Woke up in the kaleidoscopic room with a fuzzy head after drinking far too much last night. Crystal too, had a bad hangover. Udonthani’s weird energy must have driven us to drink more than we intended too….and now we had to get the bus to Laos.
The first bus didn’t leave until 11am, which gave us time to stroll down to a coffeeshop, where I enjoyed a waffle washed down wih a nice latte whilst we watched the flow of traffic slowly speed up from old men drawing carts of food to wagons thundering by in the pale morning light. We felt relaxed, and glad to have only spent a night here. I perhaps haven’t painted a rosy picture of Udonthani. It really isn’t that bad.
We wandered back to the bus station and bought a ticket to the Thai-Lao friendship bridge, which spans the Mekong river between Nong Khai in Thailand and Tha Na Lend in Laos, and is a mere 20 km southeast of Vientiane. The bus ride was smooth – pleasant even – and the scenery along the perfectly flat land was tranquil and beautiful. Somewhere along a dusty main road the bus stopped and we had to get off (at least those who wanted to go to Laos did). A couple of jumbos waited to take us to the bridge for a fee that required excessive bargaining down, but was still expensive in the end, at $2 a person. We had to settle for it…..stranded in a dusty border town, too far from the border to walk, we had little choice. No doubt the bus driver got his cut. We joined a Canadian guy and his Thai wife, called Porn, in the back of the jumbo. The Canadian had a family back in Canada, but had ditched them all for the love of this woman, who was far from endearing and spoke poor English at best. Still, he seemed carefree and happy. A familiar story. She was happy too, obviously.
We reached the border and hopped out, before hopping back in again to go back to the overstayed visa office, which we didn’t need to go to, then back to the Friendship Bridge. After a passport check we boarded a bus for the short ride a across the Mekong. Arriving at the other border, I paid $15 for my visa, and Crystal paid $20. The Taiwanese passport, not recognized by many countries, is a troublesome one at times, and she often has to pay a little more for her visa to be processed. We then waited outside the office, along with a motley crew of grubby travellers. One particularly mad looking American with a bald head and bulgy eyes who wore a manic grin started talking rubbish to me. Always to me. “Fuck man…..I can’t wait to get in there….take there fucking time here man…..gonna stay for a good while…..smoke as much hash and opium as I can. I hope my passport gets through OK…..if they send me back to the States I’m fucked……been smuggling drugs for so fucking long Ill never see the light of day again if those fuckers send me back to fucking America…..you gotta be fucking careful in this game, man….” And on he went. I humoured him for a while, then introduced him to a random girl I’d never met and walked off, leaving him to tell her all about his drug-trafficking exploits. Fucking weirdo.
Got the passports back. Mine with a lovely visa glued across a whole page. Crystal’s with a stapled in visa that would be torn out when she left Laos. We passed through another security check and finally emerged on the other side of the border and set our foot in Laos for the first time…..and managed a split second of peace before the taxi touts descended upon us. I spotted 2 girls looking a little exasperated, and I asked them if they wanted to share a taxi with us to Vientiane. They gladly agreed, and we all bundled into a taxi for the relatively cheap ride into the city centre. Our new friends were a Ukranian girl called Lola, and her Italian friend. Coincidentally, they both live in Singapore, where they study at university on an exchange programme. We asked the taxi driver to drop us off at Nam Phu, a circular landmark close to the river, hotels, bars and restaurants. From here, we asked for directions to the Vayakorn Guest House, which is just 2 blocks west of Nam Phu. It was a sweltering day, and we could hear the drone of insects in the quiet streets. A car slipped past occasionally, and motorbikes quietly buzed around. And that was it. This is the capital city of Laos, and it’s so quiet and peaceful you’d think it was a provincial market town. A market town full of giant turtles on 2 legs, however.
Yes, as we rounded the corner onto Th Nokeo Khumman, there they were. 15 disorientated giant turtles, some going in circles, others striding purposefully….all with their lonely planet guidebooks heading to the same hotel. From the other side we saw more of them….they were filling up the Lonely Planet recommended hotels in no time, and those who hadn’t found a hotel in the ‘bible’ looked decidedly folorn. Where now would they sleep? “I’m gonna check out Riverside Palace hotel” I announced, spotting a nice nice looking hotel futher down the street and close to the Mekong. “Is it in the Lonely Planet?” Asked a bunch of young and innocent looking travellers with furrowed brows as they quickly flipped through the bible. “Well, it isn’t in the book…..we’re gonna check out the Mixay Guesthouse instead.” They all nodded eagerly, feeling safe and unified…..bound by the travellers code of the bible, the code that demanded independent travellers to conform. Crystal and I pressed on to the Riverside Palace, striding away to gasps of fear or admiration, and we checked in to a lovely room with a river view for $20 a night.
We dumped our bags, feeling eager to get out and embrace the sunshine and the capital. Tuk-tuks waited outside offering tours of the main sights. Deciding that we could walk around most of the main sights, seeing as they were in such close vicinity to each other and to our hotel, we opted to go only to the main temple – the post card attration of Vientiane: Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Laos. We hopped into the tuk-tuk, and the gentle driver chugged along the quiet streets, before hitting the busier Th Lan Xang. Here, we were greeted with a sight of the Patuxai – a large monument resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Beyond this, we soon saw the golden gleam of Pha That Luang. The main stupa – a huge golden one the shape of a fountain pen nib, is fabulous to look at, and as we walked down towards it some monks were walking around in front, the orange of their robes always making for a great photo opportunity. The main stupa was built in 1566, and later four wats were built around it, though only 2 remain now. We visited both of them: Wat That Luang Neua, to the North, and Wat That Luang Tai, to the south. Crystal and I spent a couple of hours in the grounds, soaking in the magic of the place. It really is a beautiful temple, and like all such places, I felt like I could spend all day there taking photos.
Poor Crystal then began feel ill, a victim of mild food poisoning from the seafood dinner in Udonthani, so we ordered our tuk-tuk driver to take us to a hospital. Surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling similar effects. Perhaps my stomach, so often invaded by foreign bacteria from the food, had become immune to this particular strain of mild seafood poisoning. I felt sorry for Crystal. She’s never before experienced the joy of food poisoning. Fortunately, this was a mild case, and we dealt with it early. The driver dropped us at the Mahasot international hospital. Crystal was attended to within minutes We were taken into a room where a local man was lying down on a bed bleeding from the head, obviously suffering from a motorbiking accident. Crystal lay down on the next bed, and the doctor asked her some questions, then he walked around and hummed for a while, before sitting down and taking out a notepad. He took my details, then Crystals. He didn’t seem to know what to do, so I asked him to tap her stomach feeling for the hardness and inflammation. After this, he again hummed and paced the room, as though completely clueless as to what to do. The injured man next to us looked to be losing consciousness, and he was sweating in the sun streaming through the window. Then, to my relief, the doctor finally took a stethoscope and placed the metal circle around Crystal’s belly, listening for clues of an angry and painful stomach. After some time, he went back to his desk, then returned to take her blood pressure. Eventually, he called me over to the desk. “She’s got mild food poisioning”, he explained, which was just what I’d told him before. He then prescribed some antibiotics and some vitamins to build strength, and told Crystal to avoid spicy food and alcohol….I knew she’d find avoiding spicy fare particularly difficult. We got the prescription, then bought the medicine from a bizarre hole-in-the-wall chemist down the corridor. Only the woman’s hands could be seen as we exchanged money for medicine. I tried to pay with $50, but was told no change was available, so I managed to pool together some smaller money and pay the $28 hospital bill. I thanked the doctor, for he doesn’t have an easy job, and we left to stroll down the main road by the river, Th Mahasot.
The sun was setting, and I had a mean thirst to quench. We headed to a lovely restaurant by the Mekong, and I ordered the first of many beer Lao, the only beer from Lao, and in many places the only beer available. It tasted delicious, and went well with the fish I ordered. We sat and enjoyed the quiet breeze, and the view of fishermen heading back for dinner off the Mekong, as the red sun fizzled out in its glowing waters. Darkness fell in this charming city, and we headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for an evening out.
Vientiane isn’t known for it’s nightife, but there are certain places worth visiting. We strolled the quiet, dark streets in search of a busy place, and finally found Martini Bar, a very chic place with a delighful European ambiance. I supped a classic martini in the plush red interior, then we headed to an Italian restaurant/bar opposite our hotel, where I ordered my second dinner of the evening – a pepperoni pizza – and enjoyed a glass of red wine. An Irish coffee in a live music bar rounded off a nice evening out, and we returned to the hotel. Crystal, thankfully, was already feeling much better, and we were all set to catch the bus mid-morning to Vang Vieng, after a morning stroll around some of the other sites. A great day.