Saturday, November 25th 2017.

Destinations

Jonathan Ramael
LAID-BACK LAOS
A report from ATF TRAVEX 2013 in Vientiane

 

By Jonathan Ramael

 

Laos Laos Laos

 

Last January, BBT Online travelled to Vientiane to attend the 32nd edition of ATF TRAVEX: the ASEAN Tourism Forum. ATF is primarily a leisure fair but, as proven by the number of attending meeting planners and MICE media delegates, it has value to the professional travel industry as well. Ten pristine Southeast Asian destinations showed off their most beautiful hotspots and venues, all in the peaceful, colourful capital of what might be the most beautiful country out of all of them. Welcome to Laos!

Text and pictures by Jonathan Ramael

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‘Landmark... Mekong... Riverside... Hotel’ I repeated slowly and clearly to the puzzled-looking tuktuk driver in front of me. He stared at me with the bewildered, perplexed gaze of a man who just saw a bear in a tutu ride a tiny little bike. Then he smiled a charming smile, said ‘ok!’ and invited me to get into his battered old vehicle. I knew I had a long ride ahead of me. Laotians might just be the friendliest, most relaxed people on earth. You get big smiles and hellos everywhere you go and it’s wonderful. The problem is, most of them don’t understand you one bit, but they would see it as a personal insult if their lack of understanding caused you any minor inconvenience. Another little thing that stands out is that, as soon as they’ve decided for themselves they don’t understand you, all the hand gestures, pointing and writing in the world won’t make them rethink that decision. They will still try to help you though, and get horribly lost in the process. This is why I’m now driving in circles; anywhere but where I want to go: the Landmark Mekong, the biggest hotel in Vientiane, brand new, grand and clearly visible from the entire riverside, but seemingly not for tuktuk drivers. Alas.

MonkLaos is home to some of the most marvellous sites in Asia: the magnificent royal city of Luang Prabang, full of old monasteries and brightly robed monks, the mysterious Plain of Jars, the forests and the mountains in the north and the so called 4,000 islands in the far south, where the Mekong River spreads his arms.

Vientiane (pronounced ‘Wing Chan’) is... visually somewhat less impressive at first sight. Since it was razed to the ground by the Siamese in the early 19th century, most of the buildings are relatively young. When the French took over in 1867, the city was practically covered in jungle. Before long though, they started using it as the administrative capital of French Indochina, constructing new roads and buildings. The many French (now mostly shabby) colonial mansions still in Vientiane today, are part of an entirely different charm compared to the natural wonders in the rest of the country. And if Vientiane has one thing in abundance, it’s charm: the wonderful Mekong river walk, the many little temples/schools, the colourful streets, the glorious mixture of different cuisines, the orange robes of the monks going about their daily business and the sheer pleasure of drinking a cold Beerlao on the riverside under the setting sun. Vientiane is a rarity among Asian capitals, in a sense that it is a very easy city to find peace in.

 

 

ATF TRAVEX ­­– What’s that all about?

Just like its MICE brothers in Bangkok, Shanghai and Delhi, ATF (ASEAN Tourism Forum) TRAVEX is organised by TTG Asia Media. It exists primarily as a cooperative regional effort to promote the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region as one single destination. This annual event, hosted in a different member state every year, involves all the tourism industry sectors of the ten participants: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. As you can see for yourself, this makes for quite an impressive selection of prime destinations. They came in force as well, with almost a 1,000 exhibitors in all, neighbouring Thailand leading the pack with a massive number of booths. Buyer numbers came close to 500, while nearly 150 media delegates were present. Venue of choice was the Lao ITECC Exhibition Hall, a gigantic, somewhat 80’s looking building, with a convenient golf driving range right next to it. Vientiane might not be (even close to) the biggest meeting and convention destination in Southeast Asia, with this venue and with the construction of the brand new and superb looking International Convention Centre nearby, at least they are able to host the bigger events. Networking activities during the fair were great and abundant: there was a friendly golf game, which I friendly declined to save face, there were the usual pre city tours (I’ll give you my own tour later), several hosted dinners and lunches and, new to me: late night parties organised by some of the exhibitors. Thailand’s booze-drenched Pattaya party involving a performance of a real “ladyboysband” obviously won the day.

On to business then? As usual, each member nation held its own press conference, showcasing last year’s numbers and new and upcoming projects, generally making a show out of how well everything and everyone is doing. Down below I’ll give you a short summary of the biggest news in alphabetical order.

ATF ATF ATF

 

Brunei

  • Brunei will mainly be targeting Muslim visitors & Halal tourism.
  • Most interesting new venue: the Times Hotel Brunei, a 112-room hotel in a gigantic shopping mall. www.timeshotelbrunei.com

Cambodia

  • Tourism grew 15% in a year. Cambodia now has a single shared visa with Thailand. $ 400 million will be used to upgrade the international airports.
  • The Sokha Hotel & Convention Centre opens in capital Phnom Penh in 2014: it will offer 798 rooms and a 1,500 pax convention centre.
  • Also opening in 2014: the Mittapheap Hotel. 500 rooms and a 500-seat conference room.

Indonesia

  • Sail the seas in all possible luxury on a real South Sulawesi traditional ship: looks like a real treat to us. www.alilahotels.com/purnama
  • Indonesia is undergoing a real hotel boom: Aston International opens 40 hotels in 2013, Accor opens 18.
  • New: The Stones Hotel Legian, Bali. 308 guest rooms, 3,000m2 of pool. www.marriott.com

Laos

  • Tourism numbers tripled from 2005 to 2012.
  • Laos is working on infrastructure, modernising airports and now has visa on arrival.
  • A new 3,000 seat convention centre was opened in Vientiane this year

Malaysia

  • Malaysia is the 9th most visited country in the world (24,7 million arrivals in 2011), Kuala Lumpur is the 7th top meeting destination in Asia Pacific (ICCA) and the 4th best shopping destination worldwide (CNN).
  • The country will host ATF 2014 in Sawarak: a perfect eco-tourism destination with appropriate MICE infrastructure. Register here: http://atf-malaysia.com.

Myanmar

  • International tourism grew 30% last year.
  • 1,670 new rooms will be available this year, easing the shortage in the high-end category.
  • 7 new international airlines will start flying to Myanmar in 2013, Qatar Airways being the most renowned.

The Philippines

  • To be constructed: the 5-star, 401-room Worldhotel and Residences Makati in Manila.
  • The luxury 500-room Solaire Manila Hotel is to be opened in 2013, offering suites of up to 165 m2 www.solairemanila.com
  • The Farm in San Benito is a wonderful wellness resort in the middle of nature. It now has ten new pool villas. www.thefarm.com.ph

Singapore

  • The 28,000m2 Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore was opened last October. It’s expecting over 70 cruise liners by March, including ships from Costa Cruises and Princess Cruises.
  • Starwood opened the luxurious 240 room Sentosa Cove in September. www.sentosacove.com
  • The Resorts World Sentosa’s Marine Life Park opened in December and is the world’s biggest oceanarium.

 

Laos Laos

 

Thailand

  • Tourism grew 16% last year, attracting 22,3 million visitors. Thailand will concentrate on four key niche markets: golf, medical tourism, eco-tourism and honeymooners.
  • The 5-star Nikki Beach Hotel & Spa will open in Phuket this year, housing 151 suites and 23 villas. www.nikkibeachhotels.com
  • Hilton opened its first Double Tree resort in Phuket, offering 250 rooms and 5 meeting rooms.

Vietnam

  • Vietnam experienced five years of heavy tourism growth, with an average of 15% annually.
  • Au Co Cruises started sailing through the magnificent Halong Bay on three-storey luxury cruisers. www.aucocruises.com
  • MGM Grand Ho Tram Beach: a new large scale integrated luxury casino destination with 541 guest rooms and a conference and convention centre. www.mgmgrandhotrambeach.com
There, that will leave you with some nice new venues to check out. Now let’s take a look at what Vientiane has to offer as a city.

 

 

Vientiane: what are the main sights?

As said before, Vientiane is a pleasant and heart-warming city for relaxing strolls or for a nice outdoor dinner or drink. The entire centre, everything around Setthathilat road, Nam Phou and the riverside is just perfect for that. All sorts of little restaurants, from Lao to Thai to French to (very good) Italian, more bars and beer gardens than you can count, wonderful night markets and a good number of decent, smaller hotels. Mostly, this is backpacker and hostel country though. That being said, Vientiane is not a city where you’ll stumble on a lot of incredible sights or where you’ll take the most impressive pictures to show the people at home. You’ll need to venture into the rest of the country for that. There are a few things worth seeing though. Let’s go over them briefly.
  • That Luang
That Luang That Luang

That Luang is the most important religious building in Laos. It even became the national symbol. That’s why it’s probably the only building you already saw somewhere before going to the country. The entire structure is painted in gold, which makes for an awesome sight if you visit it just before the sun goes down. If you visit Vientiane in November, don’t miss going here, since it will be covered in little lights in preparation of the That Luang Festival.

  • Wat Sisaket

Wat Sisaket is the only temple that survived the Siamese massacre of 1828. It makes it, obviously, the oldest in Vientiane, and it might just be the most beautiful one too. The temple itself is painted with several beautiful frescos, but most iconic are the galleries outside, housing hundreds and hundreds of Buddha statues.

  • Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park)

Buddha Park lies some 25km outside of the city, close to the Friendship Bridge connecting Laos with Thailand (Thailand lies right on the other side of the Mekong, you can see it from the boardwalk). It showcases more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues, among them the very impressive 40 meter long reclining Buddha. History buffs, don’t get too excited: it might look ancient, but the park is only 50 years old and was made by a lunatic who thought himself a saint. Some would call it kitsch; I call it an excellent photo opportunity.

Buddha Park Buddha Park

 

  • Patuxai

Vientiane has its own Arc de Triomphe, built in the ‘50s on Lane Xang Avenue with American concrete originally destined to be used for an airstrip. It’s not nearly as pretty as the one in Paris, but it’s still a quite impressive sight and Patuxaiit can be climbed for a very nice view over the city.

  • National Museum

Let’s be honest, this wonderfully dusty and old-fashioned museum isn’t exactly the Louvre or the British Museum of Natural History. It’s home to a disorderly collection of artefacts, but its prime goal is to tell the story of how the glorious proletariat defeated the capitalist pigs (Laos is still a “Communist” country, in a way China still “is”). Although the country’s history is of course bloody and its people went through some horrible ordeals, I couldn’t help but smile at the paintings and the comically misspelled information on display. If you ever want to see a painting of French colonial soldiers looking like angry hairy trolls, throwing naked babies in a well, made by what seemed to be a blind 6-year old kid with no fingers, this is the place to go. Needless to say: I loved this museum. It is great!

  • Wat Sok Pa Luang

There are a lot of temples in Vientiane, there are even more massage salons, but this is the only combination of the two. This temple houses a herbal sauna, and offers traditional Laotian massages. You’ll have to bring a sarong if you want to enter the sauna though.

These were the main, relatively well-known sights and sites of Vientiane. The city holds much more secrets. To find out more about those, you’ll have to wait for our next Take5+ newsletter, where I dive deeper into the city, exploring the true Vientiane, together with the lovely folks of MICE People (www.mice-people.com), a French DMC based here. You’ll be surprised by the number of incentive opportunities and off-the-track venues they know of!

 

 

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