Descent in different places 🙂
I arrived in Vientiane around 5pm and immediately went for a wander to get my bearings.
It’s always weird going to a new place- I have been to Laos before but only by-passed Vientiane to go north. So map in hand I walked along Chao Anou and turned right onto Rue Setthathirath and walked as far as the Presidential Palace, turned right again and back along the promenade which skirts the Mekong River. There was a little park there which I walked through, taking photographs as I went.
Chao Anouvong Park was created in 2010 to coincide with the 450th Anniversary celebrations of Vientiane. In 1826 -1829 King Chao Anouvong led a rebellion to gain independence from Thailand. But instead of gaining independence the rebellion ended with Vientiane being completely destroyed and Anouvong was captured by the Thais, where he remained until his death a few years later. In spite of this modern Lao nationalists have turned him into a hero and erected a large bronze statue to commemorate him, which stands majestically overlooking the Mekong River.
I ended the day with a pizza and the obligatory beer Lao- when in Lao drink, the very pleasant, beer Lao.
The name, Vientiane, is derived from Pali and, taken by some, to mean “city of sandalwood”. However, others claim that the name means “city of the moon”, because the words for “sandalwood” and “moon” in Sanskrit are written and pronounced as “chan” in the modern language.
Vientiane passed to French rule in 1893. They rebuilt the city after its earlier destruction and many of their colonial buildings were left behind which are still evident today. There are reminders of its French past in the form of road signs- Rue Bourichane and Lane Xang Boulevard, and French style architecture, bars and boutiques. It’s a sleepy little town with small roads and side streets to wander around, and it’s still small enough to explore by foot, bicycle or tuk-tuk. I saw quite a few people cycling around as I was enjoying my beer.
Paying for things in Laos is rather confusing-unless you are a whiz at working out the exchange rate in your head quickly-which I am most definitely not. You can pay in Kip-which is the local currency-US dollars or Thai baht. If you pay in US dollars, particularly in smaller establishments you get the change in Kip. Currently the exchange rate is 1 US dollar=8,040 kip; 1 Thai baht=249 kip.
The next day I got up early to put my visa application in, which was the whole reason I was in Laos. I arrived at the Thai Embassy at 7.15am. It didn’t open until 8.30am but I had been advised to get there early, and I was glad I did because even arriving over an hour before it opened I was still number 91. Once it opened there was more waiting to hand in my documents and pay the 1900 baht fee. I finished there around 10 am and got back in the tuk-tuk, the man had kindly waited for me-for which he received a tip on top of the already inflated cost of $20 to take me there. I am so generous sometimes, or stupid-one or the other.
Anyway, I left there and got the tuk-tuk guy to drop me at Patuxay Monument- a war monument in the centre of Vientiane. The name Patuxay or Patuxai means Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph and it was built between 1957 and 1968 to commemorate the soldiers who fought in the battle for independence from France. It is also called Patuxai Arch or the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane because it looks similar to the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, but it is of Laotian design and decorated with mythological creatures including the half female-half bird known as kinnari.
The monument is located in Patuxay Park- a beautiful little park complete with fountains and well- kept gardens- a lot of people come to enjoy these surroundings during their lunchtimes and in the evening.
Leaving the park, I walked along Avenue Lane Xang towards the Mekong River and found Wat Sisaket. Located opposite the Presidential Palace, Wat Sisaket was built in 1818 and is the oldest surviving temple in Laos. It resembles Siamese architecture with its five tier roof and surrounding terrace. This might be what kept it from being destroyed because the armies of Siam, who sacked Vientiane in 1827, used this temple as their Headquarters and housing.
Surrounding the main building there are smaller buildings with rows and rows of Buddha statues including some that were destroyed during the war and found underground during excavation in Vientiane city. The main building is called a Sim, which is the ordination hall. Inside there are murals, currently being renovated due to major deterioration. The murals depict the life of Prince Pookkharabat who won numerous battles using his magic fan. Above the murals there are several niches with tiny Buddha statues.
Outside there is, what was, the library and a Stupa, as well as some resident monks. It’s an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so.
Afterwards I went to lunch and walked back to my hotel and immediately got a tuk-tuk to my next tourist destination of the day- the Buddha Park.
I find that whenever you go on tours such as this one you never know what is going on and you kind of have to put your trust into people and go with the flow. A few minutes out of town the tuk-tuk stopped and the driver got out. At first I thought that we couldn’t be there already as the park was over 30 minutes away.
“OK,” he said, “you wait two minutes, I get car.”
OK, I thought, do I run away now or get in his car?
A few minutes later another guy pulled up in a songtaew, with the tuk-tuk guy as passenger-he got out and I got in the back.
The tuk-tuk guy said:
“200,000 kip, 25 dollars, you pay him, OK?” and off he went.
I realised why I had changed vehicle because the last few kilometres to the Buddha Park was along a very long, very bumpy dirt track and the songtaew was a bit more sturdy than the tuk-tuk. I don’t think the tuk-tuk would have made it.
Also known as Xieng Khuan, the Buddha Park is located around 25km outside of Vientiane and it contains over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues set in a beautiful little clearing. The park was built by a Luang Pu Bunleua Sulitat, a Thai/Isan/Lao mystic, myth-maker, spiritual cult leader and sculpture artist. He integrated Hinduism and Buddhism-hence the different statues that can be seen at the park. He built two parks, this one on the Laos side, and the other on the Thai side of the Mekong River. The tallest structures of the Buddha Park can be seen from the Thai side.
The park attraction is the 120 metre long reclining Buddha, and there is a giant pumpkin, rather strange looking, but you can enter through a 3 metre tall demon’s head and climb to the top for views across the whole park. On each of the three levels there are statues which tell the story of Hell, Earth and Heaven. I found it rather eerie because when your eyes become used to the darkness inside the statues are suddenly visible, and you feel that someone is watching.
The songtaew driver had waited for me to be a tourist and on the way back we stopped and in got four people- here we go again with the “what on earth is going on this time?” thoughts.
“They go to the market, ok?” said the driver cheerily.
“Yes, OK” I replied.
A few kilometres down the road three of them got off (clearly nowhere near any market) and said:
At first I thought they were getting a free ride but they paid and were on their way. The last guy got off at the market, and then me, finally back at the hotel.
More confusion with the money continued:-
I gave the driver $26 but he looked at me with a perplexed expression on his face. (I am glad it’s not only me) And this made me think that I had given him less than what he was expecting, even though I had agreed a price earlier on. He retrieved a piece of paper from the songtaew and wrote on it 200,000 and then 189,000 underneath. I then wrote 10,000 because I thought I had short-changed him. After a few minutes of conversation which neither of us really understood he looked at me quizzically and said:
I said “OK, thank-you very much,” and walked off.
When I sat down for a beer I worked out that $26 is around 209,000 kip and realised that what he was trying to tell me was that the other people who had hitched a ride back had paid, and I only had to pay the difference. He was worried that I had paid too much. But I was happy to pay the extra because he had waited patiently for me at the park.
I got up the next day to several large red welts all over my body. After some research I realised they were bed-bug bites- all in a line in the same area. I had breakfast and told the reception staff-only to be offered tiger balm to stop the bites itching- I was after a refund, not tiger balm. I should have been more direct. Anyway, I checked out, nursing my welts and went to pick my passport with new Thai visa.
More waiting around, this time in the heat of midday until they opened the gates and let us sit in the shade. Once the office opened I was in and out within 15 minutes and on my way to the border to cross back into Thailand.
It took ages. The immigration officer was doing his job properly because he was asking questions of everyone. He even turned a couple of guys away. When it was my turn he asked me what I was doing in Thailand, to which I replied:
“I’m an English teacher for AUA.”
“AUA?!” he squealed, “Maybe you could be my English teacher?”
“Well, I live in Bangkok and you live here, so it’s a bit far,” I replied, “anyway, your English is good.”
“I only speak English a little,” he said.
He proceeded to stamp me back into Thailand and as soon as I left the building a man came rushing towards me.
“Taxi? Where you go?” he said
“Udon,” I replied, “How much?”
I told him I thought it was too expensive, considering I had spent over $140 over the last two days, and started to walk towards the bus.
“400?!” he offered.
And because I wasn’t feeling great and just wanted to get to the hotel quickly I agreed to the fare.
I got in his truck, not a proper taxi-his own truck, and three more people got in the back. Then I realised why he was happy to reduce his fare by half. After about an hour we dropped the three people at the airport and we went back into town to the hotel. When we arrived he gave me change of 600 baht and said:
“You give me 500?”
I replied, “You said 400.”
He gave me the 600 change and I instantly felt sorry for him and gave him the extra 100. He was happy, I was less so and vowed that I wasn’t giving any tips from then on in.
I arrived back in Bangkok the next afternoon, happy to have spent time in Vientiane but happier to be home at last.
Having met up with my friend again, Triona and I decided to take a trip to Laos. Laos is the only land-locked country in SE Asia- bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west.
Laos is normally on the back-packer route to experience the very different, and potentially dangerous, activity of tubing. We left Bangkok on the 7pm night bus and arrived the following day at 2pm. It was such a gruelling journey but at least we got a bit of sleep on the bus-whenever you travel long distances, like this one, the buses are actually not too bad. The seats recline, there are toilets on board (on most buses), they have blankets in case it gets chilly with the air-con, they make a few stops to stretch your legs or to buy food and drinks, and some of the buses have on-route movies (mostly in Thai). When we arrived in Vientiane- the capital of Laos- it was still another 4 hour journey on very rugged roads to Vang Vieng. When we got there we realised we were in the middle of nowhere and wondered what on earth we were doing in such a place and we were ready to get on the bus and go back the way we had come- to Bangkok. It is a small back-packer oriented town, with a myriad of guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, tour agencies and mostly western tourists. Take that away and you notice the beautiful karst hill landscape that surrounds the town.
We had gone there to go tubing, which is basically floating down the river in a giant rubber ring (very different), whilst getting extremely drunk (potentially dangerous). It cost 40,000kip, which was about 2 GBP, at the time, and, well, it is a lot of fun and worth the effort of getting to Vang Vieng. We picked up our tube at 9am and a guy took us to where you launched into the river. At that time of the morning there were no bars open so we went on our merry way bobbing along down the river. It took about 2 hours and at least the first time round we got to appreciate the scenery.
Although, it got a bit hairy when Tri got propositioned by this weird guy, who appeared to be lurking in the undergrowth, and when he saw us coming he came towards us but Tri was quite a bit in front of me and started yelling to me to come closer, so I did my best to move quickly to catch up with her, paddling with my flip flops, and we managed to bob passed him and he left us alone. It was quite scary considering that we were the only two people on the river at that time of day.
The second time round, the bars on either side of the river were open and there were more people around. If you want to go to a bar you just wave at the guys and they throw a stick, attached to a rope, and you grab it and they pull you in! We got into spirit (literally) of tubing and we were pie-eyed by 2pm! It was so funny and we met loads of people at the bars or floating down the river, it was great fun.
I really don’t know who thought up the idea of tubing but it seems such a good idea, however, as you will find anywhere in South East Asia, health and safety is lacking somewhat. It is so dangerous and you could easily hurt yourself coming off the massive slides or swings or letting go of the zip wires if you don’t drop in the right area. Especially when you have had a few drinks. In fact I have seen several friends, back in Bangkok, with legs and arms bandaged, and the first thing you ask them, “have you been tubing”?
We had such fun, Tri and I. The currency in Laos is kip and, like I said earlier 2 GBP was around 40,000 (now it is just over 3 GBP), we just couldn’t get the hang of it. We must have counted it a million times and still couldn’t add it up right (that might have been the copious amounts of alcohol we had). In one of the bars we met a guy that I had met previously on Koh Tao- Ben- so we stayed and had a real laugh with him and his friends.
Then the boys left to go to the next bar and, after counting the money yet again, Tri and I decided to go and see if we could find them again. So we got back onto the river in our tubes and made our way further downstream. In some parts of the river the current was very strong and you move quite fast, so when we eventually spotted Ben and his friends, we tried to stop moving and get out but we were literally swept away with the current and ended up on a little slope where a bunch of goats were grazing, one of which looked at us totally bemused! It was hilarious we couldn’t stop laughing. So after we had pulled ourselves together, we went on our way, drinks in hand, and made our way to the last bar, where we eventually met up with the guys and continued our fun packed day.
It was all part of a fantastic experience but there is so much more to Laos than tubing- Pak Ou Caves, Plains of Jars, Kuang Si Waterfalls, kayaking on the Nam Song River, Luang Prabang- to name but a few. And with the apparent lack of safety measures, causing at least 22 tourists to die during 2011, the riverside bars have since been pulled down in an attempt to make tubing a much more relaxed, and not potentially fatal, experience. The authorities have taken steps to try and bring the charm back to Vang Vieng, rather than it being a haven for raucous behaviour and drinking, as Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American states, “each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng”.