I am not much of a history person, but just skimming through the history section of the guidebook tells me that Tai people, who became the majority of the population in modern Thailand, migrated from southern region of China and at one time started building settlement in this area. Now that’s an ancient history. During the times when the Burmese was strong, the Chinese had a city state here which was against the Burmese, and the city was destroyed by the ruling power, people removed and practically no building left behind except one temple. Later in the colonial era, the French set up a capital of their Indochine here. In Chinese the city is called Viang Chan (as you still see today on Google Map), in European text, it is spelled in French style as Vientiane.
Perhaps because of the destruction, but reading guidebook did not tempt me to really spend much time here. However, being the capital with the strong French influence, there could be some interesting fusion of cultures. Luckily the guidebook suggested a walk tour of the major sites, so I reduced it down to even shorter by removing some restaurants and food places. Can eat along the way if I get hungry, but the time is short.
My plan is to cover the ‘absolute must’ spots in a few hours, take a break over lunch, and walk to the bus station. There seem to be 3 services of long-distance bus to Luang Prabang departing Vientiane’s bus station. It is a long 10 to 11-hour trip. The bus station is outside edge of town, so I decided to make a short day and get there early enough to get a seat in one of those afternoon/evening services. With the Lao new year drawing near, I have no idea how crowded those buses could be.
Oh, talking of Lao… this is a country of Lao people. I guess that’s why in English it is Laos, nation of the Laos. But you talk to anyone in Thailand or Laos, they pronounce it as ‘Lao’ when they refer to the country.
Upon getting off the bus from the border, I found myself in a bus terminal. But I did not really know where I was. I ignored the taxi and tuk tuk drivers and stepped at the corner of what seem to be major streets. No street sign. Right… this was not a problem in Thailand where all streets were well signed in both Thai and English. But like the guidebook warned, there wasn’t much of street sign I could find. I looked to the left, and looked to the right. I had no sense of direction. Great… The tuk tuk driver resting in the shade stepped over to ask where I wanted to go. I thanked him with my palm together (well, not really a practice in Laos but they know I mean polite and that’s what counts) and said that I did not want a ride but just wanted to know the direction of what I was pointing at on the guidebook. I walked across the street and found that what seemed like a large construction site was in fact the major market under renovation. Now I understood the direction, seeing how the market and the bus station are positioned to each other on the map.
The sun was up high and it was getting hot. I thought about the rest of the day. I did not have a chance for shower until I checked in to the guesthouse the next day in Luang Prabang. I had no idea how comfortable (or not) the overnight bus would be in Laos. So it was not ideal to walk around under the sun, but I had little choice today. So I walked through the mildly air-conditioned market building, out on the street on the shady side, and got to Patuxai.
Patuxai is the Arc de Triomphe of Laos’s capital. With the main street in front trying hard to be the Champs-Elyeses. Not so posh, but wide street with cars and bikes coming down, with street lights of antique design, yes, they are working hard on making it look that way. Lonely Planet lists the admission fee in US dollars, as it seems to do everything for pricing in Laos guidebook, but I never saw a hint of US dollars anywhere, not on sign board, not in the hands of visitors paying. I have not had a chance to stop by currency exchange or ATM, so I asked how much it was for Thai bahts and paid the money to take the steps up.
I walked across the town back towards the Mekong to Wat Si Saket. A temple with a thousand buddha images. Unfortunately, when I arrived they had just closed for a one-hour lunch break, but no hurry… I sat down in the shade to relax. A smiling monk (or novice, I couldn’t tell – I don’t think he had a yellow on his robe) came over and asked me where I was from. We chatted a bit about places I’ve been, and he gave me a quick practice of basic expression in Lao language by pointing at phrase book section on the back of the guidebook. Now I can say ‘Sabai-dii’, which is very similar to ‘sa wat dii khrap’, hello in Thai. Thai people seem to be very chatty and fun-loving. They are always smiling and love to be cheaky… always joking around, poking around, talking to everybody. Those ladies on the train to Bangkok equipped me with hello and tasty and thank you, the three words you want to know in the local tongue. In Laos, I couldn’t yet tell, but the monk seems to be friendly enough.
He pointed a guy sitting across and told me he was studying Japanese. So this other guy now came and asked whether I could help him with his Japanese. I had half an hour to do nothing better, so I agreed to help him.
He was studying for a speech contest that evening at Japanese embassy whose winners will have a chance to join a 2-week study tour to Japan. His Japanese was not bad, grammar pretty accurate, but his speech was missing content, so I tried to help him express more ideas around why he should be chosen to go to Japan, a bit like how we put together a cover letter for a job application, and I left him with promise to hear about the outcome once he had the interview. No words from him yet, but hopefully… I don’t even remember his name.
Lunch time was over and the gate opened again. So a handful of visitors waiting outside slowly walked inside. I wished my student goodluck and stepped inside as well.
Walking across town and I stepped inside another temple. This one is a working temple with a large Buddha image inside. There are some museum-type temple which is not used by monks and worshippers, and there are working temples. Having looked at yet another large image, I was passing outside of the temple and came across this sign on the lawn.
There is a small tent set up just inside the gate and I see a monk sitting across the table from a western girl. An interesting site. If you want to become friends with a monk, check out Wat Ong Teu on the 1st Sunday. Oh by the way, monks in Laos are free to leave their monk life almost at their will, so you can consider lots of young boys with potential…
Lunch break. Yes, another bowel of beef noodle with mince balls. This is using organs, which are not my favourite, but on a hot day this should give you some energy huh? Besides, I’m too lazy to ask for anything more complex than a fried rice. It is easy to point at the noodle with a pile of meat in the shop front. I’m already walking towards the western edge of town where bus station is located somewhere beyond the edge of my city centre map. I’m right on schedule or a bit early, so I can relax a bit with cold drink. Let’s get a large 1.5 litre bottle of water. Nothing better than water… coke and fanta make you more thirsty and feels sticky because of all the sugar. Water is what you need. Tea would be nice too, but it accelerate the process and you will be looking for toilet quickly, so not a great idea unless you can easily find a free toilet.
After I recovered well enough from the heat, I walk on, with a chilled water wrapped in the towel on my back. Not easy to walk with a backpack on each shoulder. It may be easier to carry the backpack properly and put the day pack in front, but that would overheat my body. So there I go with 2 bags on shoulders. I turn left to walk along the highway. The traffic blows dust sometimes but it is not so bad. There is very little shade. Tuk tuk drivers pass by with curious stare. ‘Why is this guy walking? Nobody walks here’ I could read on his face. Sure, nobody walks here, that’s true. But I happened to be lazy about negotiating the fare, very green in mind to justify the use of single transport, and I just enjoy walking and seeing the view slowly at my own pace. Plus, I have plenty of time to make it to the bus, if there is a seat available.
I seem to be the only one arriving on foot. Everyone comes by tuk tuk, bus or private car. There is a porche parked in the car park. Unlikely place to find a premium car like that. In a bus station? The ticket office is well organised, well signed (in English, too) so it is easy. I buy a ticket to Luang Prabang for 6pm bus, so I got 2 hours to wait.
6pm finally came, and I got on with the gentleman I was speaking to at the waiting area. Oddly I find my seat already occupied. The bus was already full when the two of us got on board. But showing my ticket, whoever was sitting in my seat and the guy next to me had some words and I got into my seat. The aircon is working well and it is comfortable. The windows can be opened and some people are looking outside as the bus gets on its way. Only about 5 minutes after it departed the bus station it stopped to pick up some more people, with a couple of large object which could be rice, obviously looking for a space on the roof. This quick on-the-go pick up turned out to be a half-hour affair and everyone was looking outside to see what’s going on. The bus finally resumed its jouney and everyone was happy. Music from the stereo and I was looking outside of the window for a view before sunset. After travelling for an hour or so, the road turned into more hilly a bit winding at places. No street lamps at all. Shacks like the one I’ve seen at the museum of ehnology somewhere appeared outside the window in the dark, and quickly disappeared. It would have been such a beautiful journey had this been during the day. But then again, during the day there could be a lot of traffic hazards like cows and other slow-moving vehicles on the road. Now everyone’s already gone to bed and the bus was travelling fast.
I dozed off but quickly woke up with chilly wind on my neck. The window next to me was open. I look around the bus and nobody else had their window open. I closed it and tried to go to sleep. But then I got very cold again, in my polo shirt, and I had to close the window. Apparently, the girl behind me needed fresh air for whatever reason, which would have been fine by me had it not been the window narrowly opening next to my seat back blowing cold air right down my neck. It would have been much better if it was open wider because it would blow towards her, not me. I was freezing, it was cold up in the mountains, but there was nothing I could do. The guy next to me who could command limited English said something to her in Lao and then something was said, but he did not tell me what it was about, only I know he was trying to help me seeing I was obviously very cold sitting there. So there I was, hoping to catch some sleep before the exciting main destination of Luang Prabang in the moring, but instead freezing neck-down, doing everything I can with a backpack to block the wind from the window next to my head.
2 hours after we left the city, the bus came to a sudden stop in the dark hill turn. Everyone got off and scrambled to the bush by the road. Guys standing there, girls squatting there, everyone needed a relief. Followed by a 10-minute smoking time by a small group including the driver, and we were off again. Another stop like that happened, and then we stopped in front of a well-lit street-side food stands.
Driver had a quick bowel of hot noodle soup and we were on our way again. 2 hours later, in the middle of the night, we stopped for another break, this time in front of a modern building that looked like a restaurant. And it WAS indeed a restaurant. I was chilled to the bone and was so looking forward to the hot food, so without noticing rice and vegetables which came with a small bowel of soup, I got myself a beef noodle soup. After the meal, everyone used the toilet. Nice to have toilet, but this is one of those flush with your hand bucket thing, and the floor was totally wet, not dirty but wet. I just couldn’t imagine how I could put my pants down without getting any part of it soaked, plus I haven’t used a squat toilet since when I was kid, so I couldn’t say I was an expert in handling this situation.
I asked the driver to open the boot for me so I could get a wind breaker, and I got on board, wrapped in a sweat shirt and a wind breaker. The girl kept the window open to keep me permanently fresh. Morning came, with little sleep, and we arrived at a bus station in Luang Prabang in the early morning sun.
I couldn’t tell how far the town centre was, and asked the people around who suggested a tuk tuk. I got a seat in a shared ride, and I pointed at the main temple in the historical town centre which seem to be close to the guesthouses.
As the tuk tuk passed a very lively morning market, I recovered my excitement which was frozen cold from the chilled bus experience. The bus cut into a quiet residential street where girls and auntie got off at different houses, and I was alone on the back of bouncing tuk tuk as it came to a halt. I double checked with taxi driver by the name of temple, but I couldn’t see the temple and I was left alone without a sense of direction again.