A City In Asia With No Car Horns

Trip Start Aug 06, 2011
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Where I stayed
Inter City Boutique Hotel

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, December 22, 2011

We've always relied on fellow travelers to give us some insight on some of our planned destinations but that didn't work for us as we tried to determine the value of visiting Vientiane- we got largely negative or lukewarm reviews which had us thinking about skipping the capital however I didn't think we were finished with Laos so when we found out that the VIP Bus from LP to Vientiane was 'only' 8 hours I was able to get DH on board. I don't know why I keep falling for Asian time estimates because I think Asian Time is second only to African Time in terms of being wildly optimistic and consistently wrong.

On this particular occasion our Laos bus travel time estimator was only out by 50%- I could have made a better guess using a ouija board and that severed chicken head from my drinking game in Pak Bang. Now 12 hours doesn't sound that much worse than 8 hours but given a seat design that uses the average leg length of a small Lao child, the added 4 hours of vice grip squeezing on our knees probably violated numerous Geneva conventions against torture. And just to add to our joy, our bus driver couldn't seem to get out of first gear, and after about an hour decided that the bus was in desperate need of repair- after pulling over, tools appeared magically from all directions and bystanders started offering up their diagnosis and an almost festive atmosphere broke out (except on the bus where the passengers were wedged in). One serious looking type actually seemed to be working at resolving the problem under the bus but as near as we could figure out, a defective axle was repaired with binder twine and duck tape- we had a number of hair-raising mountain roads ahead so we really didn't want to know! The ride itself was pretty spectacular- the Laos countryside is a beautiful mix of mountains and rolling hills with numerous limestone peaks jutting out and it was fascinating to watch day-to-day Lao life roll by from the 'comfort' of our somewhat underpowered sardine can. We even made a quick stop in Vang Vieng which has apparently become the poster child of how not to do tourism in Laos- young first-time-drunks offending all sorts of local sensibilities (note to Adam- if you do stop here, don't tell your dad).

Laos seems to decided that no bus stations should be located within city limits. I don't know if this is part of some unknown communist doctrine or simply a way of generating a little extra cash for the local taxi and tuk-tuk trade, but the extorsionists were out in full force when we pulled into Vientiane. Magically they all quoted the exact same price and it was per person (to stymie those clever types who wanted to share a vehicle), and none of them would budge. Just as I threw on my pack and made ready to walk, I caught the flamethrower glare from my very own buttercup, and memories of Luang Prabang came rushing back- needless to say, we climbed into the first taxi available and made our way to town (that's another 2 dollars out the window!).

Vientiane was a very pleasant surprise. It has to be one of the smaller Asian capitals, but nonetheless the French design of wide avenues and various buildings still left from that period, made for a great place to wander around aimlessly. The high points included Patuxai or Gate Of Triumph (although it was very unclear what triumph was being celebrated- perhaps the one over any tourists who think they can walk from the bus station?), and the Golden Stuppa (Pha That Luang Temple) complex which was a really nice surprise. We even bargained for a tuk-tuk ride out of town to visit the famed Budda Park- this place has a lot of mixed reviews and I don't know why because it was a lot of fun wandering around a maze of Buddas captured in stone poses (some of them very unusual and almost creepy).

The town itself had a nice vibe to it but if the people of Vientiane are not careful, they with find themselves ostrasized from the community of Asian cities. All other cities in Asia mandate the continued and pointless use of vehicle horns (I suspect that the first lesson in Bangkok driver education- if there is such a thing- is around annoying horn usage) but in Vientiane ...nothing ...silence ...and just as unconventional, the drivers will stop for you if you want to cross the street. Perhaps the advantage of a one party communist state is that the government can surgically remove all horn mechanisms without any resistance? The people of Vientiane, as elsewhere in Laos, were really warm and hospitable- the restaurant scene was varied and of good quality- the temples continued to amaze. All-in-all, I was glad we made the effort to include Vientiane in our world tour.
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