After passing through border control on the Laos side of the Friendship Bridge, we took a tuk tuk to the Sihome Hostel in the Lao capital of Vientiane. Vientiane is a relaxed capital, a world away from the hustle, noise and traffic of Bangkok, but while this is a more relaxed place it does lack the character and culture that make Bangkok an interesting place to explore.
That all said, there are plenty of things to see in Vientiane. There are a number of temples right in the middle of this small city and some do have much more of character that is gained with age – something Bangkok’s constantly restored temples certainly do lack. Vientiane is also set along the Mekong, which is never a bad thing, though the largely modified shoreline here is much less attractive than the Mekong shores in Nong Khai or Luang Prabang. There are some nice park areas and a quite lively night market (which is strangely devoid of food) in the area above the river.
We enjoyed some good food and continued to adjust to the heat, which was noticeably stronger here than it had been in Bangkok or southern Thailand, and even in Nong Khai.
On our second day in Vientiane, we were joined by Josh, Brett’s cousin. The meetup was the main reason we’d come to Vientiane, and this being Josh’s first time in asia he was eager to see whatever Vientiane had to offer.
And what does Vientiane have to offer? The Presidential Palace is grand, as would be expected. It’s white, colonial-style facade is punctuated with large windows, hulking columns, and massive unused staircases.
The road from the palace leads to an arch, officially dubbed Patuxai. The Patuxai arch is fondly referred to locally as the ‘vertical runway’ (the concrete used was donated by the US in the 1960s and was supposed to be used for an airport runway) or as the ‘monster of concrete’ as its bluntly honest informative sign dubs it. We climbed to the top of the arch for a view of the city, which was nice.
The Wat Si Saket was probably the impressive place we visited in Vientiane. The interior walls of central temple’s courtyard were lined with two rows of Buddhas, each covered in an orange sash, and the interior walls of the temple itself were covered in Buddhist murals.
We wandered into and around many other wats and temples in Vientiane, though none stood out like Wat Si Siket.
Vientiane to Luang Prabang
As seems to be the norm with us, travel never goes quite as planned. In this case, we had booked an 8.30pm sleeper bus through our guesthouse to go to Luang Prabang. Overnight travel is especially nice when you can sleep and get to where you want to be at the same time.
At the time we booked the tickets, we were told that a truck would pick us up at 6.30 pm to take us to the bus station for our 8.30 pm bus, leaving us time to eat dinner before departure. The truck arrived as promised and we began to gather our bags to board before the guesthouse staff (via the driver) informed us that this was not our ride and that ours would be coming soon. However, a moment later the driver reversed course and waved us onto the truck. Perhaps this should have been a sign to us that all was not well, but many cities have multiple bus stations to service separately buses going in different directions (ie north, south, east, west) and as it is common for all those buses to depart in the evening, its also fairly common for multiple trucks servicing different bus stations to all pick up from guesthouses at similar times.
When we arrived at the bus station, the tuk tuk driver told us to wait, ran inside, and then returned and proceeded to give everyone tickets except us. The driver lastly approached us and gave us the news, which he did present in a manner that made it seem much worse than it was when he started with “Big, Big, Big Problem! So sorry”. To condense his explanation, he had forgotten to book our sleeper bus tickets because he got distracted by a large downpour which occurred immediately after the guesthouse called and booked on our behalf (which was true). He had not realized his error until he had picked us up at the guesthouse and so had just bought tickets for us at the station. However, as the sleeper bus was full, he’d bought us tickets on the seated regular bus, which left much earlier in only 15 minutes (he did refund our money and was very apologetic). Therefore, not only were we not on the bus we wanted (not a big deal), we also didn’t have time to eat dinner.
Its a shame that sometimes the guesthouses and bus stations work in such a way as to purposefully push tourists onto the sleeper bus and locals onto the seated bus by artificially providing prices to foreigners which are so close that its an absolutely easy decision to choose a sleeper bus, whereas clearly the locals get a big discount by purchasing a ticket on the seated bus. This divide was very clearly evident as we approached the seated bus and the driver and workers began to wave us instead towards the sleeper bus without even having seen our tickets. They seemed surprised when we showed our tickets and it took an explanation from the truck driver to convince them that we were, indeed, intending to sleep while seated for an entire night. We were the only foreigners on the bus, and the other riders seemed at least as shocked to see us board as the driver had been to see us approach his bus. Furthermore, as Josh found his seat, the unfortunate soul who had to sit next to him looked quite disheartened at his awful luck.
As Josh and Brett packed and loaded the bags onto the bus and grabbed our seats, Angie ran frantically inside the station and grabbed packs of bread and crackers for dinner. We boarded right at the scheduled departure time of 7.30pm and the bus left at 8.30pm, as is pretty much normal for SE asia.
The bus stopped regularly and we were seated upright, so sleep did not coming easily, especially for Brett and Angie. Josh has an awesome power to sleep through whatever may happen around him, and he did find some sleep. His neighbor’s initial unease at having to sit next to a foreigner was later justified as Josh’s awoke to find himself inadvertently invading the man’s space and almost resting on the smaller man who was clearly too polite to disturb Josh’s slumber. It was not a great ride but after 12 long hours we did arrive tired at Luang Prabang.
A riverside town with many temples and a french fusion, Luang Prabang is quiet and relaxed with great markets, restaurants and views. We spent a couple days enjoying the sights and activities.
The Night Market is full of souvenir shops selling bags, clothes, jewelry and more and there is a sidestreet night food market nearby that sells a bit of everything and has a few makeshift restaurants to boot. Angie bought a pendant made from melted down unexploded ordnance, which is supposed to provide funds back to removing these bombs. (Side note: The USA bombing regime in the unofficial wars in Laos was more dense than in any other place at any other time in history. Unexploded ordnance, which are conveniently painted bright colors and look like a ball, attracting children, are still being found and at the expense of lives.)
The Morning Market was full of produce and items for meal preparation. Lots of fruits and vegetables, live and dead fish, eels, frogs, snails, and more. We were excited to eat some of the few items being prepared for breakfast – ride porridge cups, waffles,and fried doughs (similar to donuts).
We visited the Royal Palace Museum, which houses the Pha Bang statue (a gold Buddha) from which the town is named. The museum contained various items from the royal family, as well as relics like Buddhas from the 15th and 16th century. The Wat Mai next to the palace is bold with gold and red.
The tall hill, Phu Si sits in the center of town with the stupa That Chomsi resting on the top. There are a number of Buddha statues on the climb up the hill, a cut in the rock which is claimed as Buddha’s footprint, the stupa and the wats. The top of the hill also serves as a fantastic viewpoint for the city and the two rivers that converge here.
On our way down, we stopped to look at Wat Pa Huak, a beautiful small temple with murals from the 1800s. This is one of the few places in Luang Prabang where there has been no restoration work, so it was nice to see some original art.
Wat Xieng Thong was one of the more impressive temples and grounds in the town. The exterior walls were covered in mosaics of glass tiles and on the back wall a huge tree of life mosaic was present. The sweeping roof had three tiers – one more and it might have reached the ground. The dimly lit temple housed a large golden Buddha and the walls and columns were black and red with gold stencils. There are several small temples and stupa around the main temple.
Sitting along the river in Luang Prabang we were able to catch some pretty spectacular sunsets. The colors and reflection on the river were really beautiful and the longboats moored for the night provided a nice foreground.
Kuang Si Falls is an beautiful area with cascading waterfalls and swimming pools. We visited on a day tour and enjoyed walking and swimming. Along the walk to the falls, there is a moon and sun bear conservation area, which was founded by an Australian.
The pools are very swimmable, though they are filled with many little fishes – the same fishes that all the fish spas in Thailand use. So there are constant nibbles at your feet/lets/torso/whatever you submerge as you swims. And some of these fish are quite a lot larger than the minnow-sized ones the spas use, so if you have a cut or wound – watch out!