A Journey across Northern Laos: Part 1
Bangkok to Vientiane
Every journey has a starting point, mine was Bangkok. Known also as “The City of Angels,” Bangkok is the largest, busiest capital city in S.E. Asia. It also happens to be the place in which I choose to live. Just like the “Tale of Two Cities” it is a city of paradox with the best of everything and the worst of everything. It’s an amazingly alive and vital metropolis with great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife to keep one busily entertained but it’s also a crowded, congested, urban environment which, at times, can be rather stressful. Poor air quality, due to the huge number of vehicles that seem to be on the cities roads constantly, is also a very real health consideration for long term residence there. It is primarily for this reason that I make the effort to get out of town, every now and again, and detox myself in a more natural environment somewhere.
I’d been considering a trip into Laos for quite some time. However, work commitments and a good deal of procrastination had seen me put the idea on the uncommitted “to do” list for many months. With an eventual seasonal long break from work giving me ample free time I couldn’t procrastinate any longer, I put the wheels in motion for a journey up through Northern Laos. Plans were made, flights were booked and, without further ado, I was soon leaving the stress of Bangkok behind and on my way north – via a Thai Airways flight – to Udon Thani. Approximately an hour and fifteen minutes after lifting off from Suwarnabhumi, Bangkok I was walking out of the arrivals hall at Udon Thani Airport. My options for getting to Vientiane were either fly direct or, as I’d finally decided on, make my way up to Nong Khai and cross into Laos via the Friendship Bridge.
Being a great believer in the old adage that “the early bird catches the worm” I decided to have a night in Nong Khai before making an early start for the friendship bridge the following morning. After a brief look around Nong Khai, and a meal at a restaurant along the river front, I got my head down early so that I’d be well rested for the coming day’s trip over to Laos. I woke up feeling reasonably refreshed but still a little bit rough around the edges as I’ve been suffering from a lingering cold for the previous two weeks. With my bags packed, and a good western breakfast in my stomach, I was checking out of the Pantawee Hotel, Nong Khai, by 0900. I collared one of the Tuk Tuk drivers, hanging around outside the hotel, and got a ride to Friendship Bridge for eighty Baht. The ride up was largely uneventful, save for the dust swirling up from an unsealed stretch of road, and twenty minutes later the crossing check point hove into view. The driver parked the Tuk Tuk a few meters away from the melee of people and vehicles queuing up to leave Thailand. I handed over the eighty baht, grabbed my gear and ambled up to the immigration departure check point. Twenty minutes later I was stamped through and directed to a desk to buy a ticket – 15 Baht -for the bus ride over the bridge. As a matter of interest I asked one of the bus operators if it was possible to walk across. “No, no, cannot. You must take bus. Too far, its half kilo,” said the tout, as if there was some kind of law against tourists walking across the bridge.
Obviously, the money wasn’t the issue. I just wanted to stretch my legs and bang off a few shots. I shrugged my shoulders and re-joined the queue of back packers and travelers, also waiting to board the bus. As we stood there lorry load after lorry load of new cars rumbled past us towards the new economic growth of Laos. As soon as there were enough people in the queue the tout that had dismissed my enquiry about walking across the bridge waved over a bus, which was parked only five meters away from us. I climbed on and grabbed the front seat next to the driver, and pulled out my camera. As the shot shows, lots of people walk across the bridge. They’re all locals though and probably want to save themselves fifteen Baht. A few minutes later we were getting down on the Laotian side of the bridge and queuing up for our arrival cards and visas on arrival document. The thirty day entry is a mere formality as the USD 30 visa fee is paid even before you’ve filled in the paperwork. I handed the completed form back though the same window, with my passport and one photo, and was told to wait at another. While waiting I changed 3500 Baht for some Lao currency. The exchange rate was about 250 Kip to the Baht and I ended up with about 850,000 Kip. Forty five minutes later I’d been stamped through and was entering the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos.
A taxi driver, waiting around the Lao Passport Control, indicated that he could provide a private vehicle into town for 200 THB. Without further debate I threw my bags into the back of his battered vehicle and settled in for the twenty five kilometer run into Vientiane. Forty five minutes later I was checking into the City Inn: www.cityinnvientiane.com tel: +856-21-218333. At USD 67 it was probably a bit on the expensive side for accommodation in Vientiane, but it was new and breakfast, and free Wi-Fi, was included in the price. The standard of the hotel was probably what you’d expect for about 3000 Baht in Thailand. The city Inn, for those interested, is located near Lao Plaza Hotel in a quieter area away from the main tourist area which is towards the river front.
After a bit of a rest, and as the sun was setting, I wandered down towards café central. It was a ten minute walk to the main area where most of the tourists hang out. In a stretch, roughly one kilometer long and running parallel to the Mekong, there is a congested little area which is jam packed with cafés, restaurants, bars, guesthouses and hotels. If you look at a map you can quickly see that this hive of tourist activity is actually not very big and is essentially the river front road, and the road behind which runs parallel to it, and half a dozen smaller joining streets which connect the two main roads together. Admittedly it was the peak of the high season and everywhere was packed, but the traffic congestion along the river front road was as busy as anything I’ve seen on Beach Road in Pattaya. I found a nice little street running back from the river front road with a number of very good café’s and bakeries scattered along it. Café central, which really is a hodge podge of new and old structures, is also great place to do some people watching. As I sat at a nice little French style café enjoying a cappuccino in the cool of the early evening, I made a mental note of the fact that there were very few, if any at all, of the sex tourist types that you see in Thailand. Most, if not all, cruising around café central were the traveler/back packer types. There were even a few old hippies to be seen with their grey pony tails tied back and flopping around on their kaftans. No doubt a couple of them would have been hippies when hippies first appeared on the scene back in the sixties.
During my easy walk down to the river front area I’d noticed that the area was an eclectic mix of the new, the old, and the very old, with new architecture jumbled in amongst old French, colonial style buildings and even older Buddhist temples. Directly across from where I was relaxing over my java was the entrance to one of the half dozen temples situated along the river front road area. As I sat there continuing to enjoy the ambience of my first evening in Laos I reflected on a couple of other observations I’d noted during my brief time in the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. The full wording of its name is an indication to this countries recent history. People often mention Laos’ French colonial past, vestiges of which can still be seen throughout Vientiane. Many street names begin with Rue. There are hundreds of old French colonial buildings still to be seen as one wanders through the city. The place really is an eclectic mix of older Lao culture and its younger French colonial heritage. But what’s often forgotten is that, until quite recently, the place was communist. The fact that the country is still governed by a one party system makes that more evident. Being of a slightly different bent to most of the tourists in Vientiane, who seem to be enthralled with the French and Lao cultural side of things, I was on the lookout for remnants of the old communist days. Much to my dismay there were no statues of muscled male laborers, with shovels in hand, to be seen, just the names on a couple of buildings proclaiming Laos’ once inglorious past.
As the sun began to set on the western horizon and cast a golden hue across the Mekong I noticed a lot of locals heading out across the large sand embankment to the river’s edge. The large embankment is exposed when the broad river drops from its bulging rainy season levels (June – October) to its more sedate dry season flow. Being a keen observer of human interaction I decided to head down to the river’s edge to what the attraction was for the crowds making their way across the wide expanse of sand. After grapping a bottle of water from a nearby 7/11 I made my way down the promenade steps and struck out across the sand bank at a quick clip; the idea being to get to the river’s edge in time for some nice reflective sunset shots over the water. It’s often said that distance when viewed from above ground level is deceiving. And so it was with the sand island I thought was just a narrow isthmus. It wasn’t long after beginning the slog across in the soft sand I realised the narrow stretch of sand was in fact, at least a 500 meter traverse. With the sun dropping steadily towards the horizon I figured I’d just make to the river’s edge in time to bang off a few nice pics before the twilight was brought an end to another day. A few minutes later I was standing at the edge of the Mekong, soaked in perspiration as the sun touched the horizon. After a quick gulp of water I got to work with the camera. Many of the locals were standing knee deep along the river’s edge and building the iconic Buddhist landmarks from wet sand. As I got closer with the camera I could there was a bit of creative handiwork about their little constructions as they dug up handfuls from the river bed and carefully drizzled it onto the finely pointed mini stupas.
After a few minutes being fascinated by their creativity I decided to go for an amble along the river’s edge in the fading light and eventually met a tourist river boat crew packing up for the day and, as with most blue collar types around the world, they were cracking a beer after a long day in the sun. As I approached they smiled and handed me a beer Lao. Not being one to turn down a free beer I gratefully accepted it and joined the team in a few minutes of friendly chat as they tidied up their gear for the day and loaded their river boat. With the sun well and truly down and the twilight red beginning to spread across the calm water I bid them adieu and began to make my way back towards the promenade.
The promenade is an approximately two kilometer development which fronts the Mekong. It includes a wide, paved footpath which, in the cool of the early evening, was alive with locals, and tourists, who were walking, jogging, and taking part in a number of aerobics classes at various locations. Feeling invigorated after my walk across the sand, I decided to walk to the southern end as I wasn’t yet ready to sit down for a meal and a beer on at the roadside restaurants. Fifteen minutes later I was at the end of the track where the main focal point, for many Lao, was the imposing statue of the last king of Laos; king Anouvong. Apparently, according to the Lao staff back at the hotel, King Anouvong is highly regarded amongst the Lao due to the fact that he beat off the invading Thai hordes in a couple of wars. It’s ironic that the statue faces directly across the Mekong towards Thailand. After getting a few decent shots of Laos’ national hero it was time to head back to the restaurant strip for some barbecued chicken, sticky rice and another Beer Lao.
The restaurant strip is located in the central area of the promenade. It’s a one kilometer stretch of street restaurants, cafes and small bars which, in the cool of the early evening, was packed with hungry hordes looking to fill themselves with the great range of food choices available. For those who enjoy French cuisine there is no end of quality cafés and restaurants to choose from. If you want Lao food you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not much different to Thai and Isarn food. Street side barbecue vendors were in plentiful supply as I picked my way around the stacks of fish, chicken and other seafood that was available. Other street fare included much the same as what you would expect to find in Thailand with a range of kuay thiaw noodle soups being predominant. After picking out a street side table at a corner restaurant I settled in to enjoy some barbecued chicken and of course, another cold Beer Lao.
I’ve always maintained that travelling is not just about the things you can see and do, it’s also about some of the interesting people you bump into as you’re going along. The following morning while getting breakfast, in the hotel’s restaurant, I heard the unmistakable sound of an Australian accent. I introduced myself and sat down to have a chat. Dean, originally from Sydney, was working as a heavy duty mechanic at a gold, and copper, mine in Southern Laos. He was on a twenty four day work rotation and was enjoying a bit of his scheduled time off in Vientiane. I was keen to have a look at a few of the local sights and thought he might be able to give me a few pointers on the best places to go. I’d bumped into a couple of Italian ladies, the evening before, and they mentioned a place called the COPE center. Apparently it was a hospital that was set up to care for Laotians injured by land mines and other unexploded ordinance. I raised this with Dean and he gave me some interesting info.
“People always go on about the land mines in Cambodia but the fact is that the Americans dropped more bombs on Laos, during the Vietnam War, than they did during World War Two.”
“Is that really true,” I said feeling a bit surprised by what he said.
“Yep, most of it on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Down at the mine there’s so much unexploded ordinance about it’s a wonder we get much work done. Most of it is bombs, of varying sizes, that are buried about 2 meters below the surface. Bloody scary when you unearth an unexploded five hundred pounder,” he said soberly.
“What do you do when someone comes across one?”
“Call in the bomb people and they get rid of it.”
Whenever I’m in a new place, or somewhere I haven’t been before, I keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, or unusual, to take a photo of. The previous day, during my walk down to café central, I’d spotted a Morris Minor, up on blocks, in some ones back yard. In the day’s fading light I banged off a shot of a car that bought back a lot of great memories of my teenage years growing up in New Zealand. Back then (forty years ago) you could get your driver’s license at only fifteen years of age. It was quite ridiculous because you couldn’t go into a pub until you were twenty-one. Most of us, as soon as we turned fifteen, would sit for our licenses and then scrape enough money together and buy a cheap old ‘bomb’ to hoon (that’s kiwi talk for getting up to no good and making a nuisance of yourself) around in. The ‘Morrie Minor’ was a popular choice because they were cheap to buy and reasonably easy to maintain.
Another helpful service that the City Inn offers is arranging motor bike rentals. The USD 12 fee for twenty four hours was probably bit more than one would expect to pay back in Thailand but, for the difference of around one hundred baht, they’ll have the bike at the hotel within an hour and you aren’t required to handover your passport. For anyone that does decide to head over to Vientiane and wants to rent a bike, be aware, particularly if you reside in Thailand, that Laos is a right-hand drive country. In other words, they drive on the wrong side of the road. It’s actually not too bad, and I got used to it fairly quickly, but if you mentally relax for just a moment – I did three times at intersections – you can find yourself looking down the barrel of traffic coming towards you.
Other points of interest also include the Patuxai; an interesting structure and possibly the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. Apparently it was a victory monument, built by the Lao, after their French occupiers finally left. I found that to be rather ironic as it almost certainly imitates that iconic structure found in Paris. For photography enthusiasts the best time for getting some good shots of the Patuxai is either 8 – 9 AM in the morning (a good time as it’s nice and cool and the tour bus hordes generally don’t arrive until around 10 AM) or 5 PM in the afternoon when the heats gone out of the day. The added bonus of going in the evening is that the lights come on at the Patuxai offering good potential for night photography. Within the arch of the Patuxai is a stairway up to the viewing levels at the top of the structure. For those keen on picking up some local wares, there are tourist nick knack vendors on one of the upper levels. There is also the Golden temple but having gone down there, and seen all the tourist buses lined up, I decided to give it a miss. I’ve seen that many temples now that, unless it’s something quite spectacular like Wat Phra Kaew, I’m not really all that interested. If you are a Temple aficionado you’ll be pleased to know that there are at least five temples in, around, café central. Most of them are a bit weathered and, compared with the sparkling ones we’re used to in Thailand, they could all do with a lick of gold paint.
After two days in Vientiane I figured I’d had a fairly decent look around the place and was keen to hit the road and go bush. Bush being Veng Vieng and Luang Prabang. There’s probably a lot more to see in, and around, Vientiane but the cost of a lengthy stay there could become more than I planned for. Some observations from my limited time there:
- In January the weather is probably at its best in terms of low levels of heat and humidity. The mornings are dry and cool and, if one was to rise early enough, sometimes long sleeves wouldn’t be out of place. For this reason, more than any other, it is also the peak of the tourist season. As I’ve already mentioned, river front road was packed with people and cars every evening.
- The Lao people seem to be fairly laid back and are, from what I saw, always polite. In stature, and physical appearance, they look exactly like people over in Isarn.
- Lao language is very similar to Isarn language and most, in Vientiane, speak Thai to a reasonable level. My Thai isn’t great but I had very few problems communicating with the locals there.
- Lao food is the same as Isarn food. Road side barbecue, larb and som tam, it’s exactly the same. If you want Thai food then that’s an entirely different matter. They have the basic stuff like noodles, fried rice and red and green curries but don’t try ordering plaa ning manaow (steamed lemon fish).
- Things such as food, and basic services, seem to be slightly more expensive in Vientiane than they are in Thailand. Even the street food costs a little bit more.
- A final word of warning; be on your guard with tuk-tuk drivers, especially later at night. They are constantly asking if you want ganja or heroin. This has probably come about because of reckless travelers wanting something to smoke, or hit up, so they can chill out. Be warned; the tuk-tuk drivers are often working in collusion with the local police in what amounts to a sting operation to relieve you of a large amount of cash.