It wasn’t something I considered before heading to Laos on a weeklong trip. I really wasn’t sure about road conditions or traffic in Vientiane, so I didn’t expect to go biking through the city. But my mind changed as soon as I took half a day to wander through the streets.
Shortly after arriving in the afternoon, I noticed a few bike rental shops near my hotel. I didn’t want to rent a bike immediately because I had no idea where anything was or whether a bike would be worth it. I should’ve rented a bike both days.
I thought the sights I had wanted to see would be a bit closer than they actually were. I seem to make this assumption far too often and my feet are not happy about it.
On the second day I rented a bike from just down the street from my hotel. It was only about $4 for the day, so I didn’t mind if I ended up returning the bike early. The downside of the cheap bike rental was that the bike was not in great shape. Also, it seems that all the bikes in East/Southeast Asia are at least an inch too short for me (I have no idea how that Dutchman I met in Siem Reap survived on a local bike as he’s taller than me).
Armed with my offline maps and GPS, I set out on a roundabout route toward Pha That Luang, a golden stupa that is the national symbol of Laos. I knew enough from the previous day to find my way to the main road that led to Patuxai, the Victory Monument. Everything I would want to see was off that road, though I didn’t know what the road would be like after passing Patuxai.
I was surprised by the traffic along the ride. Cars, trucks, and motorbikes obeyed traffic lights and no one tried to run me off the road. It was quite a contrast from biking through Taipei. It was also the greatest surprise along my bike route that day.
Along the ride, I came across an organic farmer’s market. As I enjoy wandering through markets in foreign countries, I figured I’d check out what they offered. Unlike the crowded produce markets I’m used to seeing around Asia, this one looked more upscale.
I took a wrong turn or two after the brief stop. But I managed to find my way That Luang, which I was disappointed had almost zero shade. Also, the gold stupa is beautiful but blinding as it reflects sunlight.
The grounds surrounding That Luang are beautiful, but there’s nothing to set foot inside. I was there early enough that tourists hadn’t yet arrived, but that also meant that the vendors hadn’t set up yet. There was nowhere to buy water or a snack before continuing my ride. Had I recognized the nearby streets, I could’ve stopped for lunch at the North Korean restaurant, though it’s probably better that I didn’t stop there to promote the money-laundering operation.
I didn’t take a direct route back through Vientiane–I didn’t see the need to and hope to see more of the city. I had wanted to visit a museum not far past That Luang, but I discovered that it was still being constructed (it was supposed to be the new home of the museum). Of course, I found some confusing intersections and sent me out of the way a bit more, so I had to stop multiple times to check my map.
One turn had me President Souphanouvong’s house. The house itself was unimpressive, but it was worth the history lesson. Souphanouvong was a prince who joined the Communist revolution in Laos. He was installed as the nation’s first president after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party took control.
There were some interesting photos and pieces of memorabilia in the house, but photos were not permitted. As I was the only visitor at the time, the one staff member followed me around, turning lights on and off as I entered and exited rooms. You can’t take sneaky photos when being watched closely.
On my way back to the hotel, I stopped at Sisaket Temple and Wat Phra Kaew–two temples that I missed early in the morning and were closing soon after I arrived in mid-afternoon. I skipped them earlier because I wanted to do as much biking in the morning before the heat became unbearable. Had I known how exhausted I’d be on the way back, I might have reconsidered that plan.
I was exhausted after that ride. On a better bike, it would have been fine. The heat and sun took its toll the entire way and I wished I had even more water along the way.
As the sun set, I took a walk along the Mekong River to get a taste of the night market and some drinks. After sunset, Vientiane is easier to enjoy with the milder temperatures.