We chose to come down from Luang Prabang by a day bus so we could enjoy the spectacular scenery on the route. We could have secured lower berths on the night bus since our communication problems vanished on entering Laos. It is not that we are fluent in Lao, we hardly could say anything other than Sabai Dee. But the Lao economy is so dependent on tourism that any language based hurdle is swiftly swept aside by those in the Lao service industry. In the end, the scenery option won and we hoped that the travel day would also be a sightseeing day.
As the massive VIP bus (reclining seating on the upper deck over a lower deck reserved for baggage) slowly makes its way past the sharp mountain curves, the lush green foliage leaps out wildly at you. Spectacular though the scenery is, it is unvarying and after a while loses the interest of the viewer who starts looking in front to see why we are not moving any faster. The highway itself is barely that, well maintained single lane in parts and rumbling state of disrepair for the most. The VIP bus is supposed to shave off 2 hours off the regular 11 hour trip, but this is a promise that no one expects to be delivered.
So, we arrived in the Laotian capital city after a whole day of sitting in a bus with the enchantment of the morning scenery having long worn off. We had 2 days in Vientiane to recover, but had independently ruminated on our onward plans to visit Phonsavan (Plain of Jars), Xam Neua and the remote Nam Xoi border with VIetnam. This route no longer seemed as exotic and adventurous as it did when we first planned it on paper, as it involved 3 more such bus trips and an overnight train ride into Hanoi. The two votes required to alter the plan dramatically were cast quickly even before we pulled into the Vientiane bus station. The ayes had it down with the nays not showing up at all. We would investigate the Vientiane-Hanoi flight option.
Vientiane is a capital city but its traffic hardly warrants the location of the bus station (for those buses coming in from the north) that is 11km outside of the city, even beyond the airport. The giant tuk-tuk operator made a killing with several foreigners getting off and into their exploitative arms agreeing to various sums ranging from 15000 to 30000 kip each. The driver seemed to remember the deal struck with every one separately and collected.
Minutes after checking in to our riverfront hotel, we were at the travel agent opposite who assured us that only 2 seats were left on the Sunday afternoon flight to the Vietnamese capital. The only catch was that even economy class tickets cost upwards of a million, but in Lao kip. A quick trip to the ATM rendered us richer by a couple of million kip which was good enough to grab those very two.
And so, we were left with a day and a half to explore our final Laotian destination, the sleepy capital Vientiane. The tropical summer heat was bearable as was the Saturday traffic which can hardly trouble the committed walking tourist. We took refuge in the air-conditioned mall Talat Sao after a few hours walking around Vientiane's highlights.The Mekong River, so mighty up north in Jinghong (Yunnan, China) and Luang Prabang, is not as imposing here at Vientiane despite it being the rainy season. A fair bit of dry land separates the shore from the distant water. Thailand lies beyond probably making Vientiane one of the most exposed capitals in the world. But one would expect this sort of thing from the laid back Laotians. The statue of King Anouvong watches over this border with arm outstretched towards the ground in the manner of a baseball umpire about to signal a strike out.
A short walk from there leads to the Presidential Palace (formerly used by imperial personages but used these days for ceremonial purposes only). Adjacent to it are the fascinating Haw Pha Kaew (a royal temple built to house the famed Emerald Buddha) and Wat Si Saket (Vientiane's oldest Buddhist temple). Both these were worth a visit even for the jaded IndoChina tourist who'd overdosed on wats. While the Buddha images kept inside Haw Pha Kaew would be of interest to aficionados only, the building itself is a beautiful structure with magnificent columns and ornate patterns. We saw a newly wed Lao couple in full finery who were getting themselves photographed. The standout feature of Wat Si Saket are the 2000+ Buddha images kept inside the hundreds of niches along the cloister. The structure that housed a library of Buddhist literature is markedly different with a Burmese style roof. A brief detour on a side street leads to That Dam (Black Stupa), believed by Laotians to be inhabited by a seven headed naga (snake) to protect them from Siamese armies who invaded in 1827. The ancient stone structure stands in odd contrast to the US Embassy that occupies both sides of the street in front.
Back on the street on the gradually warming day, we were treated to the sight of a wide boulevard leading to Patuxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe which seemed to be surrounded by grand ministerial buildings. Built in 1969 with cement donated by the US and left in limbo due to the country's political troubles. The real jaw dropper came in the form of an innocuous sign in the monument whose English text read "from a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete". We wondered if the Laotian text matched the English translation or if Lonely Planet or Paul Theroux had sneaked in this text without the locals knowing. I don't think we'll ever see another capital city monument proclaiming its own ugliness with such disarming frankness. Vientiane, it is not that bad! Once you go up the six flights of stairs and look at the level city and the fountain park below, it actually looks quite good!
We expected to view Vientiane's grandest sight, the Pha That Luang (Great Stupa), a shining gold monument to Buddhism and Lao sovereignty. We had difficulty finding it from the top. It was a stiff walk in the sun to That Luang from Patuxai, but well worth the effort. Along the way are the ambassadorial residences of India and Vietnam. The magnificent golden stupa made an excellent picture against the brilliant blue sky in the warm afternoon. The adjacent temple had a golden sleeping Buddha and a brand new building with brightly colored walls and roofs depicting Sanskritic tales (Jataka?). Another grand building (presumably a palace of sorts) and temple were also nearby. A modern multi storied mall provided air-conditioned comfort to help break up the long walking tour.
Laos has the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed-per-capita country in the world, thanks to the Secret War in the 20th century when the conflict in Vietnam spilled over onto its neighbors. The US led more than half a million bombing raids in Laos to strike political enemies and cut off communist supply routes. Unfortunately, a significant portion of those cluster bombs remain unexploded today and pose a huge threat to Laotians who still lose life and limb to these bombs more than three decades after the end of the war. The COPE center in Vientiane provides assistance to those affected by UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance). Their visitor center just outside town educates the visitor on the history and the threat posed by UXOs and the means to counter them.
Our Laos visit has turned out to be briefer than expected. It is probably not well suited as a stopover on a Round the World trip, but more a place to get entrenched for a few weeks and let the laid back surroundings and people sink in gradually. Should we ever visit again, it will hopefully be on an unrushed itinerary. We feel like we just got here a few days ago and so are a bit sorry to leave so quickly. Especially after our extended China visit. Ah, well. Lets see what happens when we land in Hanoi in a few hours. We expect it to be the antithesis of its neighbor capital city.
Well into our sixth week and our fifth country coming up soon. Time does fly quickly when you are on the road, especially with all the inter-city travel. Not missing home at all. But desperately missing Microsoft Windows and its comforting presence. Who would have thought?
A different experience in this country, it appears, after Japan, Korea and China. If you are traveling onwards to Burma, I suspect it may be somewhat like that, perhaps even more.
But why on earth, are you missing Microsoft Windows, of all the"luxuries" on earth ???:? From , on Jul 16, 2012 at 03:36AM
I had no idea Laos was this beautiful! From, on Jul 16, 2012 at 02:18PM
@Pranav: Indeed, it is the truth, no less. From, on Jul 16, 2012 at 02:22PM
@Ramesh: Yes, that is a surprise especially considering alternatives like tacos, burritos etc. But on deeper thought nothing rules our lives in these modern times quite like the venerable OS from Washington State. It usually gets criticized for its various faults and we have had our fair share of troubles with it too. But having gone through six Windows-less weeks (can't remember when that last happened!), one has to give it its due. The fingers long for deeply internalized shortcuts. Withdrawal symptoms are severe. Android (V's tablet) and MacOS (M's MBA) are unable to cope with our demands From, on Jul 17, 2012 at 01:06AM