Laid back in Laos
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
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Where I stayed
After a mad rush of form-filling we jump back in the tuk-tuk and unexpectedly head in complelely the opposite direction to the Laos border. One of the smiley Thai girls accompanies us clutching the wad of forms and our passports, and duly does the queueing for us amongst the other westerners entering Laos. On close reflection, I realise that USD 30 is about GBP 3 or 4 cheaper than 1500 B, but its too late to do anything about it, and Rachel and I sit back and enjoy the VIP visa service. An English girl, Caroline, and a young Scot called Richard Wilson from Gatehouse-upon-Fleet have been similarly scammed so I don't feel too bad about it.
Duly armed with our 15-day Lao Peoples Democratic Republic visa, we bid farewell to our grinning personal visa assistant, and step through security into the poorest country in South East Asia.
Ignoring the exorbitantly priced tourist taxis beside security, we walk into the car park and find a tuk-tuk that will take us the short ride into Vientiane for 30B (about GBP 0.40) each. We drive along a dusty dirt road passing little wooden houses on stilts, fruit vendors, and swathes of lush green vegetation. Soon this diminishes and we see French colonial architecture of tiled roofs, large balconies, and shuttered windows. Many of the houses look large and rambling with crumbling paintwork and weeds growing wildly in the gardens.
We arrive at Santisouk guesthouse (40,000 Kip = approx GBP2.00) which has a large balcony and a nice view over the Lao National Cultural Hall, an elegant building with steep multi tiered gables and gilded woodwork
In the afternoon we walk round the city. I am amazed that I can buy a warm French baguette with butter and jam and it tastes absolutely authentic. We buy a couple of airplane tickets with the infamous Lao Airlines to take us to the remote north of the country next day. These cost us USD 80 each (about GBP50). Although the Kip is the local currency, Thai Bart and USD are often quoted and always accepted as they are much more stable than the Kip (apparently Laos enjoys greater than 100% inflation every year). Although some other travellers have advised us not to bother with Kip, we soon find that its better to have them, as the exchange rate with Bart and Dollars doesn't always work out in ones favour when buying small items like drinks, snacks, and tuk-tuk rides.
From the banks of the Mekong, we look out across the slowly moving brown expanse and see Thailand on the other side. A few longtail boats noisily ply its turbid waters, but the riverbanks are completely undeveloped apart from a few vegetable gardens
Walking further along we come to the former presidential palace and find a single guard slumped over asleep at his position on the main front gate. We slip in and take a couple of snaps of the palace before he can wake up. Outside the palace the road is potholed and weeds sprout up from the pavement.
We walk round the corner to Haw Pha Kaew and find a beautiful Buddhist temple. A steep staircase with dragons on the bannisters leads up to the massive front doors, where there are a large number of Buddha statues inside. From the garden outside I can see a beatifully proportioned, but crumbling, villa in the presidential palace compound that looks like the best property development opportunity in the world.
We walk across the road to Wat Sisaket, a Buddhist monastery, and in the evening light the temple glows a fiery yellow. The temple is surrounded by a tile-roofed cloister in which are thousands of niches each containing a Buddha. The ageing carved woodwork construction of the cloister in the evening glow gives the place an other-worldly feel. Near the cloister saffron-robed monks bustle about their business, and one is kneeled meditating near a ramshackle building that used to be a library of buddhist scripture
We step out of Wat Sisaket into a Xang Avenue which looks like an Asian version of the Champs Elysee complete with it own Arc de Triomph in the distance. However, the coconut palms, 3-wheeled tuk-tuks, and brightly clad people distinguish it as uniquely Indo-chinese.
That evening we meet up with the aforementioned Caroline, who happens to be staying at our guesthouse too. We eat dinner for about 20,000 Kip (GBP 1.00) each which includes a dish called beef laab; a mixture of ground beef and salad leaves with aromatic spices. We also enjoy sticky rice which contains black grains, and it can be rolled into a gelatinous ball in the hand. Conversation ranges broadly and Caroline describes a meditation course that she has been on in Thailand. For 10 days she could not converse with anyone (except for essentials like: 'pass the salt'), ate a strict vegetarian diet, got up at 4am every day, received only 6 hours sleep per night, and spent many hours meditating. She said that towards the end of her time there she felt an amazing outflow of inner peace. It is interesting that the Christian west has not really tapped into this aspect of brain function and physiology, largely adopting a stance of suspicion.
We head back to our Guesthouse and set the alarm to 6.30am, plenty of time to get up, take a tuk tuk to the airport, and check in for our flight to Luang Namtha. Outside, Vientiane is eerily quiet for a capital city; we hear nothing but the odd dog barking and the occasional sound of a motorbike.