Chapter 38: Metro Laos

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The 6 hour bus trip to Vang Vieng was surprisingly comfortable: our luggage was stored beneath the bus (instead of on top), we each had 2 seats to ourselves, and it wasn't too hot. The ride was beautiful, as promised, and we didn't encounter any gun-toting Hmong rebels, so Tuesday was a relaxed day of taking in the scenery. We arrived in Vang Vieng at 3:45pm, checked out a few guesthouses, and settled for a crappy room at Ngeunpanith right on the central tourist strip. "Friends" was being shown on the TV in the restaurant downstairs... for most of our stay. It was also playing (along with occasional movies) in many other identical places along the street that all featured decent audio/visual set-ups, comfy pillow seats, and menus stocked with western food, backpacker faves, and of course drinks. The feel of the place made me nostalgic for the similar (but mellower) Gili Trawangan.

Vang Vieng is an interesting town, as its reputation as a backpacker's haven has grown enormously in the last 5-10 years. There's a quaint little village near a river that winds along the base of some dramatic karst mountains, and then as you move inland one street the village morphs into a miniature Khao San Road. There are numerous new buildings housing restaurants, internet cafes, travel agencies, and of course many guesthouses. The town grew in popularity due to backpacker word-of-mouth (chiefly about the cheap drugs and the town's relaxed attitude towards them), but things seem to have cooled off a little lately. Maybe it's because of the season, but there weren't that many people around, and the drug scene seemed very muted (aside from the odd menu items that are listed as "happy and funny for you").

On Wednesday we moved across the street to a nicer, quieter, newer guesthouse, and then we enjoyed a lazy day of reading, playing the Gameboy, and wandering around town. Thursday morning it was raining a little, so we waited for the weather to clear in the early afternoon, and then went to rent bicycles. I got a decent 21-speed dirt bike, which was a good thing because the track we rode on was rocky and muddy. We biked for 45 minutes: across the river via a toll bridge (3,000k), through a few villages, and across another toll bridge before coming to the base of the karst mountains and a pleasant blue lagoon.

Our destination was Poukham Cave behind the swimming hole, and we had to scramble up a few hundred meters of steep rock/root/mud to get to the entrance. There were no lights in the cave, so we explored with our flashlights and made our way to the reclining Buddha statue in the main chamber. There were all kinds of intriguing passages leading off in different directions, but we didn't go very far.

That night we had dinner at Xayoh Cafe (I had a great spicy chicken pizza), and on the walk back to our guesthouse we ran into Lawrence and Glenl! They reported that their trek guide in Muang Sing had tried to screw them around and that the disastrous trip was basically cancelled, so I felt much better about sticking with the Luang Nam Tha trek.

I marked Friday as a "special" day, which meant for breakfast and lunch I had a couple of omelettes that were "happy and funny." I have no idea what was in them (cooked weed?), but I was contentedly buzzed most of the day. The sky was grey again, but the rain was holding off, so we decided to walk across the river to another cave (Tham Jang). The walk took about a half hour, and we reached the cave by a long, steep staircase after we crossed another idyllic swimming hole. This cave was much more touristed, and there were electric lights haphazardly set up inside. The view out of a balcony over Vang Vieng was particularly nice. After the walk back to town, we bought bus tickets to Vientiane for the next morning, and then Jonas and I settled in to one of the restaurants to watch "Reign of Fire," which I'd wanted to see for a while. It was OK.

Our "VIP Bus" to Vientiane turned out to be an over-crowded tourist mini-bus with no leg room and limited air... but the trip was only 3 hours so it was bearable. The bus dropped us off at the capital's waterfront, and we trudged around the city in the scorching sun for over an hour looking at guesthouses before deciding on Thawee. It's more expensive than we're used to, but with A/C & TV, I'm not complaining.

Vientiane is likable enough, if not particularly exciting. It's a tiny capital city of a few hundred thousand people. The French influence is obvious from the wide boulevards and the Parisian architecture, but there's something about the presentation that just seems... off. We went for some food at Khop Chai Deu Beer Garden on the main fountain plaza, and the look of the European restaurants ringing the plaza reminded me of "Busch Gardens: The Old Country." We spent the afternoon walking around and checking out some wats & monasteries, and then we returned to Opera, the Italian place on the fountain plaza, for dinner. The meal was excellent, despite the fact that it was expensive by local standards.

We slept late on Sunday, turned in all our clothes to the laundry, and then Jonas and I had a good breakfast at the Scandinavian Bakery (also on the fountain plaza). Well, it was good until I spilled coffee in my seat. After spending a few hours back in the guesthouse waiting for my pants to dry (and watching a bizarre Vietnamese version of "Wheel of Fortune"), we rented a couple of shabby bikes and rode out to the Pha That Luang - an important religious stupa covered in gold leaf. It reminded me of a smaller version of the Shwegadon Paya from Yangon. Next we stopped at Patuxai, which is a big concrete block with arches on all four sides, so it kind of looks like the Arc de Triomphe. Except that it's filled with junky souvenir shops and only offers a look out over the nonexistent Vientiane skyline.

Monday started similarly to Sunday, but instead of spilling coffee I dropped our toilet paper roll in the toilet. Jonas and I took care of some errands like changing money and buying products we might not find in southern Laos, and then we walked through the Talat Thong Khan Kham market, which is supposedly the largest in town. Jonas wanted some nice souvenirs but was disappointed.

For dinner we ate at a restaurant / food stall by the Mekong, and then we set out on a mission to find a place called the Chess Cafe. For some reason we thought it might be a cool coffee bar with games, but instead it was a cheesy club with an awful cover band and a worse DJ. Watching the people dancing in the club was amazingly fun, though, as it was a mix of balding ex-pats and Lao prostitutes.

Today we bought early morning bus tickets to Savannakhet (sp?) for tomorrow, and I have no idea what to expect from southern Laos. I'll be in touch soon...

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