11 02 2011

I met up with Yana and Jan at the Spicy Laos hostel first thing in the morning ready for our bus to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. We were going to go straight to the hospital to visit Idiet but Kate’s mum let us know via Kate’s Facebook that they were already moving on to Thailand. The hospital in Vientiane had apparently been horrendous and they were going to a more modern, Westernised facility in Udon Thani just across the border.

It took about 5 hours to get down to the capital city. We were dropped right in the centre and it was a short walk to the street with all the guest houses on where we found a triple room at the Youth Inn 2 for 40,000 kip each. We weren’t planning to stay long in the capital and resolved to get the night-bus the very next day down to Don Det in Si Phan Don (the Four Thousand Islands) on the border with Cambodia. Obviously, Laos is a landlocked country so these islands are situated in the middle of the Mekong.

Vientiane was initially quite refreshing for a capital city. There really is no comparison to the other regional metropolises of Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh – most of the time I kept asking myself if this really was a capital city. The roads are quiet; there is none of the mayhem, noise and pollution that characterises the other cities and everything seemed very orderly and sedate. It felt more like a small town than the capital of anywhere. We went for lunch at the Swedish Pizza & Baking House and the smell of the fresh pizza was absolutely amazing – even though it was quite pricey compared to my normal backpacker fare I knew I’d have to have one. It was as delicious as it smelt!

Jan and I played a few games of Yaniv there whilst we waited for Yana to get back from the bank. This was annoying on at least two counts – the first was that he was absolutely thrashing me; he got more than 10 Yanivs in a row which should be statistically impossible. And the second was that at one point he asked me whose turn it was to deal. “Mine” I said immediately, forcing me to do 10 push-ups in the middle of the restaurant – it somehow seems unfair to catch people out playing the Game of Life when you’re not even drinking.

For the rest of the afternoon I desperately tried to find anywhere that did free WiFi. Most of the restaurants only seemed to offer chargeable WiFi from various local Telecom companies. We finally found a bar on the same street as our hostel (it turned out that this was where all the WiFi spots were) which offered a very ropey connection for patrons. At least now I was able to update my blog and get in touch on Facebook. There was still no word from the girls over in Thailand – we hoped that everything was okay.

In the early evening I was pleasantly surprised to meet the English full-time lads from Sapa and Halong Bay sitting on the terrace outside our guest house. I thought they were already in Luang Prabang and hadn’t expected to see them again before I left Laos. We had a good catch-up over a beer – apparently they were still playing Paper Telephone and the drinking game 21 that I’d taught them. At least I got an invaluable tip out of them on what to do in Vientiane before they left to catch their bus – Buddha park sounded like a must-see place. Jan, Yana and I headed down towards the Mekong River (ultimately disappointing – it was set so far back from the town and wasn’t the atmospheric river front I imagined it might be) to find a place for drinks and had another chance encounter with Julia and Jemima, the Aussie girls from Luang Prabang. We went for a few drinks with them in a Tex Mex bar down the road. It seemed okay to begin with but as we left it was filled with a lot of dodgy looking characters: sex tourists, lady boys etc. It seemed that Vientiane did share some of the characteristics of the other capital cities in the area after all.

Jemima wasn’t feeling too good so she headed home but the rest of us went to the market and grabbed some food there. It probably wasn’t actually that much cheaper than a local restaurant and didn’t particularly stand out. Afterwards we went for a few more drinks in one of the bars by the guest house and chatted away there till the bar shut (not particularly late). I finally traded one of my books with Julia for a copy of Marching Powder, which I’ve been wanting to read since Bolivia. We talked about going to the nightclub in town but we were all a bit tired and from Julia’s reports it was quite weird anyway so we headed off to bed instead.

After a late breakfast the next day we headed back to the guest house to book our bus ticket to Four Thousand Islands and discovered that the buses were all full. “But you told us it would be fine yesterday,” we protested to no avail. I decided to book one for the next evening but Jan and Yana put it off by one more day. At least it meant they could sort out their Thai and Vietnamese visas on Monday. I kept complaining that I was going to be “all by myself” which I of course sang like Rene Zellweger in Bridget Jones. I wasn’t jealous of them spending another day in Vientiane though, I was fast finding it too quiet for my liking and without any real tourist attractions.


Chicken in the bus

After we’d sorted out another night’s accommodation we got a local bus to Buddha Park. The bus was probably not the quickest way to do it but it was very cheap and you always get the most interesting experience travelling on local buses. At one point a monk was sitting next to us and a woman brought a squawking chicken into the bus on her lap. The journey took more than an hour; we first drove to the Thai border and Buddha Park was the last big stop.


The pumpkin of heaven and hell

The park itself was quite impressive; more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist sculptures vie for your attention – and some of them are really quite bizarre. One of them is sized like a giant pumpkin with a tree coming out of the top and you can climb your way through it to get a fantastic view across the whole park. Apparently the three levels are supposed to symbolise Hell, Earth and Heaven as you go up but this imagery was lost on me. The climb would probably have failed every health and safety guideline in a Western country – the stairs were sized for tiny-footed people; garden gnomes would have struggled with them.


Buddha Park

After clambering around the various sculptures and admiring the statues for a small while we headed back into town. There I finally decided to get my beard trimmed. It was getting to the stage where I could store food in it and hibernate for the winter; which is pretty gross really. I finally found a hairdressers near our guest house – the old woman led me to a back room; which she first needed to set-up to make it usable. I’m guessing that she didn’t get many customers there – at least I felt that I was making a direct contribution to the local community.

We didn’t do a lot else in Vientiane: we played innumerable games of Yaniv and drank a few casual beers but nothing really worthy of note. Before I knew it I was heading south to Don Det. I was travelling on my own for the first time since I arrived in Laos.