- A view of Indochina
-- Story by Erin --
Since Vientiane is the capital of Laos and
we had heard that the French architecture and food were really good, we decided to spend a
few days in this historic capital. The first morning gave us our first real look at
the city since we arrived in the dark the night before. We already knew from driving
around town the previous night that the roads were in really bad shape. In daylight
we could now see just how bad they were. Most of the roads have many big potholes
and are covered in a layer of dirt that seems to permeate everything. The sidewalks
are mostly broken up concrete and are also covered in dirt.
I would have to say that Vientiane was a
real disappointment as far as capital cities go. It is said that Vientiane was one
of the 3 shining cities of Indochina. There are a few monuments to see but most of
the city is in a state of decay. The former French villas that are supposed to help
make the city charming in fact make it more depressing as most of these buildings are
abandoned and not maintained. The gardens surrounding the villas are now wild and
overgrown. The promenade along the Mekong River has promise to be a nice place to go
for a meal and a stroll but for now is a dirt path with some food stalls that serve beer
and basic Lao food. We thought Laos would be a fairly cheap country to visit but in
fact it cost more on average for accommodation and food than Thailand. This was
certainly true in Vientiane. Something we did like very much was the fresh baguettes
that you could buy every day from street vendors. The vendors would smear cheese and
pate or sweetened condensed milk on them for a nice snack.
The first day we spent walking around the
city and looking at the various temples and buildings, and generally taking in the city
life and getting our bearings. One thing we noticed almost immediately was the huge
number of vehicles with stickers on their doors representing many different UN agencies
and NGO's like the World Health Organization, World Wildlife Fund, and UXO (unexploded
ordinances) organizations from the EU. Laos must be the poster-country for the
development world! As we traveled in Laos almost every other vehicle belonged to a
development organization. This is a sign of how poor and in need of help this
country is. I read somewhere that the majority of their government budget is made up
of foreign aid.
We tasted the local cuisine from street
vendors and were taken by how friendly the Lao people are. I think it is in their
nature to be very friendly and welcoming. For those of you who have read our story
about Vyborg in Russia, Vientiane looks like Vyborg on the surface but the people are the
complete opposite of the people in Vyborg----friendly, generous and eager to talk to us.
They always have a warm smile for you.
On the second day we ventured out to see
some of the monuments we couldn't see on foot. In the morning we drove about 25
kilometers outside the city along the Mekong to a place called Buddha Park. Here we
found a small park absolutely filled with concrete Buddhist and Hindu statues of various
gods. It was a playful type of place with the statues mostly engaged in acts from
their respective stories in those religions. In the park there were several young
monks and students. Two young boys struck up a conversation with us in English and
gave us a brief tour of the park. They were very eager to practice their language
skills and invited us back to their school nearby to meet their teachers and their school
friends. We followed them back and found that most of their classmates had gone home
on their lunch break. However we did get the chance to meet their English teacher
and some of their friends. It was that rare and very special type of experience that
allows you a little deeper insight into their way of life.
In the afternoon we explored the Pha That
Luang (The Great Sacred Stupa), the most important Buddhist temple and national monument
in Laos. It's a huge temple surrounded by a high wall. Built in 1566, the
temple is covered in gold leaf and is a beautiful sight, even more so at a distance.
We also drove around the Patuxai, Vientiane's own Arc de Triomphe.
After two days we thought we had seen most
of the major sights and wanted to go north to see what life was like in more rural areas.
We had our sights on the town of Luangprabang; a United Nations designated World
Heritage sight. We were told that the drive was a long one (9 hours by bus a local
told us) and that we may want to stop at a small village called Vang Vieng to break up the
trip. Well, Vang Vieng was listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook and said nice things
about it. So we decided to stop there overnight.
We left Vientiane at about 10 a.m. on the
morning of Thursday, March 30th. The roads outside of Vientiane proved to be in a
little better shape and we had a nice twisty road along the Mekong and Nam Song Rivers.
Except for the oil on the road at one point that made us both fishtail (but
thankfully not fall!) and the fires in the fields which make driving difficult at times
through the smoke, it was a very nice ride.
Vang Vieng turned out to be quite a nice
little village as well as a bit of a backpacker hangout. It's the kind of sleepy
little place where people expect to spend a day or two and stay for a week. There
are many guesthouses and small restaurants that cater to foreigners. Almost every
guesthouse/restaurant has a DVD player and played movies at night for our entertainment.
There is even an internet cafe and nice little bookstore in town. There are
caves to explore in the surrounding limestone cliffs and places that rent inner tubes for
a lazy trip down the Nam Song River. We stayed a day in Vang Vieng and explored one
of the local caves. Outside the cave is a small stream that flows out of it into a
small swimming hole. Chris and some others took full advantage on this hot day and
jumped in for a swim.
On Saturday we drove the rest of
the way to Luangprabang. It was only about 235 kilometers and we thought that it
would take a few hours at most. Well, we were wrong because the road became even
twistier, ascending over mountain passes, and through many small villages. When we
finally arrived in Luangprabang we were greeted with children in the streets throwing
buckets of water on everyone that passed by. This was amusing we thought and
wondered what it was all about. We soon found out that this is a custom carried out
every year in the weeks leading up to the New Year's celebration. For the four days
that we were in Luangprabang we spent most of the days either dodging the water throwing
kids or engaging them in combat. Thank goodness they all called a cease-fire each
night so that you could walk the streets in peace. Honestly though, it was all good
fun and actually served to cool you off in the middle of the day. Locals' say that
the water fights get far worse the closer you get to New Year's day (April 15th).
Luangprabang is a much better example of how
I thought Vientiane should look. The streets were mostly in good shape and had
little dirt on them. The French architecture was abundant and many had been
beautifully restored and maintained. The town and its people are lovely.
People say hello and smile when they pass you on the street. The vendors are
pleasant and don't put on the "hard sell" as in many other countries. This
was a nice place to hang out for awhile and check out the local sights. One day we
took a ride on a "long boat" up the Mekong to a cave called Pak Ou. This
is a sacred cave housing thousands of Buddha images. Another day we went to a
fabulous waterfall called Kuang Si about 30 kilometers outside of town. It was the
perfect place to spend a hot steamy afternoon. We packed a lunch of baguettes,
cheese, pate and vegetables, and spent the day swimming in beautiful pools of clear water
in the multi-tiered waterfall.
As our visa was for 30 days we thought we
would explore more of the north of Laos and a place called the Plain of Jars.
However, we were warned by both local authorities and friends in Thailand that recent
renegade activity along the major roadway to the Plain of Jars made it very dangerous to
drive overland there. The other sights to see in the north included hill tribe
villages much like what we had already seen in Thailand. So, after much
contemplation we decided to head back to Vientiane and return to Thailand in time to
attend a motorcycle rally a week later.
We finished our trip to Laos by spending an
extra day in Vang Vieng and then exited Vientiane on Saturday, April 8th, the same way we
came in--- on the back of a pickup truck across the Friendship Bridge. The process
was again an easy one we we got through both borders in under and hour and a half.
The south of Laos is supposed to be
interesting as well with a massive waterfall that serves as part of its border with
Cambodia. Maybe we'll see it if/when we exit Vietnam in June.