Our bike trip came to a rather speedy end as we raced to get back for the night bus to Vientiane. We were shoved in a tuk tuk (where we happened to meet another intern along the way) and taken to the ‘bus stop’ to board the mighty ‘King of Bus’. I hadn’t yet taken a night bus and was quite looking forward to it; we were theoretically saving cash by not using a hostel and didn’t need to waste precious daytime by travelling.
King. If you say so.
But it wasn’t that simple. Of course. We were told in advance that this night bus had only double beds, so one of us would need to share with a stranger. We were assured that the stranger would definitely be another woman, but assured or not, no one was jumping at the idea of a sharing a bed with a random person. We created our own bizarre flip-a-coin game to determine who would be the unlucky loner. Guess what. It was me. I wasn’t jumping for joy, but figured I was only going to sleep anyway. To be honest, I’d probably have remained optimistic if the beds had actually been ‘double beds’. The mattresses were smaller than a UK size single mattress. Awks.
Squeezed in. It’s like the caravanning in the 80s.
I hopped into this tiny bunk before meeting an Argentinian girl with whom I would share with. She seemed pleasant, but being the sort of person who’s a bit uncomfortable with touching randomers, I decided to top and tail. If anything it would save her from getting breathed over all night. The lights went off pretty quickly and I was too uncomfortable to do much so decided to go straight to sleep; I’d be as fresh as a daisy in the morning! I might have fallen asleep reasonably quickly if it weren’t for the American guys next to us who were obscenely loud and clearly attempting to hit on all the ladies within their 5-metre radius. Another moment on this adventure when I thought the Inbetweeners were so right about travelling.
Uncomfortable and awkward I may have been, but with the lack of traffic, I was at least able to look out the window and enjoy some spectacular stars. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear night sky; millions of stars were in view, and it prompted one of those pensive moments where you think about just how tiny you are in this universe. You don’t get that chance so much in the UK. It definitely took my mind off the awkward bum-bashing that happened every time we drove over a pothole. i.e. constantly.
We arrived in Vientiane at silly o’clock and were woken abruptly before being ushered off the bus without a moment shed off the grogginess. Clearly, the night bus was not the heavenly transition I was expecting; I felt as fresh as old socks. Immediately, we piled into a tuk tuk and waited to leave whilst feeling like death. I was desperate for the loo but too scared to go in case they left without me. In the end we waited for a good 45 minutes for other buses to show up. All a bit uncomfortable really.
Think this picture says it all really.
The sun was beginning to rise once we finally hit the road. On first glance, Vientiane seemed pretty impressive. Once you make your way down the central road, Th Lan Xang, you get a good glimpse of the city’s biggest buildings, notably Patuxai (Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe) and what I assume were government buildings. To my surprise, they looked grander than any of the modern buildings we’d seen in Phnom Penh. Later, I would find that the small commercial Lan Xang district is quite different compared to the rest of the city.
After getting dropped off on the road side, we trawled over to our hostel, ingeniously named Vientiane Backpackers Hostel, where we were able to have a much needed shower. It may have been simple but it was clean and the beds were comfy.
Post-ablutions, we were beginning to feel more human again. Good old Joma was just a stone’s throw away so coffee and cinnamon buns were necessary for rousing us from our slumber.
Our first day was pretty laid back and we spent a good hour wandering the streets of the city centre. Finding not one but two bookshops was exciting, but the prices were extortionate, even for second hand paperbacks. As we would discover later, books are pretty scarce in Laos, hence the hefty price tag.
Reveling in the joy of a bookshop.
One of things we all observed was just how quiet it was. Not just because there are fewer people about, but even tuk tuks don’t harass you for a lift, and there were virtually no street sellers.
Important looking building and important looking flags.
We stopped by at Wat Sisaket, apparently the oldest surviving Wat in city. It was certainly pretty, especially with the intricate paintings that covered the inners of the sanctuary, but it was clear that the place was in need of some serious TLC. The walls were crumbling in places and the paint work severely faded. Bit of a shame.
‘Things to do’ in Vientiane weren’t immediately obvious, but we had heard of the COPE visitor centre which was only a mile away or so. Our walk over was interesting; we encountered an uber-expensive transnational hotel under construction, which seemed completely out of place in Vientiane. Yet on the other side of the road were various animals for sale in cages! The clash of cultures in South East Asia is really quite stark at times.
We spent a good hour at the centre. It looks somewhat comical if you can’t help finding a display of prosthetic legs rather amusing. But, joking aside, it was a good cause. We’d been warned about unexploded ordnance in Cambodia (remnants from the Vietnam War) but Laos is also plagued with some 70 million undetonated bombs. Inevitably, injuries and deaths occur all too often when unsuspecting people walk over minefields.
Make art, not bombs.
A thick New Zealand twang caught my attention: ‘now some guys know that they can use kids to find metal and send them off for a day with a metal detector to make themselves some money. They pay the kids a pittance before presenting them with candy after a hard day’s work, so they end up giving most of their wages back to them.’ Of course, with children walking about searching for metal in the open, many are exposed to UXO and lose limbs in the process, if they are lucky.
This guy certainly knew his stuff but he was also quite entertaining to listen to: ‘Do I have time for these kind of bastards. No I bloody don’t.’
On our way home we collapsed in a French-style café for the air conditioning, if nothing else. We were feeling pretty done in after the night bus so decided to have an early night. Back at the hostel, the three of us sat on our top bunks chatting, updating loved ones, and booking the next round of hostels. The door squeaked open and an all too familiar twang made itself heard: ‘Well hello, didn’t expect to be sharing a room with such nice young ladies.’ Eughh.
It turned out that the tour guide guy from the COPE centre was sleeping on the bunk underneath me. While we exchanged introductions, we also became acquainted with a rather unpleasant smell. A kind of mix between body odour and mouldy peas. Now I don’t like to speak ill of people, but this was seriously grim. After some chit chat he disappeared for a while whilst we decided how we were going to get through the night with the stench quivering in our nostrils. I promise you, I am not exaggerating the seriousness of this situation.
By the time he returned, I was pretending to be asleep. Dropping off to sleep that night was a long process, and by the time I woke up at 8 am, I was resolved to get up and out as soon as possible. I met Sarah for breakfast in Joma, who had since escaped and we prayed that he would have gone by the next evening.
For our second day, we decided that bikes would be on the agenda again, as we were set on visiting the Silk Tea factory. It was the same company that we’d visited on the Bolaven Plateau and we wanted to stock up on supplies. The hostel rented us some questionable looking Hondas and we set off, taking a detour to Pha That Luang on the way, a national monument in the city centre. The drive was still far easier than anything we’d encountered in Vietnam before, but there were a few shaky moments as we drove down the rather busy Th Lan Xang.
Pha That Luang – sparkly but needs some love.
Pha That Luang looked pretty cool from a distance as the sun sets off the gold pretty well. Up close, however, it’s another monument that could do with a bit of a face lift.
Following our detour, we continued down a long road to find the tea factory. It was incredible just how quickly the shiny city centre slipped away. Officially, Vientiane is pretty big, but the actual city-like centre is probably smaller than my home town. Pretty soon, we were passing small wooden houses and open land. Another example of the disparity of Vientiane.
The tiny map we were using was only mildly helpful and a beer factory became our main point of navigation. Eventually we discovered the tiny dirt track that would lead us to our destination. Within 100 metres of riding down the track, we found ourselves in a small community where we received some strange looks. Clearly the factory doesn’t get a lot of visitors.
After more confusion, we found the factory. It was shut. Sarah made a barely-comprehensible phone call. The factory was definitely still shut. Excellent. No mulberry tea for me then.
Still, the ride home was interesting as we took another route and encountered some of the residential area, of course totally different to the tourist hot spots. We returned our bikes, booked another bus to the next destination, and enjoyed a nice dinner in a place run by some expats. We were feeling pretty chilled and headed back to the hostel for a nice shower and to pack up for our early morning bus, assuming that our malodorous friend would have gone.
We spotted him in the shower (??) and decided that we were going to have to request a room change as another night in the same room was just not conceivable. Sarah approached the manager but before she could even explain herself the chap was already off finding us some beds. Clearly, he too had a nose.
Sarah and I managed to escape but Lindsay was left in her original bed. This was not all bad news however, as she did a casual bit of eavesdropping for us. Turns out that this fella has been in Laos for ten years raising money for charities and whatnot, or so some other travellers told her. They had agreed with Lindsay about the hygiene issue but were still contemplating whether to go on a tour with him. Clearly they had strong stomachs.