Vientiane, Laos, June 13
Laos (Part 3)
Vang Vieng is situated on the bank of the Nam Song River. The area is surrounded by beautiful karst landscape and a popular activity is tubing down the river to get some great views of the limestone cliffs. Late in the morning we rented big inner tubes for about one dollar each from one of the several tube vendors lining the road to the river. After warning us not to overshoot the river take-out point at the end of the road lest we sail on into the uncharted Lao hinterland, they strapped our tubes to the roof of a small truck and we climbed in the back along with an English couple to ride several kilometers upriver to the entry point.
From the looks of the river it was pretty easy to tell that it was the height of monsoon season. Though much smaller than the Mekong, the Nam Song was running fast and high, it's muddy brown waters swirling like Willy Wonka's river of chocolate. For anyone who has ever gone for a relaxing day of tubing down the Delaware back home, it was pretty much nothing like that at all. In fact, it was somewhat frightening. As we warily waded into the river, we had the added shocking bonus of finding the water to be quite cold. We climbed aboard our tubes and were quickly carried away by the swift current. We sat back and took in the scenery with our faces warmed by the sun and our butts freezing in the water.
The limestone rock formations along the banks of the river contain several caves. In most cases, the paths leading from the river up to the caves have been turned into riverfront attractions for tubers, complete with signs advertising cold drinks and men standing knee-deep in the water wielding long bamboo poles to assist would-be spelunkers out of the river as they drift by. Preferring the serenity of the river to the smell of bat guano, we passed up all such offers despite the best efforts of the pole men to convice us of the grandeur of their respective caves.
After only an hour or so, the swiftly flowing river brought us back to Vang Vieng where we successfully negotiated the take-out point and headed back into town.
Having conquered river tubing, our plan for the day was to do a bit of cave exploration, but not any of the easily accessible touristy caves near town. Instead we rented a couple of decrepit bicycles and pedalled out of Vang Vieng toward Tham Xang (the Elephant Cave) and Tham Nang Phomhorm (Cave of the Fragrant-Haired Woman).
According to a local hand-drawn map we had purchased, the caves were located 15 kilometers north of town on the other side of the Nam Song River. We rode through some beautiful countryside along the river and several villages. We passed many people who waved and smiled, especially the young children who would yell out "Hello! Hello! Hello!" and occasionally "I love you!". Some of the braver ones even ran up to smack our (well, actually just Sue's) outstretched hands.
After asking for directions from locals a couple of times, we found the correct turnoff and proceeded down a narrow muddy road to the riverbank. There was no bridge to cross over (as we had sort of expected). We explored the riverbank for a few minutes unsure if we were actually at the correct place when we noticed a man across the river get into a small longtail boat and head towards us. We concluded that he must be the ferryman and we were correct. I locked our bikes to a nearby fence made of bamboo poles and a few minutes later we had negotiated a river crossing deal and the ferryman delivered us safely across the strong current to the opposite bank.
We followed a trail up from the bank past a small, empty riverside cafe to the Tham Xang cave. It was actually much smaller than we had expected and did not take us long to view the Buddha images, the Buddha "footprint", and stalactite vaguely resembling an elephant's head contained inside.
Leaving Tham Xang, we were directed toward Tham Nang Phomhorm by a conveniently unoccupied young man carrying a flashlight. Seeing no obvious signs pointing the way, we reluctantly followed him. I was trying to avoid paying for an unnecessary guide service, but after seeing that the path lead through a confusing maze of rice paddies, we thought it wiser to let him lead the way. This turned out to be a good move because about five minutes into our trek through the paddies, he suddenly gave a girlish scream and leapt off the embankment along which we were walking and into the knee-deep water. I froze just long enough to see the problem - a thin, copper-colored snake in our path - and promptly joined our intrepid guide in the water. (Minus the girlish scream, of course.) Sue was several paces behind and stayed put. The snake was only two or three feet long, but from what I remembered, snakes with copper colored heads are generally bad news. Besides, judging from our guide's reaction, the little fella was not to be trifled with. It was not aggressive, however, and slithered away into the water on the other side of the embankment. Pitfall Harry and I climbed out of the water and we all continued on.
Upon reaching the entrance to the cave at Tham Nang Phomhorm we found that a 5000 kip (about 50 cents) per person entry fee was required. We thought that was exorbitant (believe it or not). The cave keepers said it would only take half an hour to reach the end of the cave and return so Sue waited outside while I paid the fee and went in to have a look. Armed with our flashlights, Pitfall Harry and I set off into the darkness.
We did not go far before I started having doubts. The cave floor quickly became muddy and slippery and the ceiling came down low enough that I could not walk upright. It certainly did not appear to be the kind of place where a Fragrant-Haired Woman would be found. Some lights appeared and voices sounded ahead of us and we soon encountered a guided group of backpackers returning from the nether recesses of the caverns. They were all fairly muddy and bruised, limping along in groups of two or three. They were excited to learn that the cave entrance was quite near and barely stopped to answer my questions as they passed. I did manage to get a consensus that the total return trip was closer to two hours and was a dirty and challenging endeavour. Fearing mud on my freshly cleaned clothes and backpack more than for my well-being, I told Harry that we were cancelling the trip and going back to the entrance.
Back outside, Sue made a fuss about getting my entry fee back since I had only been inside for a few minutes and we had been mislead by their information. With some translation help from the guide of the group I had passed, she was (surprisingly) successful. We made a reptile-free hike back to the river and found our ferryman.
During the long bike ride back to Vang Vieng, I somehow lost my bike lock so upon arriving in town I had to go to a small hardware store and buy a replacement. We ended the day with an average pizza and poor quality pirated VCD movies at one of the backpacker cafes.
Early in the morning we trudged through a heavy rain with our gear to the bus station at the edge of town to catch the 5:30 bus south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. When we left Vang Vieng, the bus was nearly empty and we spread ourselves out comfortably in the back seats. By the time we rolled into Vientiane a few hours later (after stopping every ten feet or so to pick up passengers and load things onto the roof), the bus was crammed full of country folks bringing rice, fruit, vegetables, and chickens to the city market. People were practically in our laps and there was barely room to breathe.
We got off the bus in the chaotic terminal and worked our way through the crowd of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers toward the backpacker's cheap hotel neighborhood a few blocks away. The guidebook listed hotels with air-conditioned rooms in the US$10-$15 range, but I instead convinced a reluctant Suzanne to take a large, semi-clean room with a fan at the government run MIC Guesthouse for 45,000 kip (about US$4.50). Since our next destination would be Vietnam, I handed over our passports and the US$110 fee (!) to the hotel staff to secure our visas for us. Then we prepared to kill three stifling days in Vientiane waiting for them to come back from the embassy.
The city was not really what I was expecting (but then again nothing really has been!) Though containing a few preserved buildings from the French colonial era, Vientiane was far from the quaint riverside town I had envisioned. Though situated along the Mekong, the section bordering the river is a rather unsightly expanse of marshland. The city is small and less chaotic by comparison to other Southeast Asian capitals we had visited like Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and possessed none of the cosmopolitan air that we found in at least some areas of those cities.
We walked around the city center a bit, through the sprawling morning market of Talat Sao, and witnessed a young boy in training as a pickpocket outside the bus station. The humidity was thick and heavy and almost seemed to trap the exhaust fumes of passing vehicles, making the air palpably toxic. We returned to our dingy hotel room late in the afternoon to find bamboo scaffolding had been erected outside our window to support the efforts of some inquisitive young men who were painting the exterior of the building. This was the last of a recent string of several last straws for Suzanne and after dinner we walked a few blocks over to a more upscale hotel neighborhood and found a place called the Dragon Lodge to move into the following morning. This hotel was new and run by the petite and friendly Mr. Pitchit, whom Suzanne took an immediate liking to. She persuaded him to give us a large, plush room with air-conditioning, clean private bathroom, and satellite TV for only US$8. Over the next couple of days Sue and Mr. Pitchit would develop their friendship with threpeutic conversations about interior decorating, hotel management, and cooking, while I braved the heat to see some of Vientiane's attractions.
In the morning we hauled our gear over to the Dragon Lodge where we were greeted enthusiastically by Mr. Pitchit. Leaving Sue to wallow in air-conditioned bliss, I set off to explore Vietiane.
I started out by walking out to the edge of the city proper to have a look at the Three Elephants Statue, situated unceremoniously next to a gas station on the main road leading into town. From there I spent some time observing the colorful mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Buddha on the walls of Vientiane's largest temple, Wat Ong Teu, while in turn being myself observed by some colorful monks. Walking on down through some small alleyways I found myself along the aforementioned waterfront area. A local tourism brochure I had picked up described the stretch along the Mekong as "a good place for taking a rest". Your final rest, maybe. I thought a better description might be "a good place to dump your lawn clippings".
Moving on I visited the temple of Ho Phra Keo, which at one time housed Thailand's fashion-conscious Emerald Buddha, but is now a museum displaying Buddhist sculpture. After that I headed over to Wat Si Sisaket to see thousands of tiny earthenware Buddhas occupying niches inside the temple walls. I rounded out my tour by passing by That Dam (the Black Stupa), regarded as the city's protector because of the legendary seven-headed dragon who lives underneath. The dragon apparently does not hold much sway with the younger generation, as I watched a lively soccer match being played at the base of the stupa.
As it was getting on for afternoon, I stopped at the Talat Sao market for some noodle soup and a chat with an old Englishman who filled me in on what to see in Vietnam.
Heading back to the hotel, I found Sue and Mr. Pitchit sitting in the lobby having tea. She was helping him design some marketing material to attract foreigners such as ourselves arriving at the bus station. As I walked in Sue was saying something like "and definitely emphasize clean bathrooms!" Mr. Pitchit giggled in agreement.
Later in the afternoon we bumped into another travelling couple, Mike and Andrea from Detroit, who had been on the boat with us crossing from Thailand to Laos. They also had happily found their way to Mr. Pitchit's magical Dragon Lodge paradise. In the evening we joined them for dinner at a cafe across the street from some pizza which was not too bad, for Laos.
I worked on updating the website while Sue watched movies in the hotel room on a VCD player supplied by Mr. Pitchit. In the afternoon our friends Andrew and Suzie from Australia arrived at the hotel from northern Laos (they had better luck travelling up there than we had). We all walked over to a nearby night market to buy some food and then shared a meal of fried chicken, sticky rice, spicy vegetables, and Beer Lao while recounting our activities since we had parted in Luang Prabang a few days earlier.
In the morning Andrew, Suzie, and I headed down to the bus station to do some sightseeing at a place called Tha Deua located 24 kilometers outside of Vientiane. Suzanne stayed at the hotel with Mr. Pitchit to have a tea party or watch soap operas or something. After negotiating the chaos of the station, we found ourselves on a small, crowded local bus heading out of town. With some help from the other passengers (since we couldn't read the signs), we got off at the correct stop.
Tha Deau is a wacky sculpture park filled with all shapes and sizes of Buddha images and personalities from the Hindu pantheon. We walked around the park for about an hour observing the various and sometimes amusing cement sculptures. We then caught a bus back toward the city. Andrew and Suzie were on their way over to Thailand so we said goodbye when the bus stopped for them to get off to cross over the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge over the Mekong while I continued on back to Vientiane.
In the afternoon I picked up our passports with new Vietnamese visas from the MIC Guest House and then headed back to the Dragon Lodge to help Sue pack up our gear. Early in the evening we said farewell to Mr. Pitchit and prepared for the next leg of our journey - a 24 hour bus ride across the border and on to Hanoi in northern Vietnam.
A mini-van shuttle picked us up from the hotel (impressive, we thought!) and then deposited us in front of another hotel a few blocks away. (Hmm, not so impressive.) A few minutes later we were led a couple of blocks further to a dark street corner where several other backpack-toting foreigners. We waited for another half hour and a bus finally appeared. We stowed our packs and climbed aboard. The bus, mercifully was not ancient, but wasn't brand new either. It was filled mostly with Asian men, the balance made up by about ten of us foreigners. Sue and I were having flashbacks to our attempted trip to Phonsavanh and were praying that the roads would be intact.
Around eight o'clock the bus rolled out of Vientiane. The first few hours of the ride were relatively uneventful. I remember thinking that I was glad Sue had had these past three days to be insulated from Southeast Asia and revitalize her mental and physical fortitude. From what we had heard, travelling through Vietnam was amazing, but quite a challenge. Little did we know just how soon the real fun was to begin...
Around midnight the bus pulled into a large empty clearing off to the side where another bus was parked. I grew immediately suspicious as we had heard stories (and warnings) about buying long haul bus tickets which started out on decent buses but made passengers change over to dilapidated heaps in the middle of their journey, often at a place where no other travel options were possible. My fears were soon allayed, however, as the driver managed to explain that only passengers headed to southern destinations (not Hanoi) had to change to the other bus. A few people left our bus and we continued on.
A short while later the relatively smooth ride we had been enjoying on the mostly sealed road gave way to a rough dirt road winding through a hilly region. Rain began to fall and my apprehension prevented me from sleeping as I strained to watch the road ahead dimly illuminated by the bus headlights. Sue had taken a Dramamine to avoid any possible motion sickness and appeared to be mostly asleep. After lurching along the narrow road for a couple of hours, the bus pulled up in front of some sort of roadhouse, for lack of a better description. The building was the victim of multiple addition and renovation projects, the latest of which appeared to have been abandoned halfway to completion. Random piles of scrapwood, broken bricks, and hardened piles of cement littered the mud-covered parking area. The only light around came from the inside of the roadhouse itself and through the rainy gloom I could make out a few other partly constructed and seemingly abandoned buildings in the general vicinity. Beyond them was the eerie and complete darkness of the rainforest. I'm not sure where exactly we were, but I'd say it was the textbook definition of a desolate location. It was about three o'clock in the morning.
Thinking that we were taking a half-hour food and toilet break, a couple of the other foreigners and I stood on some rocks sticking up out of the mud near the front of the bus and waited for the driver to return. The rain had let up to a light drizzle. A half hour turned into forty-five minutes and then an hour and one by one we gave up and went back inside the bus to try and get some sleep. This proved almost futile as every few minutes one or two of the Asian men would start talking (loudly), or coughing, or light up a cigarette to further pollute the already stale air inside the bus.
Finally at six o'clock the driver started the bus, cranked up the volume on some awful, tinny Lao pop music, and we bumped and bounced our way on along the road. As hour later we arrived at the border crossing. I felt as if I had been hit by a truck. Sue didn't look much better.
Like a bunch of zombies, we shuffled off the bus and were led into the Lao immigration building. The place was quiet and empty except for our busload of travellers. The bus driver collected the passports of the foreigners to present to the lone immigration official while everyone else brought theirs up to the counter. About half an hour later we had all received our exit stamps from Laos and boarded the bus again to cross the border into Vietnam at a place called Lao Bao, which is very near to former DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which separated North Vietnam and South Vietnam until unification in 1975.
Along the road to Tham Xang (Elephant Cave), Vang Vieng
Water buffalos sporting trendy coats of mud, Vang Vieng
Barber Shop, Vang Vieng
Wat Ong Tue (1), Vientiane
Wat Ong Tue (2), Vietiane
Old side street, Vientiane
Riverfront real estate along the Mekong, Vientiane
Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane
Many big buddhas, Wat Sisaket, Vientiane
Many little buddhas, Wat Sisaket, Vientiane
The land of misfit buddhas? Wat Sisaket, Vientiane
That Dam (Black Stupa), Vientiane
Football match beneath the Black Stupa, Vientiane
Tha Deua sculpture park (1)
Tha Deua sculpture park (2)
Tha Deua sculpture park (3)
Tha Deua sculpture park (4)
Tha Deua sculpture park (5)
Tha Deua sculpture park (6)
Tha Deua sculpture park (7)