The land of a Million Elephants

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, November 28, 2011

An ancient nick-name for the Vientiane area in Laos was translated as the land of a million elephants so thought it was a good title for this last blog entry from Laos. Although sadly we didn't see a million elephants, unless you include all of the drawings and statues at Vientiane's unbelievable temples...

We caught a sleeper bus from Luang Prabang, which isn't the best name because neither of us got much sleep. It took about 13 hours, a couple of hours longer than was sold but to be fair it was the nicest sleeper bus we've been on. The blankets and pillows were clean, the bus was modern, they fed us and the beds were quite nice (if a little small). We even had entertainment on the TV at the front of the bus, for hours there were Laos Karaoke videos which were pretty entertaining for the dancing and videos that went along with the words. 

The roads in Laos are not exactly the best, you get a few hundred metres of good roads followed by a few hundred of terrible roads and for a few hours getting out of Luang Prabang province we were driving round very windy roads in the mountainous countryside so we couldn't go very fast. So, just as you fall asleep on a nice stretch of road you're woken up again as you're nearly bounced out of your sleeper bed. It's not hard to understand why it takes so long to get anywhere because we really couldn't go faster than 50km/h on any of the journey with the narrow windy roads. It was nice that the buses didn't have to beep at every other vehicle like in Vietnam, there are only 7 million people in Laos compared with 97 million in Vietnam so traffic is much better. 

Our first day in Vientiane wasn't the most inspiring ever, which was mostly my fault because I had been severely struck down with the worst possible illness... man flu! For about an hour I convinced myself I had malaria by Googling my symptoms, something you should never ever do! Neither of us had much sleep so were tired and wondered around the city looking at some of the sights (of which there aren't many in the centre where we were staying) in the blazing sun and were a bit disappointed. The city just doesn't live up to Luang Prabang which has the most amazing atmosphere and beautiful buildings all over the place. In Luang Prabang you find hidden gems around every corner and Vientiane just didn't have the same vibrant atmosphere. I think that's partly because it's a bit of a transit city, lots of people just go there to get their next transportation or to visit one of the embassy's to sort out visa's for Thailand, Myanmar etc. There are lots of nice places to eat and drink but as I was so severely set back by my disease I couldn't really enjoy it... gutted!

We visited the oldest temple in Vientiane, took in the sights by the Mekong river, saw the presidential palace and in the evening went to see the night market. The market was good but paled into insignificance compared with Luang Prabang. So far not sounding too good!

BUT, after a good nights sleep and a few paracetamol to keep the man flu at bay, the next day we had a brilliant day and completely turned around our opinion of Vientiane. We went to the Swedish bakery for breakfast which immediately got the day off to a good start and then decided we would try to get over to the national monument, the great sacred stupa aka Pha That Luang. We asked a few Tuk-Tuk drivers for prices but in Laos the Tuk-Tuks have all got together and agreed on minimum rates for all the main sights to drive up prices which actually makes them the most expensive Tuk-Tuks of anywhere we've been. To go 4 km's and back they wanted to charge more than double what it cost us to get a private car to the airport. So, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we decided to hire bicycles and make our own way there and we had such a good time.

The bikes were old-school city bikes, no gears, no brakes, basket on the front and $1 for the day. Because Laos is nowhere near as crazy or busy as Vietnam, cycling was brilliant and we could go on a full sight-seeing tour of the city. We cycled past all the temples, Laos' arc de triomphe replica and had lunch at one of the small street cafes sat on tiny stools on the side of the road. It was such a fun day and gave the city a completely different feel and we left with a vastly improved opinion of Vientiane. I would recommend to anyone who goes there to hire some bicycles because the sights are quite spread apart and it's much more fun to cycle around, plus the traffic isn't too bad so it's relatively safe.

Pha That Luang was in a complex of temples and buildings which easily rival Bangkok's Grand Palace for me. The architecture is amazing, there are statues dotted all around, incredible detail on every building and the red and gold buildings shine in the sun. They hardly look real, and most amazingly there was hardly anyone there. The equivalent sights in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are buzzing with tourists and yet we virtually had the place to ourselves... it was awesome! We bought a couple of beers from a street vendor and watched some of the monks and other locals buying birds in cages to take to the temples and set them free there. Vientiane still hasn't quite lived up to Luang Prabang but we leave with a really good impression of the city, so we're so happy we persevered and went to see some of the sights slightly out of the centre.

So this brought an end to our trip to Laos which we both agree was far too short. It was a case of go for 5/6 days or don't go at all, so I wouldn't change our decision, we just have to come back one day and do all the things we had to miss on this trip. In particular we'd love to get out into the countryside, whilst avoiding all the UXO's left from the secret war.

So, back to Hanoi for just one more night. :-( 
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