In and around Vientiane

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Where I stayed
Mixay Paradise Guesthouse

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Viangchan,
Thursday, March 8, 2012

We get onto our 'VIP' bus relieved to see no plastic chairs or livestock. The journey still isn’t quick, there are quite a few water buffalo on the road to dodge.  But we arrive into Vientiane about the time expected.  We stay at Mixay Paradise Guesthouse which surpassed all expectations as we had only heard negative things on accommodation in Vientiane but the staff were friendly and the manager definitely kept a watchful eye over everything.  As it’s getting late in the day, we head out for a walk along the waterfront which has recently been landscaped and so makes a pleasant walk – lots of families are out walking along the waterfront, people are even out exercising (something we haven’t seen here yet – they even do an aerobics class on the waterfront and the markets are setting up for the evening.  The town has a nice buzz to it which is good compared to all the quiet places we’ve been recently.  We bump into an American who is living in Thailand but over on a visit and seems to be looking for someone to talk to this evening.  However once he starts going into details of his love life in Thailand we look for a sharp exit.  It’s been a while since we’ve met any crazy ex-pats. 

We head for dinner at a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet as best Laos food, however it would seem that since starring in the guide they have increased the prices and so the food wouldn’t be the best value.  Still very local if you want to eat cows tongue, intestines and all other miscellaneous parts of animals – we went for grilled fish!  Despite finally being in a city, we fail to find any bars with any sort of life and it’s an early night for us.

We spoil ourselves to breakfast at a nice French place the next morning of croissants and a good coffee for Jonny to start our tour of the city.  The centre isn’t particularly pleasant, it has a few nice buildings – the palace for example – but most the buildings take on a 70s quality of just being practical.  I’m sure the city has seen it’s share of war though so not many old buildings remain.  We walk around the local markets and up to the Laos version of Arc de Triomphe which is impressive.  We stop off for lunch at a little hole in the wall place – what attracted us in was the bbq out front and the menu clearly written by American - ‘Ray’s Grill’.  Jonny got a great Philly Cheese sandwich, I went for quesadillas and we got to chat to Ray the owner who seemed to have just set up for his friends.  We also walk out to the COPE centre which is a charity that supports the Laos government in supporting people that need replacement limbs.  The centre is mainly for bomb victims but also helps people hurt in motor vehicle accidents and work accidents – both types of injury are increasing quickly as technology advances without the legislation in place to protect people.  The visitor centre is mainly to raise awareness of the issue of unexploded bombs left by the US (Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world).  Any rural areas we have visited, we have been told that the area has been cleared of bombs but there is still a large percentage of the land which hasn’t and a lot of this is in the remote rural areas where the villagers rely on the land for a source of income.  And so a lot of them are hurt while farming.  More worrying is the 24% of injuries inflicted on people who are searching out the bombs.  The aluminium casings are very valuable to the people and so people search for them in order to sell the metal.  We have seen the metal for sale in machetes and in jewellery and the people are proud that they are using the metal as something useful.  We had thought it was quite a good idea until we read at COPE that they are asking people to stop buying these items to stop people trying to deal with the bombs and instead leave it to the professionals.  COPE also works to making sure the injured can get access to a replacement limb and receive the necessary rehabilitation support no matter the cost.  The centre was definitely an eye-opener and very interesting to see. 

We ended our day in Vientiane with some very good bbq food and wine (it’s been a while since we’ve seen wine!).

Overnight it rains and rains and thunders, and there is lightning and then it rains some more.  In the morning it is still raining and keeps raining.  We eventually get bored enough to wade through the streets and find breakfast.  And so it was back to yesterday’s place for more croissants and to wait until the rains stops.  Finally mid-morning it does and we make our way out to Riverside Eco Lodge by shared tuk tuk.  It’s 30km from Vientiane, it stops and drops people off at their houses so at least we get a tour of the local villages.  We get to Riverside around lunch time and are greeted by the owner Barnaby, a friendly English guy who shows us around.  We have a bungalow overlooking the river and the restaurant is a floating restaurant and actually sits on the river. 

For the next couple days we are very lazy, mostly spending time reading by the river.  But we managed to fit a few activities in – tried some kayaking but quickly realised I don’t have the arm strength to paddle up stream so left the hard work to Jonny.  We also had a chat with a monk that comes to the lodge to practice his English with whoever is around.  Conversation was a bit of a struggle as we weren’t sure the structure of his practice normally but we did manage to learn that he gets up at 4am to pray,  then after the collecting of alms he teaches English to school children for the rest of the day

We took a trip across the river to see the local village and let some of the staff practice their English as the owner is quite keen to help them practice English.  It’s a small village but good to see authentic Laos, the local temple and the Japanese funded school.  Laos village life seems stuck between traditional and modern.  They still live in very basic wooden houses on stilts with little modern furnishings apart from their big tv and sound system to blare music through the village.  We had been hearing music blaring across the river for the past 24 hours and presumed a wedding was going on.  When we saw four guys sitting around their massive speakers, we realised that there were no celebrations, this was the daily activity for these guys.  The women are mostly in traditional dress but then the teenagers ride about on their own mopeds and dress smartly in jeans and shirts.  On Sunday quite a few local families spend time around the restaurant and pool area, they come in for dinner well dressed but then have no problem jumping into the river fully clothed as they would do as children. It’s very interesting to see how the modern and traditional lifestyles seem to work together – makes for a very relaxing lifestyle.  When we were walking back to the boat after our 20 minutes walk around town, our guide asks us ‘Are you tired?’ We looked a bit confused and said no.  He replies ‘because we did a big walk’.  Another little glimpse into the Laos lifestyle.    

For our last night we were planning on going to the floating restaurant for fresh fish as we had watched the staff catch the fish during the day.  They hold the fish in nets in the river until they need to use the fish.  But that plan was scuppered when Barnaby announces that they are going to close the restaurant tonight to take the staff to a gig.  A well known Thai band was playing in a stadium just outside Vientiane and given that events like this don’t happen every day in Laos, he wanted to take the staff out.  We declined the offer to join them and went to the Thai restaurant next door. 

We’re glad we went to the lodge despite it being a bit quiet as Barnaby seems to have worked hard planning the bungalows so they’re not too visible from the river and don’t disrupt the trees and plants.  Plus he offers his staff a well paid job and perks like concerts, something they would never afford to do themselves.  
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