Hi Mum, I’m in Vientiane

Vientiane is touted in guidebooks as a delightfully sleepy Southeast Asian capital, replete with idyllic riverside bars, quaint French colonial architecture, and the smell of baking bread permeating the streets. All rather enticing.

Sadly, our first impression of the place was that it was dusty, noisy, uninteresting, and that there wasn’t the merest whiff of baking bread about it. We actually felt quite disconcerted to be so unenchanted by the place that so many others enjoyed.

As we went for a walk we found that the entire riverside was being dug up, and instead of a lush, tropical destination it instead resembled a desert. The river was miles away from the actual ‘riverside’ (perhaps due to the low river levels that plagued us further upstream), and the excavators and tractors were stirring up tonnes of sand, all of which were being whipped into a frenzy by the strong southerly wind. Amazingly, as we walked along the riverside food vendors and bars were still present, in the midst of a veritable sandstorm, enticing us to come in, buy from us, have a beer, you like Beer Lao? We hastened away, wondering how these poor people could be making a living at the moment.

The next day we improved matters a little by getting out and about a bit more. The local market was immense and catering largely to the mobile phone and electrical goods consumers. It took ages to find anything like roadside snacks, but eventually we found some sweet rice balls and spicy rice paper rolls. We ate them, Lao-style, crouched in the gutter, to the amusement of the locals. They were delicious (the snacks, that is, not the locals).

We then made our way to the Patuxai Monument, otherwise known as the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. Sadly, our photos of this monster are still stuck on our other contaminated memory card, but it’s a sight to behold. It was built as a victory memorial, but the building wasn’t finished until the 1960s, when a load of cement donated by the US for the construction of an airport runway was diverted to this project. It’s quite astonishingly hideous, while simultaneously being quite charming and weird.

Our other main visit in Vientiane was to the COPE foundation. During the Vietnam war, the US dropped countless bombs over Laos in an attempt to block the flow of arms/troops to North Vietname. Laos now has the unwelcome distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation in the world. Horrifically, many bombs were cluster bombs which didn’t detonate on impact, leaving the country riddled with unexploded ordinances (UXOs). One source estimated the number of unexploded submunitions in Laos at 78 million. Needless to say, every year Lao people are injured or killed as a result of inadvertently detonating submunitions dropped on the land more than 30 years ago during a war that didn’t involve them.

COPE is a rehabilitation foundation with a hospital in Vientiane. It provides prosthetic and orthotics to the victims of UXOs and also designs wheelchairs and other vehicles to increase mobility. The work they do is absolutely amazing. Their hospital has a great visitor centre with information, films, survivor stories and more about the UXO problem and the progress they’ve made. It’s a wonderfully uplifting (though undeniably tragic) place. I highly recommend a tour around their website, and a donation if you feel so inclined. Their donation page is great and also gives a sense of the attitude of optimism that seems to characterise COPE.

Enough of that – suffice it to say that our time at COPE made a visit to Vientiane well worth it. However, if we had any advice about travelling in Laos, it would be to start your trip in Vientiane and end it in Luang Prabang, as any superficial comparison between the two places will see Vientiane pull up short.

Following Laos, our next stop was Siem Reap, Cambodia. One way to travel from Vientiane to Siem Reap is to head south through Laos and cross the border into northern Cambodia. However, given the parlous state of the Lao roads and the unpredictable nature of the border crossing between Laos and Cambodia, we opted to take an overnight train back to Bangkok, then a bus to the Cambodian border, followed by a second bus into Siem Reap.

It sounds like a long journey and it was. We left Vientiane at around 3pm, and finally arrived in Siem Reap at 7pm the following day, having endured getting lost in Bangkok (we stupidly thought that Morchit bus station would be easy to find from Morchit train station), avoiding scammers at the Cambodian border, and a slow bus to Siem Reap. Luckily, we were entertained during this final bus ride, especially by the British girl sitting behind us. She must have just changed some money into Cambodian riel at the border, and on the bus said, “So if one pound is worth 5,600 riel, how much is ten pounds worth?” After discussion with her friends, she hazarded a guess. “So, is it, like, 25,000?” By the time we hit the traffic jam surrounding Siem Reap (and heard her ask the driver, “So, is Siem Reap a city or a town or something?”), it didn’t seem like she’d mastered her ten times tables yet.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Vang Vieng

There are reams that have been written about Luang Prabang – extolling its French colonial charm, its languidness or any other of its many appealing attributes. When it comes to travel literature, Vang Vieng doesn’t fare quite as well – some of its more choice reviews include “shithole”, “dive” and “blight”.

The thoroughly underwhelming reputation of the place didn’t deter us from visiting, as there were only a couple of reasons for us being there. Firstly, to break up the trip between Luang Prabang and Vientiane (we were still scarred by our previous experience of Lao infrastructure). And more importantly, we were there to sample Vang Vieng’s biggest tourist drawcard – tubing.

Amanda and I arrived in town after a seven hour bus trip during which I think we travelled a grand total of about 14km and the most exciting event was having to rescue someone who’d gotten themselves trapped in the hobbit-sized toilet.

Our first impressions weren’t all that favourable. The place is dusty, under constant construction, full of wasted English backpackers and most of the bars play episodes of Friends on constant rotation. There are some limestone cliffs surrounding town, but we couldn’t see them due to the smoke and dust haze.

The next day we headed into town to start our day’s tubing. In Vang Vieng, tubing involves being dropped a few kilometres out of town, sitting in an inner tube on the slow moving river (marvelling at the limestone cliffs that were invisible the day before) and stopping every 100m or so to sit at bars and drink cocktails out of buckets while watching people launching themselves into the river off swings and slides of questionable construction.

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A tough day out, eh?

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After our fair share of beers and buckets, we decided to paddle our way back into town. This was in spite of (or maybe to spite) the legion of tuk tuk drivers offering to drive us back to town. Exercising our best alcohol-powered better judgement we were convinced were trying to scam us.

Maybe the river was flowing a bit too slowly or maybe we were feeling a little too relaxed, but we only just made it back to town in time to return our tubes (having taken six hours to navigate four kilometres of river). Maybe those tuk tuk drivers weren’t trying to scam us after all…

That night we managed to find a bar that showed Family Guy instead of Friends and settled in for a few rounds of Beer Lao. On reflection, maybe Vang Vieng isn’t quite the hole that many have made it out to be. It’s a town that’s built on hedonism and, no matter what your opinion of Vang Vieng, it would be a shame to see it denigrated by puritanical ideas of what tourist destinations should be.

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Hi Mum, I’m in Luang Prabang

If you just spent 2 slightly hellish days getting to a destination, you couldn’t do much better than have that destination be Luang Prabang. Set on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, it’s an elegant, laid-back sort of place, with plenty of reminders of its French colonial history.

Things you can do in LP:
1. Get up to the sound of drums at dawn and stumble onto your guesthouse balcony to watch the monks from the various wats make their procession through town, collecting alms in the form of sticky rice.

2. Watch the local women try to sell sticky rice to foreigners so they can offer it to the monks, without revealing that the monks will not eat tainted offerings.

3. Visit Tamarind, a restaurant and cooking school run by Joy, a local man, and Caroline, his Aussie wife. Learn heaps about local food (surprisingly different from Thai and Vietnamese food). Be amazed by the utterly repellant Lao fish sauce (recipe: take whole fish. Place in water. Add salt, galangal and maybe garlic. Leave to ferment (ie. rot). Eat.) Prepare some great food in an idyllic setting. Fall in love with Lao beer snacks – dried, fried mushroom shreds flavoured with kaffir lime, chili and garlic.

4. Bump into some old uni friends that you just missed in Singapore (hey, Warren and Celia). Spend a great evening with them, drinking cheap cocktails in a secluded bar on the other side of the river, accessible only via rickety bamboo bridge, and eating more great food.

5. Visit the Kuang Si waterfall, a series of cascades about an hour out of town that look like they were deliberately designed by someone working for Disneyland or similar (this is actually a compliment). Swim in the gorgeous aqua water and wonder again why it is you don’t live in Luang Prabang.

6. Eat a gourmet French meal at LÉlephant, which but for the heat, the tiny geckos running around on the awning and the miniscule price, could be anywhere in France.