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Published: January 27th 2009
We had considered heading out to the Bolsoven Plain but in a snap decision decided instead to head for the capital Vientiane on the overnight sleeper bus which leaves at about 8:30pm in the evening. So after a delicious Indian breakfast back at Nazim's, we checked out of our guesthouse at noon and put our bags into storage till the evening. We used the day of leisure to catch up on internet browsing and visited several food and drink establishments. It is the eve of Chinese new year and many Chinese run establishments have elaborate shrines outside with offerings of food including whole chickens, ducks, sweets, beer and whisky. Incense sticks are lit. Also there are little ritual bonfires on which they put some kind of special paper offerings. A big spring clean also appears to be under way. Back at our guest house we waited in the garden in warm sunshine and chatted to two American single travellers. She recognised us from Don Det and has been travelling for nearly a year and a half and seemed in a bit of a trance like state after spending two weeks on Don Det. He was an interesting character - being a fisherman in Alaska. We finished eating with a quite good tuna topped pizza which was especially good not having had pizza for ages. The small truck picked us up from the guest house at 7:40 and took us to the bus depot. We boarded the sleeper bus and were assigned our beds. Each bed is a reasonable width double so I'm not quite sure how it works if you are a single traveller. Presumably you either buy two tickets or take pot luck on who you'll be sleeping next to. It's quite snug so must lead to some interesting arrangements. I had expected the bus to be all westerners but it was about half/ locals. There seemed to be some segregation applied with westerners at the back. We were at the border point half way in a top bunk. The bed length was perhaps a couple of inches to short for me but the mattress and pillow were quite comfy. The length would be quite a problem for a six footer. We had been warned that the air con makes the bus quite cold so we had come armed with jumpers and socks and were pleased to see that thick quil
was asleep on the floor of reception and we just waited on the road outside until he awoke. Then a strange thing happened. The sawngthaew re-appeared and the driver came up to us amazingly waving a passport sized photo of each of us. It was bizarre - we were both mystified as to what was happening. I suspected some scam but couldn't work out what it was or where the photos came from. Then it became clear - Jen had dropped her purse in the sawngthaew when she got me the change out as she thought she put it in her handbag. The driver was returning the purse in which he had found the photos so he was just checking that we were the owners of the purse before handing it back. We gave him a $10 note as a reward. It was strange to get the purse back before we had even been aware of losing it and were delighted at the honesty of the driver. What a start to the day. There was room at the inn. Having been shown a dodgy en-suite with just a mattress on the floor we opted for a scruffy but okay room with shared bathroom for only 60,000 kip (£5.50). We were tired and sweaty after the bus ride but needed breakfast so wandered the early morning streets to the Scandinavian Bakery for a lovely fresh breakfast. Amusingly on the way a conical-hatted street peddlar we met on a corner had one of her live catfish escape and she had to go back to retrieve it. We decided to follow a walk in the guide book before the heat got too strong and headed via the tourist office to the market. The goods market was okay but the vegetables, fruit, fish and meat market was a spectacle with bizarre veg and fruits and quirky items like bucket full of small live frogs, a cows head, pigs ears and numerous gruesome bits and pieces. We also walked the footpath along the riverfront. The town centre is amazingly small for a country's capital and pleasing to look at. The former French governor's office is an imposing building. We stopped for a fruit shake at a riverside café before retiring to our room for a freshen up and a nap. Hot water showers - what a luxury. In the evening we walked to an atmospheric little bar called Sunset Sala Khounta to watch the sun go own as local boys played football on a mudflat in the Mekong and others splashed or fished. The colours were lovely as the day ended. We've got the Indian food bug and had a very pleasant and cheap meal for about £5 for both of us including a shared BeerLao. I was delighted to discover that I can get an English language radio station on my radio - Radio Australia - so I can catch up on the news.
Tuesday 27th - Vientiane
We finished off the walking tour that we failed to complete yesterday - before the sun got too hot for walking - passing some impressive wats and taking the path along the riverfront. This follows for quite a bit of its length a rather unpicturesque bank of sandbags which are presumably a flood defence barrier that has been left in place since the high water of the previous rainy season. There are many tempting cafes along this stretch but we headed to the Scandinavian Bakery for one of their outstanding breakfasts. We bought a Vientiane Times and noticed a job advert for an immigration officer vacancy at the Australian Embassy, open to British Citizens. I wonder if I could bluff my way through an interview on Australian immigration procedures. Later we had our normal mid morning fruit shake stop. We then headed to the Laos National Museum. After the quite good dinosaur and archeological section there is a great ( and I think temporary) exhibition about one of the first westerners to journey up the Mekong through Laos. He was Gerrit van Wuysthoff of the Dutch East India Company who travelled up the Mekong in 1641. The expedition was incredible. He even shot a rhinocerous at one point. It was fascinating to read his account of the journey.
We reached the ground floor and started to look at the exhibits there, but hovering were some staff who indicated that it was lunchtime but that we could return later. It was very hot in the midday sun so we retreated to our room for some shade and a rest. I went back on my own to see the rest of the museum later in the afternoon. I found a small room that explains the bewidering number of ethnic groups of which the Laos people are composed. Many of the smaller groups live in remote and mountainous regions and resist assimilation into the mainstream culture and mai Just to give some idea of the diversity here are just some of the distinct groups Thai Dam,Thai Khau,Thai Pa, Thai Neua, Khamu, Htin. Lamet, Laven. Katu, Katang, Alak, Hmong, Mien. Many are non-Buddhist and hold animist beliefs or ancestor worship. It seems incredible that they have been able to maintain their identity in such a relatively small country. Hopefully they will survive tourism. Much of the lower floor is given over to the glorification of the Laos Revolutionary War and is unintentionally amusing in its ridiculousness. There are many photos of the aging ex revolutionaries who now rule the country in there heyday during the war against the French and then Americans. The exhibits feature comrade x's binoculars as used in the great revolutiionary war, comrade x's rice bowl as used in the great revolutionary war. I half expected to see comrade x's underpants as worn during the great revolutionary war. The following rooms are straight out of the soviet era with pictures of roads, bridges, hospitals and cow vaccination programs and other such wondrous achievements of the Peoples Democratic Government of Laos. (Funny how that any country with 'democratic' in it's name is inevitably not). God knows how many bored Laos schoolchildren have had to endure these exhibits. I think that now that Laos has adopted capitalism they should amend the hammer and sickle flag, that is widely flown, to incorporate a 4x4 as driven by the party high ups and their families. On a more serious note there is an interesting exhibit on the massive task of clearing the massive amount of unexploded ordnance that was dropped on Laos especially by the Americans. The problem is mainly from small bombs known as 'bombies' which are about the size of a tennis ball and which litter some areas of the countryside and still cause hideous injuries decades after they were dropped. . Unfortunately there used to be a big scrap metal business built on salvaging old munitions and many children in the past saw their menfolk handling old weaponry to recover the metal (or even the explosive for fishing) so in copying this behaviour there have been many accidents. Apparently this recycling business has now virtually died out and education programs are alerting children especially to the dangers of touching any devices - so hopefully the problem will diminish - but there will always be some hapless peasant who stumbles on UXO whilst simply trying to feed his family.
Again to the Scandinavian Bakery for breakfast- so good, why change - we read Bangkok Times. There seems to be continuing political unrest but I'm sure they wouldn't be stupid enough to close Bangkok airport again. I read elsewhere that the latest edition of the Economist magazine has been banned in Thailand for very mild criticism of royal family. It was swelteringly hot again as we walked the two kilometres Pha That Luang an iconic monument for the Lao. We popped in on the post office as we passed - the ususal bureaucratic queues for anything more complicated than buying a stamp. The wat and stupa look magnificent from the distance but we were surprised at dilapidated state.of what is the most important symbol of the country. Perhaps it's indicative of the one party state's true opinion of Buddhism to let it get in this state with peeling gold leaf and mould everywhere on the lower layers. We stopped off at Vientiane's 'Arc de Triomphe; which is alled the Putaxi. Bizzarely inside it contains t-shirt and souvenir shops. It was worth the climb for the view over the city. On the way back we were frustrated by a non-working ATM which refused to accept a valid PIN. At the bus station by the market we were pleasantly surprised to find bus timetable in sufficiently comprehensible English to understand route and times to Vang Vieng. We are a bit unsure whether to go to Vang Vieng as we happened to read that in the Vientiane Times that there is a big tourist conference there which may mean accommodation is in short supply. We tried to establish this at the tourist office but couldn't understand the broken English of the man on the counter and don't think he really understood what we were asking. We had great refreshing fruit juices and baguettes on the way back to our guest house. We missed sunset, .but in the twilight headed for one of the many restaurants that line the riverfront of the Mekong. Surprisingly there was no fish again so I settled for squid. We played cards - rummy as usual - Jen was on form. Back at our guesthouse we watched the communal TV on holiest sofa you've ever seen in the company of the stupidest looking dog I've seen for a long time.
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