Christmas in Vientiane

Vientiane was not quite as welcoming as Luang Prabang, but that may have been due to the very cold, bumpy and long 12 hour overnight bus journey that brought myself and my two friends there on Christmas Eve.  We felt better after arriving at our hotel, the Chandara Boutique Hotel, as they gave us breakfast for free while we waiting for the people in our room to check out and the staff to sort the room out for us.  We thought we’d be waiting quite a while but they were much quicker than we expected, which of course we were very happy about!  However, in contrast to the previous two hotels we’d stayed at, they didn’t give us a map (they didn’t have any) or tell us about any good places to go or sights to see, which was a shame.

After a bit of freshening up, a short tuktuk ride took us into the centre of town.  Of course our first priority was to book somewhere for Christmas dinner as our hotel wasn’t doing anything for the day.  We’d looked up a couple of places and decided the Lao Plaza Hotel sounded like a good bet – and we were right.  Christmas dinner was booked for 6.30pm.  A bit of a wander around took us to the Laos National Culture Hall (unfortunately closed and looked like it was undergoing some kind of restoration or refurbishment) and the Laos National Museum, by which time we were very grateful to get out of the hot sun.

The museum is housed in a fairly innocuous building with a few murals along the walls and trees growing over the peeling sign.  Inside is a wealth of information about Laos’ riveting history, beginning with prehistory via French colonialism and the war with the ‘US imperialists’ up to the change to communism in 1975 and the impact that has had.  Everyone has of course heard of the Vietnam war, but I didn’t realise that it had such an impact on the countries nearby.

From 1964 through 1973, the United States flew 580,000 bombing runs over Laos because the North Vietnamese had invaded to set up the Ho Chi Minh Trail — one bombing run every 9 minutes for 10 years. More than 2 million tons of ordnance was unloaded on the countryside, double the amount dropped on Nazi Germany in World War II. This included 262 million cluster bombs of which around 80 million are still unexploded and remain a constant danger to the people of Laos. (See http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2003-12-11-laos-bombs_x.htm or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Vietnamese_invasion_of_Laos for more information.)

Ice cream sundaes at Swensen’s followed by cocktails back at Lao Plaza Hotel were the order of the day after that, which managed to greatly lift our mood once more and get us in the Christmas spirit ready for the next day!

Christmas Day itself was very leisurely. We had a bit of a lie in, a causal breakfast with Christmas songs in the background then went to sit by the pool and read. We each had a hot herbal massage, which ironically made me cold; the massage itself was great but part of it included rubbing something like tiger balm on my arms, legs and back (I was wearing a loose top and cropped trousers for the massage, which they gave me to change into) which burns for a while but then goes cold. I was freezing! A hot towel wrapped in a bundle around various herbs was then pressed over my arms, legs and back after the massage, which helped a little but I was still left cold. A hot shower helped to warm me up afterwards, after which I went back to sit by the pool and read while my friends had their massages (the hotel only seemed to have one masseuse, so we had to take it in turns for our massages).

At the end of a nice relaxing day we had a cocktail by the pool before getting ready for our Christmas dinner at the Lao Plaza Hotel.  Dinner was a lovely buffet, including roast turkey, ham, stuffing & all the trimmings, as well as a huge choice of seafood, salads, sushi, other mains and lots of Christmassy desserts all accompanied by free flow wine.  During the meal we were serenaded by some of the staff singing Christmas carols and had a brief visit from Santa, who gave us each a little bag of biscuits.  Delicious!  At the end of dinner, and after a quick Skype to my family to say happy Christmas, we left the hotel and headed to the Mix – an area nearby with a fountain in the centre surrounded by bars and restaurants.  A band was playing so we stopped to listen for a bit and let our food digest.

On the way back to our hotel me and one of my friends decided to check out the place next to our hotel.  It was a large building with the name ‘Merci’ in big letters on the front and quite loud music coming from it until late at night, so we assumed it was a club of some sort.  However, when we got there we found out that actually it was a huge restaurant with live musicians playing on a small stage in the outdoor area.  We felt we had to have something there as the waiter had shown us to a table near the band and was very helpful, but I stuck to sprite at that stage as I was very full of food and wine!

The next day (Boxing Day) we had planned to have another bit of a pampering day along with looking around the city centre a little more, however that plan completely failed when we fell asleep again after breakfast and didn’t wake up until 4pm!  We then (eventually) got a tuktuk into town, but that also went wrong as the driver didn’t understand anything we said and just drove us in the wrong direction for about half an hour before he stopped somewhere random!  We then remembered we had a card for the Lao Plaza Hotel still, showed that to him and he finally understood what we’d meant the whole time.  We passed a few temples and two cemeteries on our unexpected mini tour which were quite interesting to look at on the way, so it wasn’t all bad and we got back into the city centre eventually.

After another delicious dinner (this time Italian: spinach and ricotta ravioli followed by three delicious desserts that we all shared) we headed over to the night market which is along the banks of the Mekong.  What I didn’t know before then is that we were looking into Thailand on the other side of the river.  I knew we were close to Thailand, but I didn’t realise it was that close!  A lovely wander around the night market meant I ended up with a few more new purchases: a purse for a present as well as a bracelet for me and souvenirs for my family all made from the aluminium scavenged from bombs.

It was a lovely end to a fantastic week in Laos.  We were all very sorry to be leaving the next day although we were also excited about visiting Cambodia.  Next stop: Phnom Penh…

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