Saturday, June 5, 2010

Vientiane I

We woke up on a moving train on the 16th. We still had a bit of a ride to go, so we sat around eating some Oreos and chatting. Within a few hours though, we had arrived in the north-eastern Thai city of Nong Khai. It's right on the border of Laos and it's where passengers have to switch to the international train. The name "international train" really made me chuckle because the train was, literally, a 10 minute ride. We paid $1 each for a 10 minute ride across the Friendship Bridge. That's the bridge that spans the Mekong River, which is basically the border between Thailand and Laos. It was an uneventful trip, as you might imagine. Once on the Laos side we had to wait around while we got our visas. It was a simple matter of filling out some paperwork, paying our $30 and waiting until they decided to give us back our passports. And after that was done we had to deal with getting a ride into the city of Vientiane (the capital of Laos). Although the train station was in the middle of nowhere, there were plenty of vans out front, their drivers accosting us tourists with offers. Their offers weren't very good, either. After a bit of haggling we realized that they were probably part of one of those taxi "gangs" that has fixed prices. Since it was a fixed price per van rather than per person, we managed to get another single traveler to come along with us. He was a nice Canadian guy who was living in India and visiting his vacationing parents in Laos. We chatted for the half hour trip into the city and then parted ways once we arrived. Chuck and I got a little bit lost while trying to find our hotel, so we resorted to a tuktuk which got the job done. Finally, we found ourselves tucked into a pretty nice little room in the heart of Vientiane! The first thing on our mind was food, and the infamous Beer Laos. Beer Laos is praised throughout Southeast Asia, so we were excited to finally get the chance to try it. We walked down one of the more touristy roads and chose a somewhat upscale restaurant to eat at. Beer Laos was ordered along with some sauteed pork and banana flowers, and chicken steamed in a banana leaf. Both were very good. The banana flowers looked a bit like sauteed onion, but had a slightly more springy texture and a mild flavor. Pretty good. And the Beer Laos was - well, it was just beer as far as I could tell. A decent beer, but still just beer. No complaints from me, I guess. Oh, we also ordered a "Laos-gria." That's what it was called on the menu. It was Sangria, but possibly made with a regional type of alcohol rather than wine. They packed it with chunks of fruit, so it was kind of like dessert. All in all, a pretty good start to our trip through Laos. As you might imagine, we didn't get any sight seeing done that day. We relaxed at the hotel. Chuck ran down the road and got us baguettes for dinner. Oh, baguettes, that reminds me. You will find lots of baguette shops in Laos. Why? Because they were colonized by the French up until around 1950. Along with some French architecture, they have quite a bit of French food. In the big cities you can find fancy French restaurants, and in smaller towns you're sure to find, at the very least, baguette vendors. It's actually rather strange... Baguettes in Southeast Asia. Who'd'a thunk?

The 17th was a day of rest for some reason. All we did was have breakfast at the hotel - which i thought was really good: pork and rice porridge, fried eggs, and toast - and relax all day. We drank quite a few Beer Laos that day, but it's such a weak beer that we weren't even effected. As dusk fell the town was swarmed by a mass of flying bugs. We were sitting downstairs in the restaurant area enjoying a drink, when a bug decided to crawl along my arm. I flicked him off and thought nothing of it. Then another one landed on me. I flicked him off and a few moments later one was bothering Chuck as well. We began noticing there were a few bugs on the tables around us. And then the front desk guy came in quickly and shut all the windows and turned off the lights. We finally noticed that the street lights outside were teeming with flying insects, trying to get as close to the light as they could. I never understood that - why are they attracted to light when it does them so little good? Do moths try and fly to the moon? Do flying ants fly right into fires? The answer is out there somewhere... After quickly finishing our drinks we headed up to our room, where the hallway was filled with the nasty little bugs. We flipped off the lights, which actually dispersed most of the crowd pretty quickly. Even still, I felt a few of the critters bumping into my face as we dashed down the hall and into our room. Ick! We tried to keep the lights turned off in the room as we got ready to go out for dinner because we found the bugs crawling towards it from under the door. Walking down the street to dinner, they were at each street light. Even though they were thinning out, I was still amazed at how many there were. We ate at a street cart with portable tables, and it was delicious, as we have come to expect from street carts. By the time we were finished the swarm had disappeared. So we walked along the Mekong River where all the night vendors had set up. I got a little stuffed elephant for one of my oldest friend's unborn baby. He's cute. The elephant, that is. Although, I'm sure the baby will be cute too, of course.

On the 18th we actually took a look around the city. We started by heading to the ATM for some money - ATMs are kinda hard to find in Vientiane, by the way. I heard that a few years ago they literally didn't have any ATMs though, so I guess we should have been glad to be able to find one at all. We got about 1,000,000 kip out. Yeah, you read that right. One million. It's about 8,500 kip to the US dollar, so the 1,000,000 kip was only about $120. That's the most you could get out of the machine at one time. Next we got a tuktuk to the Thai Embassy. Out front were a bunch of people with the visa forms for us to fill out, etc. We figured that we should be able to get the forms inside the embassy so we passed them all by, ignoring their persistence. Just as we thought, the same forms were available in the embassy. We filled them out without any hassle and waited patiently for our number to be called. We turned in our forms, paid our fees and that was that. They told us to come back the next afternoon to pick up our visas. After we were finished with that particular obligation we took some time to see the city. We did this by walking back to our hotel rather than hitching a ride. We stopped into a temple - nothing too fancy - where a young monk came up to speak with us just so he could practice his English. I know this because he asked "Can I practice my English with you?" He was nice and showed us around the temple grounds a bit. I made sure to keep my distance from him, out of respect since they have the whole no-touching-a-woman thing and all. As we were leaving the temple the most pathetically helpless little black kitten stumbled over to us, meowing piteously in his tiny voice. He was quite starved looking. The only thing we could do for him was to give him some gentle pets and then leave him behind. I wished we could have taken him with us, though. We made our way to Patuxai, or as we took to calling it, the Laos Gate (because it reminded us so strongly of the India Gate in New Delhi). We should have been calling it the Arc de Laos instead though, since it was apparently supposed to be a local rendition of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Yet another effect of French colonization. The big arc is surrounded by a lovely park scattered with palm trees. Continuing past this we walked down one of the main roads towards the river, watching people as we went and making a quick trip through the morning market. The market had a lot of stalls filled with colorful fabrics that could be used to make a traditional Laos skirt, or maybe a top or whatever else they'd be willing to create. The Laos skirt is worn by a large portion of the ladies throughout Laos. From school girls to old women peddlers, most of them wore the skirt. It's just a large tube of fabric that you step into, fold the excess fabric over in the front and tuck it in. They look quite comfortable, but I'd be worried mine would constantly fall off. Maybe you can pin it down. And the fabrics they are made from ranged from colorful and intricate to muted and not as intricate. Very pretty. Outside the market we got a photo of two girls playing with a younger girl that was cute. I found myself frequently struck by how lovely many of the girls and women were. Our walk took us past the presidential palace, surrounded by a high fence and looking very comfortable, another temple that was under construction, and the US embassy. I tried to take a picture at the embassy but the guards told me I wasn't allowed. Since they had big guns I put my camera away. Just past the embassy was an ancient looking chedi, or stupa, that made up the center of a traffic circle - I liked the contrast of the worn, dull stone against the bright yellow VW bug parked next to it. We passed by the famous fontaine (which was really disappointing - I don't know why people would go out of their way to see it) and stopped into a temple that was just down the street from our hotel. The temple itself was closed, but I was interested in peeking, from a distance, through the doorways of the school that was located on the temple grounds. The kids were noisy and talkative and it didn't seem to be too different from an average school in the US in that regard. We were fairly exhausted when we got back to the hotel and some relaxation was in order. This undoubtedly involved beer and computers, cause that's how we roll. The only other interesting observation of the day was at dinner. We ate at a restaurant that was also a home. We sat in the front, and in the back was a couch and coffee table with a TV and various other homey trinkets set up around it. There were two kids were sitting at a table nearby doing homework, while a younger child ran around the place in a pair of sparkly shoes three times too big for her. The family dog wandered lazily around the restaurant trying to avoid too much attention from the little girl. It was like we had just decided to drop in to someones home for dinner. A lot of restaurants throughout the city were set up this way. It was nice though, I liked it. The little girl waved goodbye to us when we left.

We had to go pick-up our passports from the Thai Consulate on the 19th. We gave the tuktuk driver 22,000 kip instead of the 20,000 we had negotiated for, just because he was nice and hadn't given us too hard a time in regards to the price. The passport pick-up was fast and easy, and inside we each had a shiny new Thai visa. Once again, we walked back to the hotel rather than get a ride. We went a different route though. It wasn't as nice as the day before but at least we got to see different things. Mostly closed temples. We walked all the way down to the Mekong River even though we knew it was all under construction. It certainly wasn't a pretty sight. Everything was dusty and barren and I could barely even see the water of the river from the edge of the construction area. We got to people watch as we walked though, so it was alright. I got a kick out of a couple of kids on the playground. They were on a seesaw and the bigger boy would bear down on his side, leaving the smaller boy helpless up in the air. They seemed to be having fun. We eventually crossed the road and began looking for food. Somehow we ended up in a Belgian restaurant having a Laotian meal. It was a set meal for two that consisted of four traditional dishes, sticky rice, and Laos wine. I had my doubts, due to it being a Belgian joint, but man was it good! We had fried morning glory, which I never would have chosen from a menu on my own, and was shocked by how tasty it was. And the salad dish was topped with boiled eggs and fried banana flowers, which was delicious. The Laos wine was very strong and tasted more like tequila or vodka than wine. It certainly warmed you up inside. On the way back to the hotel we saw what we thought was a dead cat. We had seen him the day before, actually, and were sure then that he wouldn't last the night. He was the skinniest cat, by far, that I had ever seen. When we came upon him again, lying there sleeping we wondered if maybe had hadn't fallen into his eternal sleep. We stopped at stared at him for a few moments, trying to see if his chest was moving with his breathing, and then he twitched a whisker and we sort of exhaled. Poor thing - he can't have lasted much longer after we last saw him. I thought about going and getting him some food, but I thought perhaps I would just be prolonging the inevitable. He obviously isn't fit enough to manage taking care of himself on the streets, where he lives, and my help would give him a one-day boost of strength only to be followed by starvation again. If I was able to take him somewhere and nurse him back to health, that's another story, but I didn't really have that option... As you might can tell, I had a bit of guilty anxiety about the little kitty. I managed to bury my guilt in the purchase of a new purse/bag later in the evening, though. The purse I had been using was bought in England, almost a year previous, and it was pretty gross and dirty. There was a silk shop near our hotel that had a particular bag that I had been eying whenever we passed by. Since we were planning on leaving the next day I decided it was now or never. It was expensive for Laos, but it had a nice story and I liked the lady selling it so I went ahead and got it. When I say expensive I mean it was $14, or 120,000 kip. But she had a lovely little shop and claimed that all her bags were handmade from fabrics made by remote groups of village people throughout Laos. That she would buy their old fabrics, cut them up and make them into purses, clothes, laptop bags, etc. There are various reasons I think she was telling the truth. One: she had a rack of bags that weren't yet completely sewn up. Some still needed linings or a zipper, etc. Two: Many of the bags had worn or dirty marks on the fabric, making them look like they may have indeed been used by someone for a while. Three: she wasn't particularly pushy with me to buy. I got her down from 150,000 to 120,000 kip and happily walked away with a colorful new bag. Woohoo! Oh, apparently the fabric used in my bag was from the Meo people in north-western Laos. Very cool. After my hefty purchase we needed money for our upcoming trip to Vang Vieng, so we stopped into one of the few ATMs and got 1.5 million kip. Yes. 1,500,000. That was a big enough number that we just had to spread it all over the bed and take a picture. Man, it would feel nice to hold that much money in USD... Or better yet, in British pounds. Roll around naked in it. One can dream.

On the 20th we packed, had breakfast and checked out. A songthaew full of college-party-type tourists picked us up right from our hotel and took us to the bus that would take us to Vang Vieng. We were curious to see what this next city would hold for us.

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