24 Hours in Vientiane

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It’s incredibly hard to describe Vientiane – it oozes with character but yet it reminded me so much of so many other countries. Of course, there is French architecture courtesy of 60 years of French rule, and the French also left behind their baguettes, which can be seen in many pop up shops all around town.

 

At the local craft market, one could be forgiven for thinking for a split second that she were in the famous Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. Or mistaking oneself to be in the heart of Hanoi when served a steaming bowl of pho. On a random street lined with shophouses with faded paint, we strangely felt transported almost 2,000 km away to Jalan Besar Road in Singapore.

 

There are some cities that are built around tourism. Vientiane is not one of them. Which isn’t a bad thing; it simply means that every experience is authentic and as local as can be. But if you’re the sort that needs a water park or a huge shopping mall, perhaps Vientiane might not be the place for you.

 

Many fly into Vientiane, only to fly out to other part of Lao, like Vang Vieng for adventure, or to take things slow at Luang Prabang like we did. But since you’re in Vientiane anyway, why not stay for a while, even if it is a short while. What to do in Vientiane in 24 hours?

 

Read about our Luang Prabang trip here.

24 hours in Vientiane

Morning: First things first – EAT!

Arrive at the airport – do not grab a cab, do not pass go. Go straight to the domestic terminal (beside the international terminal), go upstairs and grab a bite for a proper welcome to Vientiane. Most times, airport food is disappointing and expensive. Not here. Hello, Vientiane!

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PHA THAT LUANG

Hire a cab and head to Pha That Luang (pronounced tut with a silent h, not that as in this and that). The beautiful golden stupa in the centre of Vientiane is regarded as an important national monument. Take time to explore the grounds as well – there is a wat next door, and a gorgeous golden sleeping Buddha.

Entrance fee: 50,000 kip or USD6

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Afternoon: EAT (AGAIN? WHY NOT!)

At this point, you would have done a fair bit of walking. So a good lunch is in order. There are small cafes within walking distance – many are Western cafes with tarts and cakes but we found one with Lao pho and were not disappointed. For 20,000 kip, this hit the spot and warmed us up on a rainy afternoon. Similar to Vietnamese pho, this dish is served with a variety of condiments and diners are free to add whatever they like. We loved our broth with mint and basil leaves and a squirt of lime. The meats must definitely be dipped in the chilli – it’s oh so good!

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PATUXAI

The Patuxai Victory Monument stands proudly in the centre of Vientiane. While it looks so much like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, complete with a boulevard leading to it, looking strikingly similar to the famous Champs-Elysées, the irony is that it was built to honour the people of Lao who were killed defending Lao against the French.

 

For 3,000 kip (about USD 38 cents), you can climb five stories up to the top for a panoramic view of Vientiane. Official opening hours for this are 8am to 4.30pm on weekdays, and till 5pm on weekends, but when we arrived just after lunch, there seemed to be an unofficial siesta going on – all the staircases were closed and nobody could give us an indication of when they would reopen.

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Late afternoon: COPE CENTRE
http://www.copelaos.org/

Lao is the most heavily bombed country in the world, with 80 million unexploded bombs scattered around from World War II. There’s a free exhibit that you can visit to learn more about the work that COPE does to help help victims, many of whom are children who chanced upon these bombs and mistook them for toys.

 

Early evening: STROLL ALONG THE MEKONG RIVER

There is no better way to clear your mind than to have a stroll along the Mekong. You’ll share it with dating couples, families and seniors alike. There are free exercise sessions every evening so feel free to join in if you’ve got your gear on.

There’s also a night market where you can grab a bite or buy your souvenirs.

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Dinner: Eat at any of the restaurants at Nam Phou Fountain

A short walk from the Mekong is Nam Phou Fountain, and area where many eateries have sprouted up. It’s as touristy as you get, and slightly more expensive, but still, it’s an area that locals frequent as well. Our local friends brought us to Khop Chai Deu which was delicious beyond belief, quite possibly our best meal in Lao.

And finally, a Beerlao

I’m not much of a beer drinker but there’s something about Beerlao that’s changed me. Get one at a supermarket, and enjoy it while winding down after a perfect day in charming Vientiane.

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Have more time in Vientiane?

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Image taken from Visit Laos

A day trip to Buddha Park can be interesting. If you intend to stay in Vientiane, we stayed at Villa Manoly and Vientiane Garden Hotel, which were both reasonably priced.

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Villa Manoly is a slightly out of the way, but it’s a lovely villa with only 30+rooms. There’s a beautiful garden but watch out for mosquitoes. This is situated in a residential area so not all tuk-tuk drivers are familiar with it. Make sure to take a hotel card with you. Breakfast is simple and small, but the overall feel is extremely charming and laid-back. While wandering around the place, you might just get a flashback of visiting your grandma’s house as a child. We paid USD35 a night for a room with an attached shower breakfast included (not in shower). Email the owner directly if you have questions.

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Vientiane Garden Hotel is just a short walk away from the Nam Phou Fountain area, where all the action is. You could walk to the Mekong River from here, and there is a convenience store just in front. We paid USD 36 a night for a room with attached shower. Price includes breakfast.

 

So here we go. 24 hours in Vientiane! If you’ve visited Vientiane before, tell us what your favourite thing was!

 

 

 

Bintan Island: Where White Sands and Clear Waters Await

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When I try to picture “the perfect beach”, I imagine soft white sand and clear waters. And because we travel with kids, shallow waters are always welcome.

We found our little piece of paradise in Bintan, a mere 45 minutes away from Singapore by ferry. Which is perfect because sometimes flying is part of the fun, but sometimes you only have time for a quick getaway and need relaxation, pronto. One morning over breakfast we chatted with some flight attendants who were on a 3 day stopover in Singapore and chose to spend it on Bintan Island instead – it’s that easy to hop over!

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We’ve travelled to Bintan about 5 times, twice as a family. It’s the perfect place to just be at and stroll along the beach, watching the gentle waves lapping up against the shore. It’s romantic enough for couples (check out the gorgeous sunset – we caught this one while having dinner along the beach), family friendly enough for young kids (the beach is really enough for them – they’d probably wouldn’t mind spending all day sitting in the water), has activities for those who crave it, and peace and quiet for those who prefer to just chill.

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What to do in Bintan?

Well, the beach obviously. The clear waters go quite far out so even if you don’t want to get your feet wet, your kids can go out a good distance with the water still not even at their knees.

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If you’re up for it, go on a boat ride and explore the mangroves. I was all geared up and ready to go but then realised that the smallest life jacket available was way too big for my baby, and my then 5-year old had the jitters. In the end we decided against it. We’re all for adventure but just didn’t have a good feeling about those boats. Probably because of the chairs. Note that I did not say seats.

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I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of elephant park but we all went for an elephant ride through the forest and enjoyed it. It was a good half hour ride at least (which feel long when you’re about 3 metres above the ground telling your child “It’s alright!” to make yourself feel braver when said child is squealing away with delight). You get to feed the elephants too for a small fee. No pictures because I was too occupied with holding on!

 

There are also water sports, bike tours and nature hikes you can sign up for through your hotel, but for us, we were just happy to hang out on the beach.

 

Where to stay in Bintan?

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We’ve stayed at Nirwana Gardens, Mayang Sari and Banyu Biru, all of which fall under the Nirwana group. Nirwana Gardens is the main hotel with all the facilities; and if you’re staying at any of the three establishments, you’re allowed to use the swimming pool. However, while it is a decent hotel, we didn’t find anything in particular that made it stand out.

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Mayang Sari on the other hand, was lovely. The compound (I say compound but there aren’t any fences and it’s pretty much open for anyone to walk through. Not that I’m saying it as a bad thing) is made up of rustic little huts. Get a beach-facing one and you’ll literally be 30 seconds away from the water. We especially loved the little hammocks that lined the beach. It’s hard not to feel relaxed when in a hammock that’s gently swaying in the breeze with the sound of gentle waves closeby. I think I may have fallen asleep in one.

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We were invited by Bintan Resorts to stay at Banyu Biru for 2 nights. It was a beautiful 2-storey bungalow that was way too big for our family of 4. It’s perfect for families, but the walk to the beach is ever so slightly further compared to if you choose to stay at Nirwana Gardens or Mayang Sari. We were there during the week so it was quiet. Perhaps just a tad bit too quiet.

If you’ve got older children, Club Med Bintan is bound to keep them busy with their myraid of activities. We’ve heard lovely things about Angsana Bintan, and it certainly does look gorgeous.

 

What to eat in Bintan?

It is of our own fault that we didn’t want to venture too far out, so we pretty much only ate along the stretch of beach. Most of the hotels share the same shuttle service (it’s free!) so you can hop on and off wherever you like. It loops so just stay on until you find something you like.

Kelong Restaurant is popular because of its location (a restaurant built on stilts on the water) but while the food there was enjoyable, the prices were not. In fact, most of the food in Bintan were very pricey. Most places had prices in SGD, for the bigger establishments at least.

Some folks head out to Tanjong Pinang for cheaper food but we didn’t feel it was worth the hassle. So in summary, food’s alright but don’t expect typical Indonesian prices.

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If you’re considering a quick getaway from Singapore, do give Bintan a shot. If you know anyone who’s planning a trip to Bintan, feel free to share this post with them!

 

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Batam: The Perfect Escape for Busy Mums?

There are some holidays where you just want to kick off your shoes and spend hours lying at the beach. But we were a party of 3 mums of young kids on holiday, sans the kids. So items on the to-do list simply were : “pig out, pig out, pig out! Big seafood dinner! Spicy food! Non child friendly food!!”

This was our 3D2N holiday. No cultural experiences included, no scenic photo opportunities. We didn’t even venture far from our hotel. Just 3 mums on a makan and massage mission.
Here we go!

GETTING THERE
Batam is a mere 45-minute ferry ride from Harbourfront Shopping Centre in Singapore. It’s SGD$50 for a 2-way ferry ticket. The 1140am (Singapore time) ferry, will allow you to arrive at 1130am (Batam time – Batam is one hour behind Singapore) – just in time to get to your hotel, check in, and head out for lunch.
Tip: be sure to check which ferry terminal you’re headed to. Batam has the reputation of a place where cheeky old men keep their mistresses so I reckon that’s not where you want to head to (unless you’re a cheeky old man and in that case  you’re on the wrong blog). You’ll want Harbor Bay terminal – apparently the other ones are the more um, infamous venues.

GETTING AROUND
There are more taxis than people. Any time you step out of anywhere, there’ll be a throng of taxi drivers calling out to you. There are the standard taxis and private taxis; you’ll even find familiar Silver cabs. There are also little vans that pick customers up along the way and possibly drop them off along a pre-destined route. Or not. I don’t know. We stayed clear of them. Rule of thumb: trust your instinct.

Tip: Ask for prices before boarding and pay what you’re comfortable with. Bargain if you like but remember that you may feel the satisfaction of saving a few cents, but you’re affecting someone else’s livelihood. 

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STAY
We stayed at Nagoya Mansion in the Nagoya Hills area. It is a fairly new hotel and exceptionally well priced. For a 2-bedroom apartment (1 queen bed and 1 single bed) with a small kitchenette and living area, the three of us each paid about SGD$50 a night. Ok make that amazingly priced. Bed and pillows were super comfortable!
The location is superb. The view is amazing   Breakfast was so-so. But it’s got an egg counter and to me, egg counters are life savers. Pool is a good size and everything’s new and clean.
We’ve heard that Zia Boutique Hotel in the same area is also affordable and clean. Latest prices can be found here.
 

Tip: order a car to pick you up at the ferry terminal. It costs less than SGD$10 and saves you the hassle at haggling with taxi drivers about fares.

Eat
Restoran Sederhana

Windsor Central Blok B No.1 Nagoya

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Hands down, our favourite meal of the trip. The plates arrive from the very moment you sit down. Plate after plate after plate they’ll come. Curry chicken, satay, sambal fish, vegetables, beef rendang, curry fish head…

Eat what you want and pay for only what you eat. The rest of it will (guess what) get recycled. As in the next table will eat whatever you’ve not touched. Or even what you’ve touched. Like if there are two pieces of chicken on the plate and you take one, the other one gets passed on. If you’re ok with that, then Restoran Sederhana is a must. The food is delicious and reasonably priced.

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Must try: Sambal fish, satay with kecap manis plus peanut gravy. Heavenly! And the soursop juice! Oh my.

Warung Cobain
Food Street, Level 1, Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre
 
Sometimes on holiday you do all your research but somehow stumble upon a place that hasn’t made it to any list of recommendations but is so good, you feel like you want to tell the whole world.

Warung Cobain is such a place. It’s located at Food Street on level 1 at Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre.  The prices are fantastic. For 3 hungry Mamas, we each paid only 50,000rp. Which is about SGD6.

 

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On our menu was duck, grilles catfish, nasi goreng, mie goreng, fried vegetables, and pandan chicken. With drinks. Good? Oh yes. It was our perfect welcome to Batam. Mmmmm… Sedap!
Tip: if you’ve got a weak tummy, make sure you only drink bottled water and don’t take any ice. Because you never know where the water comes from
Caffein Cafe
Komp. Ruko Nagoya Hill blok R3-A3A
 
Just out of the main entrance of Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre Mall you’ll see a block on the right and another on the left. Turn right and keep walking. In about five minutes you’ll hit a turn and a slope. Caffein is not far off.
Prices are not the cheapest but the iced coffees are lovely. The owner speaks wonderful English and is sincerely happy to help when you ask for directions and recommendations.
2 iced coffees, 1 fresh juice, 3 slices of cake set is back SGD20+. Not horrendously expensive, but remember, we’re talking about Batam. In any case, Caffein Cafe is a great place to kick back and rest those tired post shopping legs.

Yong Kee Istimewa Seafood
Komplek Nagoya City Centre Blok E No.8-9 (Nagoya)

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There’s a lot of hype about Yong Kee Fish Soup on trip Advisor but in my personal opinion, it’s reasonably good but not worth the effort getting to. The roads are small and windy and it’s quite complicated to get to. But if you insist, hop in a cab instead – it’ll cost 30,000rp from Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre to Yong Kee.

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The legendary fish soup turned out to be pretty much like what we would get at any regular food court back in Singapore. At about the same prices too.
Tip: the regular fish soup tastes better without being influenced by the presence of noodles. 
 

Wey Wey Seafood

Harbour Bay Ferry Terminal
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When we first got off the ferry, we were hit by a strong stench of – don’t hold your breath…. actually, do – sewage. So we were hesitant about going back to the harbour area for a meal. Thankfully, Wey Wey Seafood was around the harbour but the smell had somewhat faded. It was late and dark by the time we got there, so no pictures, but it was a lovely place for a seafood dinner with friends : twinkling lights, seated on the boardwalk, cheap and good seafood.We had a steamed fish, soup, vegetable, cereal prawn, black pepper crab and 3 coconuts all for SGD$51.

Tip: Ask for prices before you order! Prices are not indicated on the menu. Our waitress was lovely – she weighed our fish and crab then came back to check if we were ok with the prices instead of simply sending them to the kitchen to be prepared.

 

A&W
Food Street, Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre

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If you’re an 80s child and miss root beer floats in big frosted mugs, this is a must do. We had a snack there and were sorely disappointed though. Plus, it was very expensive. 13,000rp for the drink (as compared to 50,000rp per person for a big lunch at Warung Cobain).

 

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Do: shop!
Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre
Just a 15-minute walk away from Nagoya Mansions is the biggest mall in the Nagoya area. Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre pretty much has it all covered: shopping, food, cinema, hypermarket. SGD$4 to watch Captain America on an awesome screen: score! Matahari is the anchor tenant at Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre.

Shopping wasn’t on our agenda but Matahari persuaded us. Matahari is a well stocked 2-storey department store within Nagoya Hills Mall. You can uncover lots of treasures if you dig. They were having a bit of a sale over the weekend we were there with 20-50% discounts plus buy-2-get-1-free offers.


Tip: the cinema only opens at 12 noon and movie timings change daily!

Do: Massage!
Sakura Massage and Hotel
Nagoya Hill Block G 12B

Right opposite Nagoya Hill Shopping Centre is a whole string of massage shops. We wanted something not sleazy looking nor too expensive. We settled for Sakura Massage and Hotel, where 325,000rp gave us a heavenly 1.5 hour Bali massage. Tips not necessary but feel free to tip your masseuse if you felt she did a good job.

What’s fun is that their room can accommodate up to 4, with curtain dividers that you can draw if you want some privacy when you get dressed, so you can indulge in girly chatter all the way until you float into massaged induced slumber.

Eska Wellness Spa Massage & Salon
Ruko Nagoya Hill Block R4, F3 & F3A

At first glance, Eska with its bright lights and staff clad in luminious green polo tee shirts doesn’t strike anyone as a relaxing massage place. But we went in anyway, and thankfully, the luminiousness ended at Level 1. The upper layers were nice and comfortable and very relaxing indeed. My companions enjoyed their foot reflexology but mine was rather hit and miss. 120,000rp for 1 hour.

Tip: Again, like taxis, choose a shop that you’re comfortable with. 

I hope this has helped you if you’re planning a trip to Batam!

 

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