A Journey to the Deep North (Isarn) and Beyond: Part Two
I got my head down early so that I’d be well rested for the trip over to Laos the following morning. I woke up feeling reasonably refreshed but still a little bit rough around the edges as I’ve been suffering from a lingering cold for the past three weeks. With my bags packed, and a good western breakfast in my stomach, I was checking out of the Pantawee by 10 AM. I collared one of the tuktuk drivers, hanging around outside the hotel, and got a ride to Friendship Bridge for 80 baht.
As the tuktuk rattled along the pot-holed road I was still in two minds whether I really wanted to go to Laos. I’d met a lovely little nymphet down at Apple’s Café, two days before, and she was keen for a liaison. Pim was Laotian – she showed me her passport – and claimed that her mother was Chinese. She’d been residing in Nongkhai for quite a while and, like a lot of them, was getting by on her wits and beauty. She’d called me last night, drunk, and said she was “broken heart” because she just finished with her boyfriend. In an earlier time I wouldn’t have hesitated; a sympathy fxxk was always one of the best. How things have changed. The thought that I was getting up early and the fact that she’d still be expecting a ‘tip” swayed my decision against hooking up with her. All the same she was rather lovely and I’d missed the opportunity for a bit of slap and tickle with a very attractive gal. At the end of the day though, it was just another notch on the belt. And I was starting realize, much more so these days, that if I added up all the notches on the belt, during my time in the LOS, I could’ve paid cash for a condo down in Thong Lor.
“You get down here and walk a little bit,” said the driver as he slowed the tuktuk and I came back to the present.
I handed over the 80 baht, grabbed my gear and ambled up to the check point for departing Thailand. Twenty minutes later I was stamped through and directed to a desk to buy a ticket – 15 baht – for the bus ride over the bridge. As a matter of interest I asked one of the bus operators if it was possible to walk across.
“No, no, cannot. You must take bus. Too far, it's half kilo,” said the tout as if there was some kind of law against tourists walking across the bridge.
Obviously the money wasn’t the issue. I just wanted to stretch my legs and bang off a few shots. I shrugged my shoulders and re-joined the queue of backpackers, and travelers, also waiting to board the bus. As we stood there lorry load, after lorry load, of new cars rumbled past us towards the new economic growth of Laos. As soon as there were enough people in the queue, the tout that had dismissed my enquiry about walking across the bridge, waved over a bus that was parked only five meters away from us. I climbed on and grabbed the front seat, next to the driver, and pulled out my camera. As the shot shows, lots of people walk across the bridge. They’re all locals though and probably want to save themselves 15 baht. A few minutes later we were getting down on the Laotian side of the bridge and queuing up for arrival card and visa on arrival form. The 30-day entry is a mere formality as the USD 30 visa fee is paid even before you’ve filled in the paperwork. I handed the completed form back though the same window, with my passport and one photo, and was told to wait at another window. While waiting I changed 3500 baht for some Lao currency. The exchange rate was about 250 Kip to the baht and I ended up with about 850,000 Kip.
45 minutes later I’d been stamped through and was entering the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos. The full wording of its name is an indication to this country's recent history. People often mention Laos’ French colonial past and vestiges of that can still be seen throughout Vientiane. Many street names begin with Rue. There are hundreds of old French colonial buildings still to be seen as one wanders through the city. The place really is an eclectic mix of older Lao culture and its younger French colonial heritage.
What’s often forgotten is that, until quite recently, the place was communist. The fact that the country is still governed by a one party system makes that more evident. Being of a slightly different bent to most of the tourists in Vientiane, who seem to be enthralled with the French and Lao cultural side of things, I went out looking for remnants of the old communist days. Unfortunately there were no statues of muscled male laborers with shovels in hand to be seen; just the names on a couple of buildings, and billboards, proclaiming Laos’ once inglorious past.
45 minutes, and a two hundred baht taxi fare later, I was checking into the City Inn, tel: +856-21-218333. At USD 67 it was probably a bit on the expensive side for accommodation in Vientiane, but it was new and breakfast, and wi-fi, was included in the price. The standard of the hotel was probably what you’d expect for about 3000 baht in Thailand. The City Inn, for those interested, is located near Lao Plaza Hotel in a quieter area away from the main tourist area which is towards the river front. After a bit of a rest, and as the sun was setting, I wandered down to café central. It was a 10-minute walk to the main area where most of the tourists hang out. In a stretch, roughly one kilometer long, and running parallel to the Mekong, there is a congested little area which is jam packed with cafés, restaurants, bars, guesthouses and hotels. If you look at a map you can quickly see that this hive of tourist activity is actually not very big and is, essentially, the river front road, and the road behind which runs parallel to it, and half a dozen smaller joining streets which connect the two main roads together. Admittedly it was the peak of the high season, and everywhere was packed, but the traffic congestion along the river front road was as busy as anything I’ve seen on Beach Road in Pattaya.
Fronting all of this restaurant, and café action, was the promenade development which, in the cool of the early evening, was alive with locals, and tourists, who were walking, jogging, and taking part in a number of aerobics classes at various locations. The promenade development is approximately 2 kilometers long and is still being built. At one end there was a night market with, as much as I could ascertain, a lot of Thai tourists over from Isarn for the weekend. At the other end of the promenade, and the main focal point for many Lao, was the imposing statue of the last king of Laos; king Anouvong. Apparently, according to the Lao staff back at the hotel, King Anouvong is highly regarded amongst the Lao due to the fact that he beat off the invading Thai hordes in a couple of wars. It’s ironic that the statue faces directly across the Mekong towards Thailand.
For those who enjoy French cuisine there is no end of cafés and restaurants to choose from. If you want Lao food you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that it’s not much different to Thai and Isarn food. A bowl of kuay thiaw noodle soup is exactly the same and so is a lot of the roadside barbecued stuff.
I’ve always maintained that travelling is not just about the things you can see and do, it’s also about some of the interesting people you bump into as you’re going along. The following morning while getting breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant, I heard the unmistakable sound of an Aussie accent. I introduced myself and sat down to have a chat. Dean, originally from Sydney, was working as a heavy duty mechanic at a gold and copper mine in Southern Laos. He was on a 24-day work rotation and was enjoying a bit of his scheduled time off in Vientiane. I was keen to have a look at a few of the local sights and thought he might be able to give me a few pointers on the best places to go. I’d bumped into a couple of Italian ladies, the evening before, and they mentioned a place called the COPE center. Apparently it was a hospital that was set up to care for Laotians injured by land mines and other unexploded ordinance. I raised this with Dean and he gave me some interesting info.
“People always go on about the land mines in Cambodia but the fact is that the Americans dropped more bombs on Laos, during the Vietnam War than they did during World War Two.”
“Is that really true,” I said feeling a bit surprised by what he said.
“Yep, most of it on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Down at the mine there’s so much unexploded ordinance about it’s a wonder we get much work done. Most of it is bombs, of varying sizes, that are buried about 2 meters below the surface. Bloody scary when you unearth an unexploded 500 pounder,” he said soberly.
“What do you do when someone comes across one?”
“Call in the bomb people and they get rid of it.”
Later on that day I cruised by the COPE center and there were a couple of amputees, sitting in wheel chair, out on the veranda. I didn’t think it was the right thing to do to try and take a photo.
Whenever I’m in a new place, or somewhere I haven’t been before, I keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, or unusual, to take a photo of. The previous day, during my walk down to café central, I’d spotted a Morris Minor, up on blocks, in someone's backyard. In the day’s fading light I banged off a shot of a car that bought back a lot of great memories of my teenage years growing up in New Zealand. Back then (40 years ago) you could get your driver’s license at only 15 years of age. It was bloody ridiculous because you couldn’t go into a pub until you were 21! Most of us, as soon as we turned 15, would sit for our licenses and then scrape enough money together and buy a cheap old ‘bomb’ to hoon (that’s kiwi talk for getting up to no good and making a nuisance of yourself) around in. The ‘Morrie Minor’ was a popular choice because they were cheap to buy and reasonably easy to maintain.
Café central, which really is a hodge podge of new and old structures, is a great place to do some people watching. As I sat at a nice little French style café enjoying a cappuccino in the cool of the early evening, I made a mental note of the fact that there were very few, if any at all, of the monger types that you see in Thailand. Most, if not all, cruising around café central were the traveler / backpacker types. There were even a few old hippies to be seen with their grey pony tails tied back and flopping around on their kaftans. No doubt a couple of them would have been hippies when hippies first appeared on the scene back in the 60s.
Another helpful service that the City Inn offers is arranging motorbike rentals. The USD 12 fee for 24 hours was probably bit more than one would expect to pay back in Thailand but, for the difference of around 100 baht, they’ll have the bike at the hotel within an hour and you aren’t required to handover your passport. For anyone that does decide to head over to Vientiane, and wants to rent a bike, be aware, particularly if you reside in Thailand, that Laos is a right hand drive country. In other words, the buggers drive on the wrong side of the road. It’s actually not too bad, and I got used to it fairly quickly, but if you mentally relax for just a moment – I did three times at intersections – you can find yourself looking down the barrel of traffic coming towards you.
An interesting structure is the Lao version of the Arc de Triumph. I guess the French wanted something to help them feel at home and had it built to give the locals a taste of Paris. There is also the golden temple but having gone down there, and seen all the tourist busses lined up, I decided to give it a miss. I’ve seen that many temples now that unless it’s something quite spectacular like Wat Phra Keow, I’m not really all that interested. If you are a temple aficionado you’ll be pleased to know that there are at least five temples in, around, café central. Most of them are a bit weathered and, compared with the sparkling ones we’re used to in Thailand; they could do with a lick of gold paint.
After 2 days in Vientiane I figured I’d had a fairly decent look around the place and was keen to hit the road and go bush; bush being Veng Vien and Luang Prabang. There’s probably a lot more to see in, and around, Vientiane but the cost of a lengthy stay there could become more than I planned for. Some observations from my limited time there:
• At this time of year the weather is probably at its best in terms of heat and humidity. The mornings are dry and cool and, if one was to rise early enough, sometimes long sleeves wouldn’t be out of place. For this reason, more than any other, it is also the peak of the tourist season. As I’ve already mentioned, the river front road was packed with people and cars every evening.
• The Lao people seem to be fairly laid back and are, from what I saw, always polite. In stature, and physical appearance, they look exactly like people over in Isarn. If you stood a Laotian girl next to an Isarn girl you wouldn’t know any difference. If there was then it would, perhaps, only be in height. It might be because of the diet but Laotian ladies seem to be rather petite; I didn’t see too many taller than 160 cm.
• Lao language is Isarn; the same. And most, in Vientiane, speak Thai to a reasonable level. My Thai isn’t great but I had very few problems communicating with the locals there.
• Lao food is Isarn; the same. Road side barbecue, larb and som tam, it’s exactly the same. If you want Thai food then that’s an entirely different matter. They have the basic stuff like noodles, fried rice and red and green curries but don’t try ordering plaa ning manow.
• Things such as food, and basic services, seem to be slightly more expensive in Vientiane than they are in Thailand. Even the street food costs a little bit more.
• As far as the nightlife, and a P4P scene go, I didn’t really see too much to be able to comment on. There is the obvious such as the pubs, and bars, where the farang tourists, and backpackers, hang out. There are probably karaoke bars for the locals, similar to what you see in Isarn but, as far as girlie bars for farang are concerned, I didn’t see any. There is a rather swank hotel, called the Don Chan Palace which, reportedly, has a disco where local girls can be picked up. The only thing which I came across – which was what I would consider seedy – was a drunken European trailing around with two katoeys. I have no idea if they were Lao, or Thai, but this low-life tried coercing me into joining up with him and his ladyboy entourage. For some reason he tried to grab the camera strap around my neck where I duly stepped around him and swatted his hand away. We then stood there eye balling each other, for a few seconds, before he backed away. No doubt it probably sank in that, as he was drunk and I wasn’t, my reactions were going to be faster than his.
• A final word of warning; be on your guard with tuktuk drivers, especially later at night. They are constantly asking if you want ganja or heroin. This has probably come about because of hippies, and perhaps some younger backpackers, wanting something to smoke, or hit up, so they can chill out. Whatever it is, it’s a bloody nuisance because, even when you tell them to piss off – the tuktuk driver – they’ll still follow and pester you for a few meters. It’s just not worth the risk because, from what I’ve been told, these buggers are in cahoots with the local police. In other words, it’s a set-up or scam to relieve you of a large amount of cash.
Great trip report!