Highlights of Vientiane

It’s the people that make a place, and I’ve certainly met some characters here in Vientiane, my favourite being a drunk/alcoholic older San Franciscan lady who dragged me into an illegal betting shop (basically someone’s front room) where we sat and watched Thai Boxing while about 20 men played cards or bet on the fight. I also toured Vientiane with a group of young lads who bickered for the entire trip (to my entertainment), one of whom was touched/grabbed inappropriately on the street by a questionable lady (possibly a man), and met an old guy who clears bombs in the Laos countryside, once shat himself on CNN in Baghdad, and advised me to claim bankruptcy when I get old and then emigrate while still claiming my pension.

Never a dull moment. Vientiane is pretty cool though, more spread out than Luang Prabang but a little livelier – well, as lively as sleepy Laos can get.

Pha That Luang
The ‘great stupa’ is a gold leaf covered stupa and a national symbol.

Pha That Luang great stupa

In the grounds of the stupa you can find temples and a reclining buddha too, in fact I found this more interesting than the stupa itself.

dragon and monks vientiane

reclining_buddha_vientiane

Patuxai
The Victory Gate is a war monument dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. You can climb to the top for views of the city.

patuxi victory arch

inside victory arch

COPE Centre
COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is a charity that provides support and rehabilitation for bomb survivors and those with disabilities. 80 million unexploded bombs still remain in Laos left over from the US during the Vietnam War and many people are injured or killed by them every year. It’s not just accidents that cause deaths and injuries – many people live in poverty and collect bombs for scrap metal. COPE aims to educate communities about the dangers.

cluster bomb laos

It costs just £30 to make a prosthetic limb for someone in need.

prosthetic legs laos

By the Mekong
The Mekong runs along the south of the city and provides a natural border between Laos and Thailand here. The lifestyle is based around the outdoors and in the evening you can see walkers and runners, people fishing and even aerobics classes.

park near mekong vientiane

praying vientiane

fishing in the mekong

evening aerobics vientiane

The only thing I really missed out was Buddha Park, admittedly one of the main attractions about an hour away, but I preferred to stay in the city, wander around and take in the atmosphere.

 

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The Turnaround and the Personal Best

This last week, going by my blog at least, seems to have been cursed. There was the van to Vang Vieng that was turned back for being illegal, the 24/7 rain and storms that gave me nightmares, the booking disaster with my flights to and from India, and then a stomach bug that has kept me in my room for the past couple of days.

rainy vang vieng

Well, miracles do happen. The sun is shining, my stomach is almost better and Air India took pity on me and allowed me to rebook my flight without any charges!

sunny vang vieng

sun vang vieng

And not only that, I’ve beaten a personal record. This year I wanted to read 52 books, one for every week of the year. Well, I just finished my 52nd book, in only 30 weeks! Here are some of my favourites of the bunch:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)
The Incomplete Tim Key by Tim Key (poetry)
The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks (psychology)
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (fiction)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (travel, adventure)
My Animals and Other Family by Clare Balding (autobiography)
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton (philosophy)
The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman (philosophy, psychology)
Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (psychology)
The Adventures of Sherlock Homes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (fiction)
Pink Moon, a Story About Nick Drake by Gorm Henrik Rasmussen (biography, music)
The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau (business)
Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac (autobiography, travel)
Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi (autobiography)

Tomorrow I go to Vientiane and really hope that the minivan is legitimate this time.

 

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Horror Movie Weather in Laos

Since I arrived in Vang Vieng it’s done nothing but rain heavily. The kind of rain that would look fake if it was in a film, as if a giant hose was positioned above our heads. The kind of rain where, in movieland, it would tell us something really bad was about to happen. It seems to be messing with my mind – I’ve slept very badly since I got here. In my first accommodation I hallucinated bizarre creatures whizzing above my head in the night and in my new hotel I was convinced of intruders because of the way the fan made my curtains flap around at the balcony window.

image

I seem to have become more paranoid lately and I blame this creepy weather. I keep seeing disasters that I avoided, like the crashed bus or the man who slipped on some steps in my hotel (that I had earlier slipped on) and seriously hurt himself – he had lots of people helping so I didn’t interfere but from the sound of the thud and his horrific screams and howls for the next 15 minutes I’m guessing it was bad. It’s all gone a bit Final Destination.

It’s probably for the best that I’m staying indoors for the most part. I didn’t come to Vang Vieng to party (yeah I know, I’m probably the only person in the history of Vang Vieng to come here for peace and quiet). I came here to write, read and enjoy the surroundings, and what a view I have!

image

If the rain ceases I might just consider tip-toeing out to make sure the world hasn’t ended.

 

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A False Start to Vang Vieng

It started well enough; the minivan I booked via my hostel to take me to Vang Vieng arrived early and I happened to be ready early so I put my bags in the back and climbed in, ready for the 5 hour drive to my next destination.

However, the other girl from my hostel taking the same van was not ready, so the driver decided to pick up some more people and come back. At the next hostel we waited and waited and eventually out came some backbackers who seemed to be arguing with the driver. The driver drove off without them and went back to my hostel.

The other girl climbed in, and we did another circle going back to the hostel we’d just been to. We waited and waited and after about 15 minutes out came three backpackers, one of whom was crying and whining about something while her boyfriend looked sheepish and apologised for the hold up.

And then we were off, at last! 30 minutes late but we were going. But not for long.

After another 30 minutes we were pulled over by some officials. Our driver, with some urgency, told the Dutch guy in the front to say we’re going to Vientiane not Vang Vieng. It was hard to understand what he was saying (it came out as “not Vang Vieng, we go Vientiane, VIENTIANE, VANG VENG NO, VIENTIANE”) but we thought we’d all grasped the message.

An official came to the passenger side and asked where we were going. Dutch guy said Vientiane. I said Vientiane. Then he asked a Chinese couple next to me where they were going. “Vang Vieng” they replied. D’OH! “No, we’re going to Vientiane” we all said with wide eyes. “What? No! Vang Vieng! We want to go to Vang Vieng!” It seems they’d been listening to their iPods when we were pulled over.

“Vang Vieng??” said the official. “Where’s your ticket?” They had no special ticket of course and the damage was done. An official climbed on board and we turned around. “Why are we going the wrong way?” said Dutch guy. The driver ignored him.

official in the van

Another 30 minutes later we arrived back in Luang Prabang. The driver started unloading our bags and putting them onto a tuk tuk. “What’s happening? Where are we going?” I asked. The driver simply said “I don’t know.” “Of course you know, you just ordered the tuk tuk!” I said. “Bus station” he replied. At least I wasn’t on my own otherwise I would’ve been worried.

At the bus station another minivan was set up for us, much to our relief, and our hostels were ordered to come to the station and pay for another ticket (mine initially refused, holding us up for another hour). Although nobody explained it to us we figured out that our original minivan was illegal/unofficial and the bus station (who owns the rights to go to Vang Vieng) uses enforcement to stop others.

We eventually set off to Vang Vieng, legally and above board, almost three hours later than we were supposed to. On a plus note the scenery was really really gorgeous, and after a slightly frightening drive up foggy mountains (where we saw a bus that had overturned in the night) we made it safely to Vang Vieng. Hooray!

In Laos, always check things are above board, and always check your change when you buy something too – it’s almost always wrong!

 

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Waterfalls and a Mediterranean Feel in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang has to be one of the prettiest cities I’ve seen and it came as a complete surprise to me. At every turn you feel like you’re in the Mediterranean – it’s a French colonial town and they definitely left their mark.

mediterranean shutters luang prabang

mediterranean architecture

side street luang prabang

To my delight the end of the main street is full of baguette stalls and the bread is good! I can’t even tell you how bad the bread is in the rest of Asia but the legacy of the French lives on here.

Luang Prabang is famous for the early morning alms round where the monks form a line down the street to receive rice from locals and now tourists too. I didn’t manage to see it but I did get to explore the many temples in the old town.

temple in luang prabang

temple at museum

temple grounds

temple decorations

Around Luang Prabang there are a whole host of waterfalls to visit and the lanscape is lush, green and mountainous. I went to one called Tad Sae with a couple of friends from the slow boat and we enjoyed swimming and sunbathing until a storm rolled in.

boat to the waterfall
Taking a boat to the waterfall

tad_sae_waterfall_luang_prabang3

tad sae waterfall laos

swimming in waterfall laos

When it starts raining in this season in Asia a few spots of rain very quickly leads to a deluge so we quickly gathered up our bags and clothes and ran to catch our boat back to the mainland. As we motored down the river there were bolts of lightning and claps of thunder all around us – it certainly made the ride more interesting.

There’s not a huge amount to see in Luang Prabang and the temperature was almost unbearable at times so I’m heading to the cooler and rainier Vang Vieng between here and Vientiane.

 

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The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

I’m sitting on the slow boat watching the currents of the Mekong push, pull and swirl around rocks dotted along the edges and sometime right in the middle of the river – one of the reasons I didn’t take the speed boat actually. My journey to Luang Prabang from the border between Thailand and Laos takes two days and we have no choice but to relax and drink beer. Ok the second one is optional but it’s enhancing the experiencing and helping me to pass the time by sending me to sleep.

inside the slow boat
Fairly comfy seats in the slow boat

slow boat to luang prabangThe trip began with an eight hour minivan ride from Pai to the Thai border where we arrived at 2.30am, caught just four hours of sleep in a musty and slightly creepy hotel (comfort isn’t a priority at borders it seems) and then went to get stamped out of Thailand, cross the river and enter Laos. Although the Laos border was busy and disorganised it was a fairly straightforward process to get the visa and off we went to board our boat.

Laos immigration
Laos immigration

The journey was a hot and sweaty one for the most part, except for the second morning after an all night storm had cleared the air. We passed many villages and sometimes just single homes with nothing but jungle and mountains around and I wondered what it must be like to live like that, so cut off from the rest of civilisation.

boat on the mekong

misty mekong

The closer we got to Luang Prabang the more dramatic the scenery became, with steep cliff faces emerging from the muddy coloured water. The river started to widen more too, giving us huge reflections of the mountains ahead.

slow_boat_to_luang_prabang

I seem to be saying this a lot lately but this experience was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and I’m really happy I did it. You essentially give up control and let the Mekong guide you to your destination.

If, like me, you’re unsure about getting to the border yourself and taking a boat alone I recommend booking a package from any travel agent in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or Pai. For 1,750THB (£36 or $56) I got the minivan to the border, 1 night in a hotel + breakfast (the 2nd night isn’t included) and 2 days on a boat. It also means you have a few other familar faces with you along the way. The Laos visa cost $35 for US and UK citizens and you only need 1 passport photo. Take snacks but you can buy a sandwich for lunch at the dock in Laos and at your hotel for the last day – some boats offer rice or pot noodles but not all. Oh, and standard advice for asia – take toilet paper! If I’ve missed anything or if you want to ask anything leave a comment below and I’ll try and help.

 

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