Celebrating Buddhist style...

Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
Trip End Dec 24, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Waiting outside the guesthouse in the morning for the minibus to Vientiane, we spot a Swiss girl who we have met briefly before. She is also going to Vientiane, but she booked with the guesthouse, whereas we booked around the corner where it was cheaper. Her bus comes to pick her up and we say goodbye. A while later a large Tuk Tuk picks us up. We squash into the open back along with a few stern looking french tourists and after 20 minutes of driving around town and cramming on more people than the Tuk Tuk is made to hold, we think this doesn't look good for a four hour journey and that maybe we should have payed a bit more for a proper bus. However we soon turn a corner to find two waiting mini buses, which we are ushered onto. We find ourselves sitting next to the very same Swiss girl and feel very clever for paying less than her for the same journey. England 2 Switzerland 0.

After reading in the guide book, we learn that Vientiane is probably the most laid back sleepy capital city in the world. When we arrive we are shocked. Obviously, the festival is a very big deal, and the main strip along the river is crammed with stools, people and a colossal noise of around 10 different stools shouting into microphones and playing music. Most of the stools have big 'sponsored by beer Lao' posters outside them and they mostly sell mobile phones, expensive perfume or are simply a stage for magicians and clowns. Thailand (which you can see on the other side of the river) looks quiet in comparison. As well as this we see huge music stages in the near distance, and we can hear the sound checking coming from there. All of this added with the stifling heat makes us jump into the nearest guesthouse (even though a finish girl told us that she was mugged outside the front of it at gun point a few days ago.) We then walk away from the main drag for some lunch.

Afterwards, we decide to brave the crowds on the river side to reach a bar we had heard about called "Boh Pen Yang" (which means, 'no problem' in English.) The bar is on the 4th floor of a building and overlooks all the madness below and even from up there the noise is deafening. The bar is empty apart from some Local boys playing pool at the back and we are the only Falang there. After a little while, Jo points out a huge dark cloud in the distance but with the sun setting in the opposite direction we don't think it will come to much. We are made to eat our words when, seconds later, a tropical storm erupts. We look down to see hundreds of people fleeing the scene, while the wind brings several stools rolling down the road after them. We have never seen rain like it; not only does it come on so suddenly, but the fog it brings with it makes Thailand in the horizon disappear completely from sight. We have to move to the back of the bar away from the windows as the wind is pulling the rain in. When we hear glass shattering as the roof next door begins to fall off in bits, we start to get a little worried. The only thing that makes us feel better, is that the expressions on the locals faces have not changed and they continue to calmly chat and eat. After about an hour two drenched Aussie guys run into the bar and come and join us. We ask them how long they have been outside in the rain because they are soaking and they say they literally ran in from their hotel next door. As the storm dies down, we chat with the brothers, Tim and Sven, who are the perfect company as the skies clear and make way for a stunning sun set as the crowds instantly re-gather outside and people hurriedly pick up their fallen stalls. Back to business.

As we sit and chat over our Beer Lao tower, the bar gets busy around us. The atmosphere is buzzing as it gets dark and fireworks are let off on the river on the Laos side as well as from Thailand. Thai lanterns float up into the air and candles in decorated polystyrene bases float down the river. It is beautiful. And so we decide that we need to get down there.

After a brief stop by Tim and Sven's (swanky!) hotel next door we start to wade through the crowds. After about 3 minutes, Tim shouts out, "Oi!" and we all turn around. His wallet has been snatched from his pocket. Tim gets the attention of a nearby police man who looks him up and down and walks away. "It was a small Asian man!" Tim says to us, "Let me know if you see him!"
This minor set back doesn't kill our spirits, and after returning to the boys' hotel briefly, we make our way to the river front. We get a closer view of the candles on the river and then walk to a nearby music stage. 
Once there we sludge through the mud to get near the stage. What looks like Thai dancers do a routine to hundreds of people watching at tables and chairs. There are not many tourists around and so we stick out like sore thumbs, but we have a brilliant time drinking beer and cheering along with the locals. After a while it starts to rain again, although lightly this time so we walk back getting happily soaked in the rain. We say our goodbyes to Tim and Sven (thoroughly lovely blokes!) who head back to Thailand over the friendship bridge the following day. 

Back at the guesthouse we have a beer outside with a group of travelers and then head to bed a bit drunk and still buzzing from the amazing atmosphere. We like Vientiane.


Today the festival continues, however our banging heads don't feel up to getting quite as involved as yesterday, so a very quiet day ensues. Claire stays in bed while Jo goes for a walk, getting a glimpse of the boat race on tv as the river edge is too crowded to see anything. 

Dinner and a game of cards until the people from last night join us outside the guesthouse. One American guy and three English people, good company and some banter before bed.


Today the festival is well and truly over. We decide to rent bicycles to explore the city, first heading to the river side to have a look at the after math. Carnage. The smell is intense and the rubbish is piled up so we cycle in the opposite direction.

We come across an indoor market and buy a few gifts. So far we have been trying to learn bits of Lao and can ask how much something is, (Taw Dae?) but having asked this in Lao, obviously we get an answer in Lao that we do not understand, so the whole process is pretty pointless. So we decide our task for the next couple of days is to learn numbers in Lao.

Later on we make our way to 'COPE' which is a governmental organization of Laos that provides prosthetics and support aids for amputees. The visitors centre is really well put together and seems really community orientated. The exhibition has lots of UXO on display as well as a replica of a Laotians home who moved her fire in her kitchen over a bomb that was underground, causing it to explode. Another part of the exhibition was video footage of a family who had recently lost their son to UXO explosions. The boy and his friends went to look for scrap metal to sell and set off a bomb. The boy was still alive when they found him, and after driving him to two hospitals both without blood or oxygen, they were forced to return home where the boy died.
    Another film also showed an amputee who, with the help of COPE, managed to design and build a mirrored box to aid 'phantom pain.' He had lost one of his forearms, and as amputee's sometimes do, felt itching or pain from where his arm should be but no longer is. The box is in two halves, one half is open and the other side is closed so that he can place his amputated arm up to the elbow inside. On the side of this box there is a mirror, so when looking down at his arms the reflection of his full arm tricks his brain into thinking he still has two. Therefore, his arm can be itched or massaged while he looks at the reflection of this image, relieving the phantom pain. (That probably made no sense but its difficult to explain.)

That evening we find ourselves at a bar on the river front called 'Tex-Mex'. There are many Lao women outside the front. They are very beautiful. Wait a minute... a bit too beautiful. Lady-boys! We are fascinated by them and watch as they sweet talk western men walking by. We sit on the balcony above and smile down at them and copy their dance moves.
A while later a young Lao guy gets on the small stage with his guitar and sings the Beatles, Oasis and other such western songs, as well as some popular Lao songs. We have a good night, the bar is full of some fascinating characters and we decide to come back the following night, while playing cards and learning numbers in Lao. (1-7, 10 and above. It takes another week for us to get around to 8 and 9.)


We have a nice lunch at one of Vientiane's famous French patisseries before booking our bus tickets to Thakkek for the following day. Afterwards we head back to 'Boh Pen Yang' and look at the street below. The difference is huge, we can now see the pavement! And the clear up job is happening slowly (oh so slowly) but surely. 
We do dinner Lao style at a family run restaurant around the corner. We eat more morning glory (basically Asian spinach) and fish soup with sticky rice, the food is great. Our waiter, the son of the family, is so very gay and funny to watch in his bright pink top, mincing around and taking the piss out of westerners when they come in and bow with their hands in prayer. 
Then back to Tex-Mex for more lady boys and music. We take our usual place at the balcony upstairs over looking the action out the front. A heavily tattooed westerner (french maybe?) rolls up with his Lao girlfriend. He speaks fluent Lao and looks like he has been there fore many years. Cheeky kids begging for money are shouted at by the lady-boys and a disabled man pulls himself out of his wooden chair that is powered by a wooden handle, to crawl around on the floor as more and more ladies turn up on motorbikes, scope out the talent and then move on only to return shortly. We love the atmosphere and would love to know more about what goes on. We drink some whiskey and spend most of the evening excitedly discussing shooting a documentary on this Vientiane 'underworld' - supposedly the sleepiest capital city in the world - but we feel there is a lot more to see. 




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