Capital punishment

Trip Start Jan 16, 2012
Trip End Jan 01, 2014

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What I did
Buddha Park (Xiang Khouan) Vientiane
Read my review - 4/5 stars

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, May 6, 2012

We left the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, bound for the capital of Laos, Vientiane, full of optimism that we were taking the long, long (20 hour) bus journey to a place where the people are far friendlier...

Our sleeper coach initially built on this sense of hope as, for once, it had been designed for adult human beings to lie full length and I did not have to adopt any form of variation to the fetal position to be comfortable.  There are always drawbacks however and the staff were as rude as ever, barking instructions about seating arrangements, and there was also a small family of cockroaches parading around the aisles - not pleasant.  I put this out of mind and sought to sleep as much as possible during the journey, without the aid of valium on this occasion.  My efforts were remarkably successful - remarkable for the fact that every time I did wake up (which was quite often but never for long) the experience was akin to being in a large bobsleigh or maybe a barrel going over the Niagara Falls as we were hurled around horizontally into the sides of the flat beds, and sometimes vertically, quite an odd thing to awake to unless you happen to be filming The Matrix...

Having departed Hanoi at 7pm we eventually reached the Vietnam/Laos border just before it opened at 7am.  We had a nervous wait after handing over our passports and the obligatory one dollar "tip" (for the privilege of having someone do their job by putting on the exit stamp) as our Vietnam visas had actually expired the previous day and we assumed that some made up fine would be levied.  Happily, and surprisingly, it was not to be so we marched the one kilometre or so of no man's land between tree covered mountains to complete the formalities of entering Laos.  There was again a one dollar tip to pay for the privilege of the stamp (plus two dollars if one was unlucky enough to arrive "outside business hours", meaning on either Saturday or Sunday) and also a price list of the visa fee for the various nations.  For some inexplicable reason, Canadians are obliged to pay the most - 42 dollars - despite being a fairly harmless nation, whilst the US (who dropped more bombs here than have ever been dropped anywhere else in the world) citizens paid 35 dollars, the same as we were required to pay.  The Chinese fared best - just 20 dollars, probably because they have invested a vast amount of money into Laos, including buying a lot of its trees, and rely on it as a key trading route...

I did not manage to stay awake long after we had resumed our journey on the Laos side of the border, but whenever I did wake up, all I could see was countryside, and nearly no civilization whatsoever for miles and miles.  The few villages we did pass through looked incredibly poor, with collapsing wooden shacks fronting onto the dusty "road".  Our two drivers pressed on manfully until noon when we stopped in a small village for lunch.  Sadly our first experience of Laos was distinctly Vietnamese as, despite being at the front of the "queue" (a concept which has not reached South East Asia, nor its former master, France) we waited for 15 minutes as all of the South East Asian passengers to be served before finally being served two platefuls of pretty disgusting and unidentifiable meat/cabbage.  When the old witch behind the counter tried to charge us eight dollars for this slop (the locals were paying about two, maximum) I informed her as politely as I could that she should "f**k off" before slamming the plates back into her crony little hands.  Vietnam appears to have given this boy a pair of nuts.  OK, so we were absolutely starving by the time we reached Vientiane bus terminal at around 3:30pm (ahead of schedule) but we had no compromised our principles...

The bus terminal turned out to be a good seven kilometres from the centre of the city so we jumped onto a tuk-tuk together with a seemingly autistic guy from Hong Kong who was determined to try and make friends with everyone.  It was a smart move on our behalf as he remembered the exact street we should be dropped off at for the guesthouses and also some of the Laos language enabling him to barter down the price with the driver, all of which he had picked up on a previous visit two years ago.  I also won 1.2 million when I took him to the casino later and got him to count cards (this latter statement may be a joke)...   

As soon as we jumped off the tuk tuk it became very clear that, in terms of pace of life, we were far further away from Hanoi than the few hundred kilometres we had traveled between these two capital cities.  One could walk down streets here without constant fear of being mowed down by a motorbike, and the street vendors and tuk tuk drivers were much less determined in seeking business.  Vientiane promised to be the perfect antidote to Hanoi.  The only downside was that a lack of supply meant that guesthouses were more expensive, unless one was prepared to share a bathroom with other guests - Shelley was not.  It was also murderously hot and so trudging round the streets with all of our luggage (stupidly including a distinctly unhelpful wheelie case) did not make this young man a very happy boy.  The net result was that we settled for a fairly grubby room (crucially with private bathroom) for the relatively scandalous price of 12 dollars per night (where we had been paying 10 per night for much better in Nam).  After showering in installments (there were three power cuts during this period) we headed out into the sleepy town which is scarcely plausible as a capital city.  At least this revealed that, outside the numerous swanky French eateries, good food was available at cheap prices and also Beer Laos is delicious, especially at a dollar for 660 milliliters (albeit one could have four bia hois for this price).  However, the most important difference was that the people were not Vietnamese.  The forbidden music of laughter was everywhere here (we had only heard it in Vietnam when people had been injured or some other disaster had befallen some poor soul, especially a tourist) and all service was with a smile - to the extent, amazingly, that in the last bar we were at the owner said he had to go home at midnight but instead of kicking us out gave us the keys and just asked that we switch the lights off and lock the door.  All was good with the world again... 

On Saturday we hired an automatic scooter (suitably camp pink) and headed out exploring.  First up with the main sights of the city centre - the palace (very communist looking in its dull grey but still attractive); the Laos take on L'Arc de Triomphe and Lao's most religious site - basically a huge gold spike.  From there we headed outside the city for the 25 kilometre or so ride to Buddha Park - an impressive area of various Buddhist, and seemingly completely non-Buddhist, sculptures.  The road out to this was so unbelievably bumpy that we nearly abandoned this adventure but it was ultimately well worth the bruised spine and shaken bones...

Once back into the city, Shelley insisted that we move rooms and found us what was a lovely room, with the only drawback being that it was very clearly in a brothel.  However, everybody managed to keep themselves to themselves and it was a much better room than that we had endured the previous evening, especially room service (joking).  The evening had given us our first taste of "Laos time", essentially meaning that everything happens in its own sweet time over here, as we waited an hour and a half for what turned out to be a very good dinner.  After this we tackled a massage to seek to squeeze out the knots and damage of the bike ride - both of us were oddly assigned young men and I'm not entirely sure how comfortable I was the whole thing (on reflection).  I also think this man-on-man rubbing angered the Gods, as the heavens opened towards the end of the hour long Laos massage (very similar to Thai/Vietnamese massage)...

Yesterday we settled for a lazy day in this lazy city and enjoyed what we were told was a fairly poor take on Israeli food as we were reunited with one of our friends from the boat trip from hell, Amit.  Later we had a larger reunion as Eli also arrived and it was a nice end to a couple of days which had helped sooth some of the pain of the Vietnam experience...            
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