looking into it I convinced him to try a Lao massage, as we could get one and spend time in a traditional sauna, which sounded ideal.
Lao people, especially in Vientiane, are huge lovers of a herbal sauna. You can find them all over the country, and many of the Lao people will indulge in them multiple times a week as they’re a cheap and efficient way to relax and destress. We did some research and found various spas that offered both, but ended up choosing a more local one rather then a tourist catered one. They’ve got no website, but the reviews on Trip Adviser were all very good and the prices were great. 20 000 kip for the sauna, and 100 000 kip for an hours massage, which is roughly about £11 in total. The spa (if you can call it that) is off a road and down an alleyway with no signage, which explains the lack of foreign people there. I’m glad we read the reviews before we went, as a few people on there explained the process and what you do, which was helpful as no one spoke English once we got there so they couldn’t explain it to us.
Once we found the place, we managed to get across that we both wanted a massage and the sauna, and, after paying were handed some fabric and pointed towards the change rooms. Rich was given a pair of large fabric shorts, while I was given a large tube of material, which you’re meant to wear as a sarong. No one was in bathing suits, which I’m assuming is out of decency and cleanliness.
After we’d both changed into our cover ups, we walked back out to the open courtyard, where there were chairs and tables and people were sitting relaxing after coming out of the sauna. One of the employees took pity on us after seeing us standing there awkwardly, and she came over and asked ‘massage?’ before leading us to a room off the courtyard where there were two massage tables set up. There was a man and a woman waiting for us there, and after laying us down on the tables, they got to work. The Lao massage was like a combination of a Thai massage and a deep tissue massage. I had the man working on me (which is probably a good thing because I like harder massages then Rich does), and for the last bit of both our massages they did some cupping (I’m not sure that’s the correct way to phrase that, but hopefully you know what I mean!). Neither of us had ever done cupping before, but had always said we’d like to try it, so it was a nice surprise to get it done here. It felt a bit weird, but it didn’t hurt at all; although I have to admit that I didn’t feel any different after the fact than I normally do after a regular massage. In future, I probably wouldn’t say no to having cupping done again; however, I wouldn’t want to pay anything extra for it as I didn’t really feel that it gave me any extra benefits.
After our massages were done – which was the best massage I’ve had thus far in SE Asia – we headed back out into the courtyard where everyone was (still) lounging. There are two sauna’s off the courtyard, one for males and one for females, although we didn’t figure this out until a local woman who was there motioned me over to the female area and directed me in to it whilst waving Rich off to the other area. The sauna’s themselves were typical sauna’s, although probably the hottest one I’ve ever been in, and they add herbs and oils to make the air fragrant and beneficial. From reading online and then observing the locals, most people would come into the spa, change into their cover ups, enter the courtyard where there is a pool of clean, cold water which they would dump over their head and body, and then enter the sauna. They would spend a few minutes in the sauna, before coming out and dumping cold water on themselves again, and then sitting in the courtyard for a while drinking tea and sometimes speaking to the other people doing the same. Then repeat. When we eventually left, there were still people there doing this who had been there already when we arrived almost 3 hours prior, and it seems like it’s not uncommon for people to spend an entire afternoon there.
None of the woman were dunking themselves in cold water (not sure if it was a choice, or if it’s a cultural thing), so I didn’t either, but Rich did it a few times and said that the temperature difference felt quite nice. Although the sauna’s are covered and enclosed, the courtyard is not, but it was still probably 25 degrees outside and a really good temperature to sit and relax with some tea between sauna times. There was an option to get a coffee and yogurt scrub that you put on yourself and we saw a number of people doing, but we opted to not get it as we hadn’t brought a towel or shower stuff, and were going out for supper once we were done.
We spent just over an hour going in and out of the sauna before we got to the point where we were done and ready to leave. I’m not sure how people can do it for hours on end, but they were and they were loving it! We both left feeling relaxed and happy and had one of the best nights sleeps that night. If you’re in Vientiane and looking for something to do, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are a ton of options for different spas, but we chose this one as we could walk to it and we wanted to try something a bit more local and less touristy. As the only foreigners in there, it was definitely that!
No town in SE Asia would be complete without a night market, and once we were done we headed over to one not far away from the massage place. It was a pretty typical night market, with people selling knock off clothes, toys, shoes, souvenirs, and street food. We got a massive piece of roast pork with some sticky rice and sauce for dinner before heading back to crash for the night in the hostel.
Or second day in Vientiane was much more interesting, although we still struggled for things to do. Once we were up and had eaten, we headed off to find a motorbike to rent. A lot of places in SE Asia ask for your passport to be left with them as a deposit which we don’t like because 1. we don’t carry our passports with us, and 2. we don’t really feel comfortable leaving our passports for an entire day with someone unknown. We usually get around this by leaving a money deposit instead, but the people in Vientiane really did not like this option. After visiting 3 different places which each said no unless we had a passport, we finally found one who would rent us a bike with a deposit and Rich’s driving license, because in his words: ‘Driving license are not important here.’
We finally got the bike and headed out of the city towards the Buddha Park, which is a park area filled with more than 200 religious sculptures from Buddhism and Hinduism. It took about 30 minutes to drive there, and it was a lot smaller then anticipated, which was slightly disappointing. It was really cool walking around it, but after about 40 minutes we’d seen it all and were ready to leave again, which made the drive out seem a lot less worth it.
We hoped back onto the bike and decided to head back into the city for some lunch and then to visit some museums for the afternoon, but before we were halfway back, the bike chugged to a stop and wouldn’t start again. Turns out that the gas gauge was broken and the guy didn’t think that was important enough to tell us, so whilst we thought we had 1/4 of a tank of gas left, we were actually on empty. We were in the middle of nowhere, but luckily there was a little roadside stand about 100 meters from where we’d come to a stop, so we rolled the bike there hoping they might sell petrol (it’s not uncommon to see people selling petrol in plastic bottles at roadside stalls). The two men there has zero English, but we were able to explain with lots of pointing that we’d run out of gas. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any to sell us, but motioned for us to wait and a minute later came back with their own bike which they proceeded to siphon out gas from to put into ours. They wouldn’t accept any money from us for the help, but we did buy a drink from them, which felt slightly better then leaving without giving them anything. Luckily, there was a petrol station about 2 km down the road, where we stopped and were able to fill up with no more issues (but still a broken gas gauge).
Chuckling to ourselves about what just happened, we drove back into the city to find a place to park so we could get some lunch and visit the COPE Visitors Center. After driving past a suitable place, Rich started to look for a place he could make a left hand turn so we could turn around and double back. Very quickly we found one, and once there was a break in traffic, Rich turned left to pull a u-y. As we were getting ready to merge back into traffic the other way, a uniformed police officer came up to us blowing his whistle and motioning Rich to pull over. Slightly confused (and hoping he was going to show us where to park!), we stopped the bike and Rich got off to speak to him. Before he could say anything, the police officer motioned Rich to follow him and marched him 50m down the road where he started pointing and gesticulating towards a sign, which, to his horror, Rich realized said very clearly ‘No Left Turns’. Whoops.
I was sitting with the bike and watching all of this with confusion (I couldn’t see the sign) and concern, when the police officer took Rich to his colleague who was sitting at a make shift table and chairs. The conversation from there went something like this:
Officer: Driving license
Rich: I don’t have it on me
Officer: Why not?
Rich: I gave it to the guy who rented me the bike
Officer: -Gives Rich a very unimpressed look that conveys how much of an idiot he thinks Rich is for doing that-
Officer: You have to pay a fine
Rich: Okay, how much?
Officer: 220 000 kip (about £20)
Rich: (wanting to pay it and leave) Okay, I’ll pay that now
Officer: No. We take your bike and you go to the office tomorrow to pay and get the bike back
Rich: We fly out of Laos in the morning and have to return the bike tonight. Can I just pay you now instead?
Officer: Okay, you pay me (points to himself), I make it go away.
Rich: How much do you want me to pay you? (expecting it to be more then the fine, but willing to pay that to deal with it right now)
Officer: 50 000 kip (about £5)
Rich: Yep, that’s fine, I’ll pay you, my wife has the money, let me get it. -Runs over to me and says ‘quick, give me the money before he changes his mind’ (I’m still very confused at this point).
Rich: -Takes the money, gives it to the officer who nods and puts it in his breast pocket
Rich: Can I have a picture with you?
Officer: No (with a very un-amused expression)
Rich shook his hand and thanked him, before coming back to me and getting onto the bike and driving away. It wasn’t till we parked a few minutes later that Rich was able to explain what had happened and that he’d essentially bribed a police officer to get rid of his fine.
After our slow start that morning, running out of petrol, and our fine, we wondered what else was going to go wrong that day, but luckily we were able to get some lunch and explore the museum without anything else going wrong. COPE ( The Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. They have a visitors center that offers interesting and informative information about the need for prosthetics and the unexploded ordinance devices that still litter the country after the Indochina War in the 20th century. It’s free to visit, although 100% of the donations and proceeds from the gift shop go to supporting COPE’s projects throughout Laos.
It was really interesting walking through because I didn’t realise just how much Laos was impacted during the Vietnam war, and how much they are still impacted by it today. Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capital in history thanks to the bombing done by the USA between 1964-1973 as they fought in Vietnam. COPE runs projects across the country to help map and safely detonate any leftover bombs from that time; however, it’s slow going and there are still an average of 50 casualties a year because of them. There is also MAG Visitors Center, which is run by a British agency that does similar things that we wanted to visit; however, it was closed the day we were there, but we’ve heard it’s also worth a look. You can definitely spend a few hours between the two if you’ve got an afternoon in Vientiane. It’s a great way to learn about some of the history and hardships of the country, as well as giving back to the people.
We were flying to Hanoi, Vietnam the next morning (Christmas Eve!), so we headed back to our hostel to pack up. Once done, we headed out for some food and a few beers to enjoy our last night in Laos and to laugh about the day we’d had. I am so glad we booked a flight to Hanoi, as after all of that, a 20 hour bus ride on a bus that’s too small would have had me in tears!