Back to the world of Buddhas, tuk-tuks and flip-flops!
18.03.2006 32 °C
We heard several hellish stories about the overland trip from Hanoi to Vientiane, involving people relieving themselves on toilet-less buses; buses not departing until every square inch of space is filled with a person, an animal, or thing; getting to your destination days behind scheduled arrival, and the ever common puking Asians. So, we opted for the 1.5-hour flight. But, in true Vietnamese-style, Vietnam wished us a fond farewell which goes a little something like this...
We decided to fly with Vietnam Airlines, even though it is a little more expensive than Lao Airlines, as every guide book and travel agency does not recommend flying Lao Airlines (they don't release their safety records and some of their planes have a fond attraction to the ground). So, we dropped a little more cash at the VIETNAM AIRLINES office, booked our flight, and headed to the airport. At the airport, we checked in at the VIETNAM AIRLINES desk, went to the VIETNAM AIRLINES gate, were led by VIETNAM AIRLINES staff to a LAO AIRLINE plane! I (Justin) being the semi-nervous flier, kindly asked the VIETNAM AIRLINES women at the stairs to the plane, what was going on. She said, "We sold the flight to Lao Airlines a couple of hours ago". No need to rant and rave anymore, we made it unscaved, but we were treated to a nice 180-degree turn at a 45-angle as we approached the airport in Vientiane.
We stepped off the plane to be smacked in the face with a blast of hot, humid air, something we haven't felt in awhile. We arrived in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, which could easily be described as the most laid-back capital in the world (we were soon to learn this was true of the entire country). Maybe we had actually gotten used to the incessant honking of horns, risking your life to cross a street, and being asked constantly to purchase things or go somewhere. We found none of these in Laos, a very relaxing change of pace. There is a saying in SE Asia that the Vietnamese grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the Laotians listen to rice grow. We believe it and we like it.
Even though Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, this town seemed to be booming (more new cars and trucks than all of Vietnam). We later learned that the City is a magnet for foreign aid workers (NGO projects seem to have nice vehicles).
Sticky Rice baskets, a Laos staple.
Given that it was ridiculously hot in Vientiane, we thought riding bicycles around town would alleviate some of the heat. We checked out the Putaxai Arch, sometimes known as the Vertical Runway because this concrete monster was built with US concrete that was supposed to be used to enhance the local runway for our big planes. During the war in Vietnam, the US secretly had airbases in Laos (which went against the Geneva Accord, but so did the Vietnamese) and performed secret bombing missions in North Vietnam and in Laos. In fact, to this day, the CIA's presence in Laos is the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation in US history (as far as we know that is!). Also, the US dropped so many bombs on Laos in the 9-year-period, that per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare. I never learned that in history class, damn Largo High!
View from the top.
There are numerous temples in this primarily Buddhist country, so we wandered about town checking them out. One of them even had a sauna and massage, and for $3, who can pass that up!
Wat Pha That Luang, the most revered temple in Laos and also their national symbol.
Temple kitten. ''Dad, can I have it!!''
The winding bus ride up to the town of Vang Vieng was a lot better than we had anticipated, although it did leave 2 hours late and took two hours longer than expected (231 km in 8 hours). Limestone mountains border Vang Vieng to the west providing magnificent views along the Nam Song river. We splurged on a $10 room with a view of the river and the mountains. Every night we "listened to the river sing sweet songs to rock our souls", literally! Anyways, it was amazing.
We decided to accept the Laos’ laid-back lifestyle and pretty much just wandered the town for a couple of days doing pretty much nothing, but loving it all along the way. The town is pretty much set up for backpackers, and unfortunately, it lacked a lot (or any) Laos culture (unless I’m unaware of the ancient Laos version of Friends, which plays incessantly in half of the restaurants). Also, the town was currently getting a sewer system installed, so it was a bit torn apart (though I deemed that the construction was not up to code). We did rent bicycles one day where we rode them outside of town to have lunch at an organic farm by the river.
Getting a button sewed back on by the side of the road.
We did hop on a kayak/tubing/caving tour one day, which turned out to be a good time. We visited Elephant Cave, where there is a stalagmite-like structure shaped as a, you guessed it, an Elephant and Buddha's "footprint". Unfortunately, not all of us made it as the cave was guarded by the rabbit of Caerbannog, but it was worth the casualties.
Next we headed to a water cave, where we tubed in the darkness for about 45 minutes to the source of a fresh water spring. Amber needed a little bit of persuasion to get into the freezing water, to say the least.
Don't look directly at Justin's chest without protective eyewear!
The rest of the day was spent kayaking approximately 15 km back to town, despite a much dreaded stop at one of the ubiquitous river bars as we made our way back to Vang Vieng by kayak in the afternoon. These bars should be stopped, or at least no more allowed, as they will surely get out-of-hand in a few years. Picture kayaking a crystal clear river, with limestone cliffs hovering over you and a few swift moving rapids, after a pleasant hour or so, you turn a bend and you hear Shaggy and Maroon 5 songs performed by some cover band being blared from huge speakers. Ahhhhh, nature.
We ended most days as they should be ended, watching the sunset, drinking a beer, and hanging out with some new friends. We may not return!