Laos is a laid back, dreamy place and although Vientiane feels and looks like a sleepy capital after Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City there is a change in the air. So before the high rises and bars in the sky take over, it is great to experience the colonial charm of big tree-lined avenues and manicured public spaces where local and foreign travellers seek the ever-present ice cream vendors for a cooling treat and an authentic Laos travel experience.
At That Luang, the iconic symbol of Vientiane, newly wed couples come to have their photos taken against a backdrop of galleries crammed with Buddha figures, some spectacularly beautiful and unique done in the Indian style.
No longer a place of worship, That Luang has been painted over in an unfortunate yellow mustard colour. But if the exterior is less than appealing the interior compensates by providing a calm environment emanating from the silent rows of meditating Buddhas.
What Vientiane locals love to do is to stroll on the riverfront at sundown, the coolest (literally) thing to do and there is nothing better than joining the throng of people on the waterfront.
The Mekong flows slowly past while across the street there are many places to stop and have a Beer Lao or an iced coffee.
Restaurants and sleek coffee shops serve Lao and western fare while along the river promenade a vibrant night market is set up every night, well attended by all seeking a breath of fresh air and a good bargain.
A couple of blocks away from the riverfront Makphet – another outlet from Friends the charity group that started training street kids in the hospitality business in Phnom Penh (Cambodia)- serves great food and drinks.
It is modern, it is fusion cooking and some would say not ‘authentic’ Lao cuisine but is for many visitors the ideal compromise, as Lao cuisine can be fiery in the extreme.
Makphet used to be in a different location in Vientiane but has moved this year to a new and very attractive locale from where youth in training handle every aspect of hospitality: from front of house, to kitchen, to waitressing.
For an unusual site to visit, the Buddha Park (or Xieng Khuan, the brainchild of a mystic who created it in 1958) is unrivalled in its originality.
Here, huge sculptures litter the grounds. Reclining Buddhas, Hindu deities, demons and all manner of fantastical beings from both the Buddhist and Hindu cosmologies lie about in no particular order on the grass.
The creator’s idea was to reflect the way in which Buddhism and Hinduism are intertwined in South East Asia.
Families come here to picnic of a weekend but the park is quite deserted during the week..
While it is only 25Km from Vientiane it takes the best part of an hour to get here from Vientiane by tuk tuk or car.
No buses come here as the road is quite damaged and pot-holed.
The Buddha Park is only 6km from the Friendship Bridge from where there is public transport to the park.
Nothing beats land trips to get a feeling of real life.
Travelling from Vientiane to Luang Prabang by land allows you to experience places such as Vang Vieng where white water rafting, hot air ballooning and cycling let you appreciate the landscape with the added thrill of adventure.
Here, against a theatrical backdrop of Chinese painting-like mountains, hot air balloons rise at sundown and float past the small town crammed with backpackers and local families on holidays.
Luang Prabang, was the capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the communist take over and it is now a UNESCO Heritage site.
This extremely attractive town is peaceful, laid back and charming. Even the night markets are calm, mostly lit by colourful lanterns.
There are no ‘in your face’ sellers and no noisy calls to buy. The vendors mostly sit in the background letting their wares do the talking.
Ancient temples and monasteries sit by the two rivers that encircled it, the Mekong and the Kham Rivers.
Wat Xieng Thong was built 1559-1560 and sits by the river as if poised to take flight with its long sweeping eaves which almost touch the ground.
Here monastic life unfolds everywhere and almost publicly: young novices skip to school in groups towards lessons in another monastery; teen-aged novices clear the grounds of leaves and fallen blossoms; chants suffuse the air as you pass by a monastery and daily monastic ceremonies take place before your eyes.
The daily alms collecting procession takes place at dawn everyday: locals line the streets, barefoot and kneeling (a sign of respect) as the monks file past in their bright orange robes, silent, eyes downcast.
People fill the monk’s bowls with parcels of curry and other dishes all neatly wrapped and sealed while tourists snap photos and videos.
If you want pictures (and they are colourful) try to get them with a tele-lens and do not disrupt this very beautiful event using flash or getting too close.
Luang Prabang has charming hotels, French-styled mansions; stylish restaurants; groovy coffee shops; riverside stalls where the best larb moo is prepared (an original Laotian concoction of spicy mince pork, chillies and herbs); and massage parlours are clean, quiet and airy.
The 3 Nagas Hotel (managed by Accor) is a blend of contemporary design and Lao heritage, featuring exotic-wood floors, clay tile roofs and elegant ambience. With just 15 rooms and suites located in two separate houses the feel is one of intimate and restraint luxury.
Maria Visconti was a guest of Vietnam Airlines
Vietnam Airlines operates daily flights to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos.