Vientiane and the Long Ride

15 02 2009

Vientiane, Laos

The ride from Savannakhet to Vientiane took 11 hours of my life that I would really like to get back. It was one of those bus rides that Monika told me about, but that I never thought would be that bad. But wow, it was bad. Gage and I thought we were strong. We thought we were seasoned travelers after almost a year on the road; that nothing could shock us or slow us down. But all it took was one bus ride. One bus ride with seats so small that our knees touched the seat in front of us, with speakers above our heads blaring Thai and Lao pop music loud enough for a night club, and music videos with painfully bad actors who acted out heartbreak as though it were a confusing gas pain repeatedly played on the screen in front of us. For 11 hours. We had planned to spend one night in Vientiane and then head up to the smaller cities and towns in the mountains, each of which would have required a 10+ hour bus ride due to the poor roads. In the ninth hour of our misery I added it all up and realized that we faced at least 57 more hours of bus time over the next 24 days. So when we got to town we booked a hotel for two nights, pulled out our various maps and guides, and reworked our entire plan.

Not made for anyone above 5 feet.

Not made for anyone above 5 feet.

It was sad to leave our little city of Savannakhet where few tourists wandered around, only to arrive in Vientiane where there is more blond hair than black. Between the NGO’s, the foreign businesses and the tourists, the population of westerners in the capital city has steadily increased. It felt inauthentic in comparison to our last city, but nowhere near as fake as most of the areas we stayed in Vietnam. It’s sad to think about but I think after 30 days in Vietnam, we didn’t get to learn much about the country. For whatever reason, the tourist and backpacker cities of Vietnam have distinct areas for sights and hotels that are very removed from the homes and industries of the locals. Landing in Savannakhet and Vientiane where hotels border night markets and restaurants frequented by locals as much as tourists made this disparity in Vietnam much more obvious. Though the riverside of Vientiane is a tourist mecca (and a beautiful one at that), walking only a few blocks in the other direction delivered you into a Lao capital where the white people hadn’t completely taken over.

Pretty Vientiane

Pretty Vientiane

One of the first shockers of Vientiane came when we walked out to the riverside to take a picture of the mighty Mekong and saw no water. My immediate thoughts were that we were seeing the effects of Chinese damming up the river or at the very least, the repercussions of global warming. Well, there certainly is a bit of that in there, but it turns out that the dry season of Laos really does a number on the river and while the banks can be full to bursting during the wet season, a lump of land that usually becomes an island during the summer grows much bigger as the water recedes in the winter. If we had only walked a bit further during our first river visit, we would have seen the waters of the Mekong just down the steep hill.

Sure doesnt look like a river.

Sure doesn't look like a river.

A pretty decent river view was had on a couple of occasions when we stopped to eat or drink at one of the numerous riverside restaurant shanties setup along the banks. Though some have chairs and tables, most are of the recline on the floor variety as the waitress brings you fresh grilled fish and sticky rice. One thing experienced travel has taught us is that outdoor restaurants are mosquito factories. As much as it puts your antiperspirant to the test, dressing in longs sleeves, pants and socks in essential. That night proved us correct as people at other tables swatted the night away while we happily noshed on our food, fully covered in cold weather gear.

Eating by the riverside

Eating by the riverside

One wonderful thing that the expats have brought with them is a delicious variety of ethnic food. Gage and I had some of the best Indian food we had ever tasted at both Nazim and the Taj Mahal restaurants. We enjoyed French steaks and mashed potatoes and even some Vietnamese specialties. But of course, what Laos does best is Lao cuisine which, being in the center of southeast Asia, is an amalgam of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodian cuisine. We had some excellent examples of how wonderful this fusion can be at Makphet, an NGO restaurant run by Friends International where they train former street kids. There we had some of the creamiest, sweetest coconut fish curry I had ever tasted, as well as chunks of buffalo meat and potato balls swimming in a flavorful red sauce whose ingredients I still wonder about.

Dinner at Makphet

Dinner at Makphet

In an attempt to walk off all of this yummy stuff, we took a stroll down to Vientiane’s Arc de Triumph, Patuxai. Made with concrete donated by the United States for use in constructing an airport, this massive piece of art dominates the skyline. For about $0.35 each we could climb to the top and get some awesome skyline views of Vientiane. I suppose this is why they call it ‘the vertical runway’.

Posing in front of Patuxai

Posing in front of Patuxai

The crowning glory of our stay in Vientiane actually had very little to do with Laos. While sharing a table in the packed PVO Restaurant we ended up having a great conversation with a cool Canadian actor/writer named Drew. After he had got up to leave and we said our goodbyes, he secretly paid for our meals and then bid us a final farewell. His kindness was such a pleasant shock that we were in awe for the rest of the day. As we walk around Laos and engage these sweet local people, marveling at their kindness, it’s pretty cool to see that some of the people on the other side of this planet can be pretty spectacular as well. Thanks Drew. We’ll pay it forward.

For more pictures from Vientiane, click here.

Suggestions:

  • Making reservations in Laos is the hardest thing you will ever have to do. Not many hotel workers speak English and even those that do often tell you to call back the morning of your arrival to see if they have room for you. It’s probably the worst part of Laos, so don’t let it get you down. Just show up as early as possible and look for a new place the next morning if you don’t like where you end up bedding down.
  • Don’t miss the cheap and delicious fruit shakes on Samsenthai St. just north of the main fountain in town. For about 6000 Kip you can have just about any fruit you want whipped into a refreshing shake. Fantastic on those hot days.
  • Treat yourself to a nice meal at Makphet. It’s on the street just south of the Ong Teu and Mixay wats. The meals are large enough to split between two people and most menu items can be ordered as a half portion if you want multiple things but don’t have a huge appetite. Just be sure to leave room for dessert; it’s legendary.
  • We’ve found that the Lao people are very fair on pricing, even when it comes to tuk-tuks, so try to get a general understanding of what something costs before haggling. If you don’t know what something costs, just focus on what it’s worth to you rather than what you can get it for.
  • Laos doesn’t have a tipping culture, but if you get good service, leave something behind for your waiter or waitress. Their reaction is usually on par with winning the lottery.
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4 responses

16 02 2009
dad

My understanding is that while they did eliminate water-boarding from the latest edition of the Army Field Manual on approved interrogation practices, that bus ride between Savannakhet and Vientiane is still in the book.

On the other hand, the rest of the country sounds pretty nice.

17 02 2009
Kathy

I guess shouldn’t complain about airline seating anymore, huh? So Jen – your Facebook eluded to a return to the US in the near future. Of course, I am very happy to hear that! On the other hand, no more Living Spree. 😦

17 02 2009
Rondad

I’d change travel plans too after experience! As for the mystery ingredients, you both have more culinary courage than I’ve ever had to muster. I’m sure that has its rewards.

24 02 2009
erinatruba

Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Laos, and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
Thanks! 🙂

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