The unseen side of Asia...

Trip Start Mar 03, 2010
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Trip End May 02, 2010


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The train was ace.  For 12 we got a bed each.  I had the bottom bunk, and had the window open all night, which was brilliant to fall asleep / wake up to (though I woke up covered in dust!).  As the sun was rising, we pulled into Nong Khai, and after a brief tuk tuk ride, we found ourselves with no more Thailand left....because we were at the border with Laos.

After getting stamped out of Thailand, we got on a little bus across the "friendship bridge" over the mighty Mekong River to the Laos border office, where after paying $30 for a visa, we found ourselves in the forgotten part of South East Asia:  The Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR).

One of the poorest countries in Asia (indeed, the world) Laos seems to be shrouded in some mystery to most Western people.  They've no idea where it is, let alone what it is like.

So what is it like then? Well a few bits of information for you.  It's neighbours are China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.  It's been a Communist country since the 1970's.  During the Vietnam War, the US dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped during WWII.  As a result, the place is littered with unexploded bombs and has the unwanted title of being the most bombed country in history.  So yeah, bit of a tough upbringing eh?

Anyway, onto Vientiane.  It was only about 30 minutes bus trip from the border, and we managed to get a room early doors so we had the rest of the day to go explore.  First impressions where that it was a pretty (old French colonial buildings on the bank of the Mekong River...) but quiet.  I mean, this is a city in Asia.  It can't be quiet can it? Where are the traffic jams, the non-stop horn blowing, the millions of people?  Nope, Vientiane isn't like that.  It's a
fairly small city.  Traffic, whilst more dangerous and busy by British standards, is quiet and smooth running.  The hustle and bustle of Thailand feels a million miles away (rather than 2 miles across the Mekong).

As normal we had a mooch around by foot.  It's a nice place, if not exactly full of things to see and do. There are a few short streets full of guesthouses, bars, restaurants and stores; the occasional monument or garden; and seemingly a lot of heavily guarded Embassies. 

We stopped by, That Dam, known as The Black Stupa, which is apparently the mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane.

From there we walked along a huge multi laned road (empty by the way) towards the Patuxai, or to us Westerners, the Victory Gate.  It's basically a copy of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. The concrete was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead, so it has another nickname -  the Vertical Runway.  Up close it's pretty grim looking, so much so that even the information board notes it's pretty ugly!  For a small fee you can climb the 7  stories to the roof for some decent views, which on this pleasant day we did indeed do.

We also checked out the river front, home to a host of street food vendors and mini bars.  We found out two things: Food is cheap and yummy; Beerlao is cheap and yummy.  Not that the view was great, as there are huge construction works all the way along the Mekong.  I believe they are building some sort of huge park.

So a enjoyable, if not exactly frantic, day in Laos capital.  Tomorrow would bring a bit more excitement though...

11/03/2010

Spent the morning in the Lao National Museum.  It documents the country from pre-historic times, which is pretty cool.  Everything is dodgily translated into English and French, since this was a former French colony.  As you get to the modern era you can see the propaganda machine kicking in, as it describes the communists victory against western imperialists and whatnot.  It was quite interesting to see different Newspapers from the West next to those from Laos describing the same incidents.  Which one you believe is down to your nationality, but both were as bad as each other!

We then decided to go a little further afield.  To do that, we spent $3 on a little 100cc Scooter, with no mirrors, no speedo or fuel gauge, but it did move. After adjusting to the Asian way of driving (bigger vehicles have right of way, you have responsibility for vehicles in front of you etc) we found ourselves cruising up to Pha That Luang, the national symbol and most important religious monument of the country.  It's a large golden stupa, surrounded by some extremely good looking temples and gardens.  I don't know much about the place, so just look at the pretty photos.  Thanks.

After some lunch we decided to simply cruise around and see the place.  We ended up 8km out of town at a large monument dedicated to the former President Kaysone Phomvihane.  It's quite mad being in a rural setting in Asia then seeing huge communist style buildings and statues.  Apparently the old name for the place was "6 Clicks City", an old CIA base from the 1970's

I can't really describe too much more, as we literally just took random roads to see where they led.  We saw Army camps and mini-farms, UN buildings and roadside shacks.  We had fun overtaking using pavements (following all the other Scooters!) and running out of fuel in the middle of a village, where luckily enough the roadside store had plenty of Petrol in old Whiskey bottles. 

We spent the evening pigging out on cheap local food and beer, and decided that tomorrow we would mooch a bit further north, to a place that people have a love/hate relationship with...
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