10.10.2010 - 14.10.2010 34 °C
Door to door from our guesthouse in Nong Khai to another in Vientiane in two hours. Now that's what I call an efficient border crossing! It began with a tuk-tuk to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge where we were stamped out of Thailand followed by a 20 Baht (50c) bus ride across the bridge and into Laos customs and immigration. Here we filled out the obligatory forms and got, and this is clearly the best part of travelling, a nice big visa and another stamp in the passport. Welcome to Laos!
A €2 minivan ride covering the 24km to our guesthouse and we were in Vientiane. It was crawling with western tourists and ex pats and I suspect a good amount of NGO types on a break from places such as East Timor. I did wonder where all the Lao people were, apart from those serving me food. Ah, the food, Vientiane is a foodie's heaven, French and Lao restaurants on every corner alongside patisseries full of lovely cakes that have since settled on my hips.
We have found Laos slightly pricier than Thailand, it's a bit harder to dine out on a fiver here. I would estimate we're spending about a third more than what we were in Thailand. The currency doesn't help, with €1 equal to roughly K11,000 (kip) which made for a tough first few days where we were forced to do math in our heads. There are just too many 0's!
So despite the searing heat (it was mid thirties most of the time) and the tempting notion of spending all our time in cafes stuffing our faces with cake, we did manage to get out and do some sightseeing. First up was Pha That Luang, Laos's national monument, a huge golden stupa and for fear of typing out exactly what the Lonely Planet says I'll just post a picture instead. Pretty!
We then made our sweaty way to Patuxai, the Lao equivalent, or thereabouts, of L'Arc de Triomphe. The story goes that the US bought some cement and donated it to Laos so they could build a new airport, how lovely of them, but the Lao government thought better and decided an arch instead. Hence, it's sometimes referred to, by who I don't know, as the 'vertical runway'. Not the prettiest looking thing when you're up close and even the Lao think so from reading the sign on it, they say 'From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete' - someone should explain the marketing concept perhaps.
The following day we made it out to Buddha Park, the sister park to Sala Keuw Ku in Nong Khai. This one wasn't as big and not as impressive, but it's hard to beat a dead guy in a bubble surrounded by Christmas lights. There was one exception. A huge pumpkin shaped sculpture which had three internal levels to it, each one representing hell, earth and heaven, and a huge tree like sculpture on top thrown in for good measure. It was extremely creepy inside with a huge amount of quite ill-maintained statues and an uncomfortable number of quite large thick cobwebs. Very Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but impressive none the less.
The usual route through Laos taken by travellers involves Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng lies somewhat in the middle of the two so it's a logical stopoff. We will be skipping this spot and flying with Laos Airlines straight to LP. There are several reasons for this, mainly concerning the typical boozey gap year student haven that Vang Vieng has apparently turned into involving lots of alcohol, drugs, tubing down the Mekong River (because that's exactly what you should do when you're drunk and high!) and strangely a large amount of Friends reruns in bars and guesthouses in the town. Throw in a 6 hour bus journey either side, where sick bags are passed around for the incredibly windy and bumpy roads, and we decided a nice 40 minute flight sounds much more civilised. We must be getting old but I'm not sure we care.
So onward to Luang Prabang, the jewel in Laos's crown we're told and UNESCO world heritage site (the second one for us on this trip).