Two More for the Road

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Ten days into Lori’s parents’ stay in Vientiane, we added two more guests to the mix — John and Shirley, close family friends from Portland, Oregon. Shirley (not to be confused with Lori’s mom, Shirley) actually used to take care of Lori when she was not much older than Noe. The two couples have managed to stay in touch over the past four decades and recently started traveling together.

When John and Shirley found out we were moving to China, they started researching Yunnan province and plane tickets. Then, when plans suddenly changed and we were headed to Laos, their travel plans promptly followed suit.

The 6.25 of us had a fun-filled, action packed week together, split between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

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We saved much of the more popular sights of Vientiane for their arrival. Their flight from Hanoi arrived just before noon, and by mid-afternoon we were off and running in Vientiane.

We munched on grilled chicken in our neighborhood before hitting our first sight — Phat Tich, a Vietnamese-style pagoda that Lori and I visited a few weeks prior on our date day in Vientiane.

A few blocks away, we visited the far more widely known Patuxay (Victory Arch) Monument.

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Lori and I climbed to the top of Patuxay during our visit to Laos four years ago, but hadn’t been up again in the four months we’ve been living here, until today.

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Leaving Patuxay, we shot up to That Luang for a walk around the sprawling complex surrounding the Great Stupa.

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Lori and I hadn’t been back since the That Luang festival. No crowds this time, but they were doing a considerable amount of renovation on the wall complex surrounding the golden stupa.

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Life imitating art…

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The next day, we caught a songteau to the city center for a self-led downtown walking tour of sorts…

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Visiting another sight that Lori and I hadn’t been to in four years — Wat Sisaket, the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane City.

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In addition to being a peaceful, beautiful and historically significant place in which to wander, this place holds special significance for Lori and me — it was in this very place in 2012 that we decided to leave the backpacker trail behind and venture into the Laos interior on a motorbike. Looking around, seeing all of the retirees exploring the temple complex made me yearn to be doing more physically demanding activities that required a level of hardship that might not be realistic (or welcome) when we are older, or have small children. Just four years on, I’m incredibly grateful we had the opportunity to do the motorbike trip when we did. It’s not that it would be totally impossible at this juncture, but the essential character of such a trip will be very different moving forward.

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My feeble attempt at channeling Anthony Bourdain with Negroni in hand on the banks of the Mekong…

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Our Facebook feeds are blowing up with photos of record snowfall in the PacNW, and daily crises coming out of the DC Beltway, and we are here doing what we’re doing. Granted, it’s been a long road to get to this point, marked by risk, uncertainty, penny-pinching, countless goodbyes, leaving behind more lucrative career opportunities, and fighting societal expectations. But it’s never been anything short of an adventure with no regrets or what-ifs.

Family and friends, a strong Negroni, superb Mekong sunset, and shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops in January. Why would we possibly want to be anywhere else than right here, right now?

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It’s easy to find amazing food across Vientiane, but surprisingly difficult to find regularly scheduled “tourist”-oriented cultural events, which gives you some idea of how refreshingly little mass-tourism there is in this city of 750,000 inhabitants. Still, when visitors are in town, it’s nice to be able to expose them to a taste of traditional music and dance, particularly if a trip to Luang Prabang isn’t in the cards. KuaLao is the only places that we’ve found in the capital so far that offers nightly performances. As if that wasn’t enough, they also serve up some pretty delicious traditional Lao food as well. The sesame encrusted riverweed is just awesome.

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Though Noe seems content to sit the solids out for the time being…

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Based on its hidden location down a narrow alleyway just outside the city center, you’d think that Kung’s Cafe would languish in relative obscurity. But no, this place seems to do some excellent business and seems to be fairly packed on the weekends. With the exception of a consistently strong representation of Aussies frequenting the place (haven’t quite figured out that one yet), the crowd at Kung’s is fairly diverse, which I tend to attribute to their unique Lao and foreign-friendly offerings, reasonable prices, and funky atmosphere — the alleyway runs right through the center of the dining area, so watch out for motorbikes!

Related Article:  Vientiane - 4 Years Later

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The seasonal fruit plate is both delicious and fun to look at, but the mango coconut pancakes and coconut coffee are the real standouts on the menu. The only real downside of Kung’s is that they seem to have a penchant for losing/forgetting orders. It’s happened to us twice now.

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After breakfast, we took the crew on a tour of markets in central Vientiane. About two blocks northeast of the presidential palace are Talat Sao (a.k.a Morning Market) and Kua Din market, separated by Nongbone Road. Kua Din is a claustrophobic mishmash of stalls loosely divided into a fabric and clothing section, hardware and outdoor furniture section and fresh market.

Across the street, the sprawling mess of concrete structures makes up one of the worst (i.e. one of the most interesting) developer projects I’ve ever encountered. The gauntlet of a market is spread across three phases of construction — the original “morning” market building (which contrasts with the “night” market, as most stalls start packing up around 3p) characterized by its steep wat-like roofs; the prison-like Chinese-mall building; and the recently opened more modern-looking structure. Getting between the three buildings is great fun, as there is no clear cut way to access one from another. It’s taken Lori and I the better part of four months visiting the market about half a dozen times to figure out our way around — and we still get lost pretty regularly.

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Herbal medicine is practiced widely throughout Laos, ranging from internationally recognized practices, to practices that are much more deeply rooted in ancient mysticism and belief.

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Did you spot the bile sacks and furry claws above?

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If random dried animal parts sold on the roadside doesn’t do it for you, maybe this will:

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Yep, you guessed it. That’s a three-story concrete pumpkin, filled from top to bottom with ghostly sculptures from the underworld.

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We hired a van for a few hours to make a trip to Buddha Park and a few other stops along the way. We first visited Buddha Park a few weeks after we moved to Vientiane and knew that we’d have to return with visitors. I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t too many places quite like this on the planet…with the exception of the sculptor’s other Buddha Park, Sala Keoku, right across the river in Thailand.

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On our way back from Buddha Park, we stopped at the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre, which gives tours of their facility for a small fee/donation. The name of the center is fairly self-explanatory, but it is an excellent place to observe various traditional and contemporary crafts in action, as well as meet some lovely people. At the end of the tour, there is also an opportunity to buy various useful handicrafts made by the students at the center.

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After visiting the LDWDC, we made an attempt to visit the BeerLao beer garden and gift shop, but couldn’t quite figure out where it was. So, we did the next best thing…

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…ordered up a 2-liter draught BeerLao, brought right to your table, at Khop Chai Deu. The contraption even has an inner core that they fill with ice. Ordering one of these for the table is actually a common practice (particularly among large groups of middle-aged men) at any number of local eateries (and the larger bar complexes) throughout the city. The nice thing about Khop Chai Deu, however, is that they have different sizes to choose from, meaning you’re not stuck choosing between the standard 640ml bottle or 3 liters of lager. Heaven forbid…

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Déjà Vu
Luang Prabang: Dry Season & Visitors
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