Vientaine, Laos

The bus trip from Phonsavan to the Lao capital Vientaine was even more interesting and eventful than the first bus trip from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan. At 9 hours it was longer but in a bus virtually identical from the first. The only difference was that there was no aircon in this bus, which didn’t matter as in the bedlam of getting people and their luggage sorted we were seated in the first row behind the open door which provided all the air we needed. By the time the bus had finished loading it was full, with an additional 5 people sitting in the aisle on plastic stools, 4 people sitting on large bags of rice, and 2 boys hanging out of the door. Who said the number of available seats was a limitation to how many people they could squeeze on?! And as we were the only foreigners on board we got quite a bit of attention! A particular favourite experience on the bus was one of the several toilet stops where the bus suddenly stops in the middle of the mountain road while everyone piles out and finds a bush with suitable coverage to relieve themselves in. I’m glad the road isn’t frequently used!

Our accommodation in Vientaine was a very nice room in a guesthouse run by their family, 6 dogs and 3 cats. Having the cats sit on the chairs next to us at breakfast on the first morning sent Sam into a giddy spin!

Our first impressions of Vientaine were fantastic. With a population of just 200,000 it is the biggest city in Laos, with just enough buzz about it to keep things interesting but with no where near the bustle of any other capital city. Our hostel was just out of the city centre in the suburbs so was very quiet, yet an easy 20 minute walk to the city centre. (We worked out that we averaged 13km of walking a day in our week there!) We spent our time in Vientaine very slowly making our way around the various temples, museums, the unfortunately named “That Dum Wat”, Patuxai, and the national symbol That Luang. That Luang was a gold plated stupa about a 6 km walk from the centre of the city and surrounded by parks, a few stalls and a couple of Wats. It is a very impressive sight indeed. Patuxai was also a very interesting sight. It was built using funds donated from America for the construction of a new airport runway, giving it the nickname “vertical runway”. It is essentially Laos’ version of Paris’s Arc De Triumphe, and is located at the end of a long wide boulevard lined with trees and some cafes (just like the Champs Ellysee!). It even acts as a roundabout for traffic just like the French version. We climbed to the top and enjoyed some great views of the city and surrounding area.

After a few days of sightseeing and walking along the Mekong, we were pretty “Watted out”. We thought that this may happen, and it finally had – too many similar looking temples in the past 6 weeks. So we decided that with the exception of Wat Phou down south in Champasak that we wouldn’t go out of our way to see anymore Wats in Laos.

During the weekend that we were in Vientaine there was what was billed on posters around town as an international 10’s rugby tournament featuring teams from Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Sweet! First time going to rugby in several years. Unfortunately, all bar a select few players were expat foreigners from the UK, so the thought of watching Thai/Lao etc people play was rather dented. But alas, it was still good to see a few games!

Halfway through our time in Vientaine we bumped into the English couple (and by couple I mean friends) and made arrangements to meet up with Gary that evening for dinner and a few beers to discuss his impending trip to Myanmar and travelling in general. It was so refreshing to talk with someone with the same view on travel and to hear about his adventures around the globe, adding several more places to our ever expanding giant “must see” list. It was also good to find that there are others that have found the same thing with Laos: that there’s kinda nothing here. He hit the nail on the head perfectly when he said that Thailand has its beaches, Cambodia has Angkor Wat, Vietnam has the food, China has the Great Wall (and a dozen other things), Myanmar has the curiosity and intrigue, and Lao has….nothing. Upon further reflection I’m starting to understand why the local beer Beerlao has such a cult status with travellers here – because all you really do here is eat and drink. In fact most reviews and travel info we have read about most of the places in Laos say “grab a Beerlao and watch the sunset.” Now while we aren’t enjoying the relaxed place quite as much as we had hoped – having lived in pretty sleepy small towns for most of our lives we crave hustle and bustle when we travel – “nothing” is certainly a bonafide drawcard to the country. it is ludicrously relaxing. Perhaps the national tourism slogan should be “Chill out in Laos”.

The last thing we did in Vientaine was go to Buddha Park, essentially a park crammed full of Buddha statues. To get there involved a ride in a modern bus to the Friendship Bridge (the bridge linking Thailand to Laos) and then, after much confusion and waiting, a rollercoaster bus to the park. Talk about bumpy…this was unreal, and even rivalled Myanmar’s train system for hit-your-head-on-the-roof bumps! All in all, 1.5 hours to go 25km. There are times when we really crave Korean efficiency!!

The park itself was a lot smaller than we expected, but crammed full of Buddha statues. The most impressive structure, sitting next to the giant lying down Buddha, was a spherical building which you crawled through a small entrance/mouth, climbed 3 flights of near vertical stairs, and emerged on the roof. Quite a climb! And the dozens of dusty statues inside the building created a dark and eerie atmosphere.

As I’m writing this, we are sitting in a cafe, watching tv, and enjoying the aircon as tonight we are getting a night bus down to Pakse. A 10-12 hour ordeal which leaves at 8.30pm and from the sounds of the “bed” we get to share it will be a rather squeezed experience. Think 2 pillows side by side, but layed down lengthways. That’s meant to be the width. Should be quite a ride!

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