What is surprising about Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is its small size. It feels like a sleepy provincial town. Like the rest of Laos, not much ever seems to happen here. The government is mostly comatose and there is little sophisticated culture. Vientiane does have a collection of good restaurants, mostly to feed well-off ex-pats who work for the international organizations and NGOs active in the country.
Outside of town is another “Buddha Park”, created by the founder of Sala Kaewku in Thailand, who fled Laos in 1975 when the communists took over. Here the statues were less elaborate and more weathered, some even in disrepair. Inside a three-storied globe are representations of the three levels of existence: heaven, earth and hell. There are some splendid temples in Vientiane . None are very old, as the city was completely destroyed by the Thais in 1827. Wat That Luang looks like a giant, golden missile cluster, from a wacky sci-fi movie. Its squarish, lotus-bud stupas catch the setting sun spectacularly. Wat Sisaket is a weathered, mustard-colored temple with overlapping wooden roofs and inward-leaning walls. Inside the walls are thousands of niches for Buddha-figures.
In Vientiane we got our first taste of real Lao food. The staple of the diet is sticky rice. While plates of food are put in the middle of the table to share, each person has his own small basket to keep the rice warm. A Lao eater will take a chunk of sticky rice from his basket, mold it into a small round ball, then use it to scoop up a small bit of the shared meat, fish or vegetable dishes. Eating like this, directly touching the food with the hands while sharing the dishes on the table, is a wonderful social and tactile experience that we quickly adopted. The best-known specialty is “laap”, a salad made of finely chopped cooked meat mixed with roots, herbs and chilies. Baguettes are a specialty left by the French. The best ones are roasted, stuffed with slices of slow-cooked pork or meat pate and packed with greens and pickled vegetables. “PVO” made the best ones in town. We ended up eating there at least once a day. Lao coffee is also tasty. It is brewed strong and dark, with a generous portion of sweet condensed milk that adds a caramel flavor and cuts the bitterness.