Nothing but time in the capital

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Asia » Laos » West » Vientiane
July 30th 2015
Published: October 16th 2015
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When you think of capital cities certain images come to mind; high rises, large roads with traffic, malls, cinemas. Vientiane: home of around 800,000 residents has none of the above. Even popular sites are very limited and can be done in a day. Of course, with it being a Buddhist country there are many temples to visit but people tend to only visit the main few.

We were here as it is the gateway to getting into Thailand overland. You can actually see Thailand a short distance away across the Mekong from Vientiane. We're not in Thailand for long however, its just a stop off point for a couple days before our flight to New Delhi, India. Another reason that brought us here was to arrange our visa for India. We would like to say this was a fairly straight forward process but we'd be lying. The visa process should take 5 working days although our research online had shown people had waited a lot longer. We couldn't really afford any delay as our flight was already booked. Either way we were going to be in Vientiane for some time.

It took 4 hours via the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Even though the bus was fairly comfortable it definately did not live up to the VIP it had emblazoned on the top window. An hour before arriving, most people were enjoying a nap on the bus. The driver for some reason decided to play Laotian music quite loudly through all 10 speakers (which were fairly large for a bus) making most people jump out of their slumber. As usual the bus dropped everyone outside of the city, forcing us all to fork out a non negotiable 40k kip each for a tuk tuk. Thats half the price of the 4 hour bus we just took!

As we were driven into the city we peered out the back of the tuk tuk to get a glimpse of Laos' capital. The buildings weren't nothing like you'd expect from a capital. No high-rises at all. It had 3/4 storey high buildings, colonial builds with the wooden shutters, some concrete buildings possibly from the 60/70's and a few temple complexes dotted around.

That evening at our hostel we had a drink with Stephen and Claire (the 2 teachers we'd met in Vang Vieng) and also Theresa (a German girl we'd met on the tuk tuk into town). We agreed to meet up the following day to go on our own diy bike tour around the city to visit some of the popular sites. P even penned out an intended itinerary on a couple maps for everyone. Highly organised affair this was.

Before the tour though we first had to locate the Indian embassy early in the morning. Before bed we'd made sure we had all of the requested documents: online form filled and printed, photocopy of passport and Laos visa, passport sized pictures, flight into country and accommodation booking for first destination. We were prepared. We'd read so many forums where people had been turned away from the embassy due to missing information or not having a photo uploaded onto the websites application form. Our flight was in 10 days, 4 of those are weekends when the embassy is closed and it takes 5 working days to process. We gave ourselves 6. Not much room for error.

We got to the embassy on our hired bicycles before 9am and treated ourselves to a bagel as we waited for the gates to open. Going straight to the visa window, an Israeli lady was already there with her application form. We could overhear the desk clerk telling her he can't accept her form without a picture uploaded. Even though we knew we had done so we both started to feel anxious should they find a discrepancy in ours. We were up next, he flicked through our forms and passports checking everything was in order. So far so good. We handed him our 'passport sized' photos as he went to attach them to our forms. Then he stopped. He looked at us both and told us that our pictues were too small!! Apparently they should be 5x5cm instead of the slightly slimmer UK photos (where we'd had ours taken). Great! It was 9:15am, we had until 11am when the embassy closed to pedal back, have our photos taken at a nearby shop, upload the photos onto the form online, reprint and get back to the embassy. We can do it we thought as we peddled our fastest back to our 20mins away hostel. Another couple behind us at the embassy were also turned away for not having their flight details printed out. No one was safe. The only thing that put a spanner in our plan being successful was the online form. We had to start them both from scratch. The website doesn't save an editable copy once you verify and print it. Whilst P typed frantically to complete our forms, Chris collected our new photos and took pictures of them to upload to the website. As hard as we tried we just didn't have enough time. We wouldn't have made it even if we caught a tuk tuk there. We couldnt believe it, after all of that. With it being Friday we were going have to wait for the whole weekend now to try again. We felt so deflated we didn't even want to go on our bike tour with the other guys but we arranged it and they were already downstairs. We pulled oursleves together and went down to meet the others.

With P up front navigating we stopped at our first stop - 5 minutes in. At a popluar coffee shop for some tea and choc au lait pastries. The drinks and pastries were a delicious treat albeit a little on the expensive side. But what did we expect, with Laos' history and French influence theres a lot of coffee shops here and a high number of expats. We also stopped at the presidential palace to take photos fron outside the gates and visited the Si Saket temple just opposite the palace that had a huge array of Buddha statues. A highlight (so to speak) of the 'tour' was our visit to the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) centre. It's a charity that provides support to the many unfortunate casualties who've been at the mercy of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam war. Laos is actually the most bombed country on earth per capita! During the war, the US dropped bombs on Laos statistically every 8 minutes, 7 days a week for 9 years. This was quite a disturbing fact to learn. What makes it worse is that 50 years on there's still so many unexploded bombs buried unknown in fields throught Laos. The COPE centre was very informative with its pictures, displays, and documentaries. It was definitely an eyeopener for us all.

After riding back into town we stopped for lunch. We ate at a tasty Indian place called Taj Mahal. We stayed here for a while chatting away as the weather couldn't make up its mind. We'd both completly forgotten about the stress from the morning as we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. For a tour it was a very relaxed one but no one seemed to mind the pace of it at all. Our last stop was the cultural hall, but it seemed to be closed. We hung around for a bit before calling it a day and returning to our hostel before it rained again.

For dinner we all met at a seemingly popular stonebaked pizza place. P ordered a cheese and tomato pizza that tasted amazing while Chris played it safe and ordered a local meal of chicken, vegetable and rice which he enjoyed although regretted not getting a pizza.

Over he next few days we explored the city paying a visit to its 2 malls (technically theres 3 but the 3rd is more of a shopping centre). The newest mall seemed promising as we visited its website. It mentioned a cinema which sounded good to us since we were here for a while. We also were in search of a decent rain coat - the cheap rain anoraks we keep buying have a very short shelf life. The mall is small for SE Asian standards and the cinema hasn't even been completed yet. So much for a trip to the cinemas. We also didn't find any rain coats.

Vientiane has a nice promenade facing Thailand which closes its road around 5pm to make way for pedestrians, runners, cyclists, r/c cars and one of its night markets. Around 6 every evening the exercise instructors hop on their podiums and pump out thumping dance music as crowds form and join the exercises in unison. P and Theresa joined in one night for the full 60minute work out. It's not exactly a heart pumping workout but they both enjoyed taking part.

Returning to embassy on Monday we came prepared. Shame the staff wasn't - they turned up 20mins late! We were sat there nervously as a worker from another department remarked how his colleague is never this late. After he arrived he checked everything was in order and told us to return on Friday when the process is complete. We were happy the docs were accepted but if there was anything wrong further down the line we may have to restart the application. We hoped not. We even considered heading back up to Luang Prabang whilst our visa's were processed but decided against it in case we got a call asking us to amend something

During the following week we ate some amazing fresh donuts for 1,000kip each from a small food stall. We went there everyday for a bag. We also meandered through the busy night market by the promenade which sold mainly clothes for tourists and locals too. We wondered where all the food stands were as that usually accompanies the sights of a night market. We later found out that there is another night market about a mile in from the promenade which only sells food. We did end up visiting here but nothing really stood out for us. Many locals visited here on their mopeds, pulling up directly in front of the stall like a drive through before driving off with their meals.

Finally Friday came it was time to pick up our visas. As pick up time was only between 4-5pm we decided we'd go check out a place called Buddha park, an hour public bus ride away.

Buddha park is basically a park with many stone statues of not only Buddha but also a few Hindu deities aswell. Its not classed as a religious site, more like an alternative outdoor exhibition. It was built by a monk in 1958 before hopped across the river into Thailand to do the same there. The most interesting thing here is the big pumpkin like structure with a leafless 'tree' at the top and a devils mouth as a passage way at the bottom, which visitors could climb into and up some stairs leading to the top. Its supposed to represent hell, earth and heaven. After a few pictures the place kind of loses its novelty and before long we we're both happy to leave.

Getting back to the visa office, we nervously waited as one tourist came without and went away with his new India visa. Ours was apparently locked in some other room for some reason. They really know how to build suspense here! Eventually the woman in charge turned up with the keys for this room and after about 15 palm wringing minutes, we were given our visas. Happy days! Bangkok for 3 days (not blogged) then we embark on our India adventures. 😉

We really enjoyed our relaxing stay in Laos. The people friendly, the scenery untouched and the small towns and villages we visited were heart warming. We enjoyed each place at a slow leisurely pace as by this point in our trip we wanted to relax. As a result we did not get to see what more Laos had to offer. What we do know hosever is that there is soo much more to Laos than the places we visited. Hopefully we will get back one day before tourism turns it into a Thailand.

Favourite place: Muang Ngoi
Favourite activity: relaxing
What we liked: the friendly locals, the rich tribal culture still in existence
And disliked: rains during the trek and the insensitive development of the infrastructure.

Accomadation: generally cheap but not great standards many worn and and not well kept. Did not need to be booked ahead.

Transportation. Although there is development taking place many roads are in a poor state which does not make for a comfortable bus ride. Generally long journeys some hair raising as the bus take the mountain bends at a fast speed. Established bus routes around the country with many tourist minivans available. Always shop around for deals.

Duration: 25 days (10 days in Vientine alone)
Conversion rate: £1: 12,000 kip

Average costs for us both per day: £22/ 250k kip

Additional photos below
Photos: 52, Displayed: 30


The PalaceThe Palace
The Palace

Entrance was not allowed unfortunately

19th October 2015
Many faces of Buddha

Nice one
Buddha, buddha, buddha

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