Day 13 – Vientiane

Good morning Laos. I’m awake at dawn and get up by 8 for breakfast at the hotel. I then pop along the road to rent a bicycle. I bump into Marie, a French lady who I had met in the tuk-tuk at the Thai border, then again when I arrived yesterday in Vientiane. She is at the same hotel. The bike costs less than 1 GBP for 24 hours, and is sturdy, has a basket and perfect for investigating the hot city.
It’s small, compact, traffic is light, mainly motorbikes and people carriers and there are no high rise buildings. The streets arent very busy. The people I see, as with last night seem unassuming, gentle and laid-back. There isn’t a whole lot to see tourism-wise.
There is That Dam, a bear stupa that acts as a roundabout, which apparently was once covered with gold but this was pillaged by the Thais.

There is Patuxai, a kind of Asian Arche de Triomphe from the 1960s built of concrete. From a distance it looks quite decorative with Laos style motifs. I climb the 7 storeys to the top. The inside is bare undressed concrete and there are 2 floors of neon lit souvenir stalls. The view is nothing special but at least you can see the small scale of this capital.

I revisit the tuk-tuk station for some pictures of these remarkable workhorses: a motorcycle front end and a pick-up-style rear end on a single axle with 2 benches facing each other. I meet Marie yet again!

Then I cross the road and enter the food market: dried fish, eggs, fruit, women in wide Vietnam style hats crouching on the ground selling bunches on morning glory with yellow flowers.

Next stop is Wat Si Saket, the oldest wat in town, dating from around 1820. Its a bit shabby and you have to pay to enter. Also no photos. It’s famed for its thousands of buddhas sitting in niches in the walls of the prayer hall, also its crumbling and fading murals.
My search for some veggie restaurants in Lonely Planet fails, so I return to Setthatirath for a mango-pineapple shake, then to yesterday’s restaurant for the buffet. This is great value and has a number of Laos style dishes. The imitation fish dishes are too close to the real thing for me, but the curry and sushi are lovely.
This is my mid-afternoon blog. I’m now going to explore further afield and then decide what to do tomorrow. Stay here or move on.
Funny atmosphere among the travellers. Nobody seems very sociable.

Day 12 – Thailand to Laos

I’m back at pak Chong station at 11. A pjamed station master with missing teeth sends me to the VIP waiting room, which is a glass-walled area with curtains and benches for sleepy important foreigners, whilst the Thais camp out on the platforms. I sink into groggy half-sleep but am jolted awake by the grinding through and halting of slow local trains and piercing tannoy alerts. The station master re-assures me he will fetch me. The train is already 1.5 hours late when he fetches me at 12.30 am and leads me over the track as a train pulls out to reveal mine waiting behind it.
The sleeper car is sleeping and my bunk is made up. The Thai guy above me is singing along to his MP3 and cannot hear my protestations. Sleep comes slowly and I wake up cold in Khon Kaen. The train is at least 2 hours behind time now.
On getting to Nong Khai we flocks of bewildered and ignorant travellers are ushered into waiting tuk-tuks and taken a short distance to the Thai immigration point at the Friendship Bridge. After the first obstacle we have to get on a shuttle bus that takes us over the great Mekong to the entrance to Laos on the other side. Getting a visa and getting through the checks is actually hitchless but takes a while. Then there are the options into town. I take the first one: 50 Baht in a tuk-tuk bus with 8 locals. The 22 km is hot and noisy and Laos begins to reveal itself. Dust roads and food stalls.
Arrival at the tuk-tuk bus station is initially a bit of a “oh God now where am I?” moment. But it quickly turns out that Vientiane is small, I am near the centre, and locals even if they don’t speak much English are enthusiastic to help.
The main drag is lined with juice bars, banks, motor cycle rental shops, and there are a lot of guesthouses on the side streets that lead down to the Mekong. It’s 1pm, no food or drink since last night and the sun is beating on my heat. Probably the hottest sun I have felt this trip. I check out a couple of guest hoses before settling on a clean airy double called Mixay. It’s around 8 GBP per night.
A quick shower then out for a shake and a watching of the sleepy world in early afternoon. I stumble on a veggie restaurant with a shady terrace. I’ve missed the buffet lunch but anyway have a very nice mushroom lap. This is a meat-free version of a famous Laos dish: a salad of shredded tofu, a variety of mushroom, spices and fresh mint. Then I find an air-con tourist office with free internet to while away the rest of the hot day.
As dusk approaches I cross the road and am on the banks of the river. There is a large park here, recently built which becomes the focus of life as the temperature cools. A temple, baby palms, joggers, kids in a playground, boys on bikes, couples strolling women spinning hula hoops which look like car tyres and are over 1m across, badminton, haki with large balls, and a sound system or two playing intially a kind of rhumba pop to which there is a small group of women and a couple of men learning some dance steps. They aren’t very good and remind me of the dancing elephants I saw in Pai…The sun is beginning to go down. A red glow over the Mekong which is in fact about 1/2 mile away as the water is low revealing a vast expanse of dusty mud. Some people are walking down to the water. There is also a football match in progress there.

After sundown over Thailand a market begins to open selling tourist-type stuff. I begin to walk south to a statue which I can see from my window, he is holding out his arm in salute pointing over the river to Thailand. I am later told by Dao, a Laos French teacher, who thinks i’m 25, that thia is King Anuwang from the nineteenth century. As I near the illuminated king there is a blast of siren and a convoy of assorted police vehicles and coaches surge down the promenade and halt right in front of the statue, which is also a buddhist shrine.
It looks like some very important people are coming as photographers with cheap old cameras and no flash, and a videographer assemble, directed away from the steps by the handful of police.
Then from one of the buses a raggle-taggle group of teenagers descend wearing blue tracksuits. They climb the steps to light incense, kneel and have a photo moment. They then return to the coach and the convoy rushes off with a cavalcade of horns blaring. Apparently this was a visit from some young sportspeople (I have to say they didn’t look very athletic) to mark something to do with some youth games. Nobody was able to clearly explain.
Walking back towards the end of my street I could see around 80 people dancing. Getting closer I saw that the dancing practice had morphed into an outdoor full-on dance aerobics get-together, with a man and a woman leading the moves from the top of the steps by the promenade. a crazy sight.
I return to my room for a rest at around 7. This rest becomes a nap from which I descend into sleep for 12 hours. The best bed so far and the first good night’s sleep since Singapore