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Published: December 6th 2016
No skyscrapers in sight.
Going around again
It's been ages since I wrote one of these (it's Kris, by the way), but I felt that I should probably put something on about our recent adventures, so here goes...
Ten years ago, back in 2006, we gave up our jobs, packed up our house and left for the unknown in Thailand. Somehow it turned into a lifestyle, we became English teachers and 5 country residences later (Thailand-Spain-Vietnam-China-Ukraine) 2016 has become a year of revisits. After leaving Ukraine in February
we first had a trip to Madrid
(where we lived in 2008) for a holiday, then we moved to Thailand (where it all began). Then, in May we visited Laos, one of the first countries we visited back in 2006 after arriving in Thailand. (Actually, as I'm finishing this blog, we just got back from revisiting Saigon!). This time around the trip was sponsored by work for us to process our Thai residence documentation
via the consulate in Vientiane - so we were booked on a flight on Monday, flying back to Bangkok on Thursday. And here's how it went...
Laos: then and now
It turns out a
lot can happen in 10 years. To me, 2006 doesn't seem that long ago, but then when I realise that most of the adult students I currently teach in Thailand were actually 8 years old then...it puts it into perspective. Another thing that puts it into perspective is the number of ATMs in Vientiane. Back in
2006 there was, allegedly, 1 ATM in the whole country
- located somewhere in the capital. Probably with a very long queue. A lot of backpackers didn't realise that until after they arrived and ran up a bar bill up in Luang Prabang and asked where the nearest cashpoint was only to be told 'Thailand'. Being good boy scouts, we carried travellers' cheques (because these too were common through the mist of time in 2006). Anyway, this has all changed - Vientiane is bristling with ATMs. I wonder where the original one is, though? It should have a plaque.
Oh yeah, and there are loads of mini-marts
. Big brightly lit, air conditioned places selling imported spirits (that are cheaper than in Thailand...we bought gin). I don't remember these in 2006. I'm sure 7/11 and Tesco will get there soon....
The money hasn't
changed, though. It's still as confusing as ever. In Vientiane, you can pay in Thai baht, US dollars, Lao kip, shiny pebbles and /or magical beans
. Whatever you choose there'll be a vague conversion to kip and you'll receive your change in a huge wad of kip notes that you could wallpaper a medium sized living room with, but that will only amount to about £2.60 in actual monetary value. Working on a till in Laos must be a mathematical challenge.
Also, Vientiane has maintained its laidback feel. Thankfully it hasn't mutated into Dubai - as if something like that would seem possible. It still feels small and relaxed and friendly. I remember it being a big relief after Bangkok and it still is. And they still do free, open-air aerobics classes on the promenade by the Mekong at sunset to loud dance music.
Not that I joined in, but I did sit drinking a pint of Beerlao and watch the proceedings.
Hanging at the Consulate
So anyway, the purpose of us visiting Vientiane was 'business', right? Not for the open-air aerobics or the cold Beerlao or even to buy gin. We went
Lots of food and clothes shopping.
to process our residency visa for Thailand. So at 8:30am on Tuesday morning we arrived outside the Thai consulate to see a massive queue of people snaking off down the road. It was rather busy. It was outside and it was boiling. Several people ahead of us were already drinking cans of beer as they waited
(it wasn't 9am yet) - I figured they'd regret that later when they couldn't leave their spot in the line...
Basically, we had to go to Laos on this date, but it wasn't ideal because Monday was the May Day holiday and then Thursday was another Thai national holiday (Coronation day), so presumably this affected the volume of people. So we settled in for a long wait...as much as you can 'settle in' standing in a line and pouring with sweat. It was quite an endurance test.
I didn't see it listed on the requirements of the visa, bit I guess 'the ability to stand in a queue for four and a half hours in the heat'
was a pre-requisite.
Yes. Four and a half hours. Most of the queuing took place inside the compound of the consulate, but not in a
building - no aircon! Just under a little shelter with a few fans. Off in the distance, you could see 3 little windows where passports were being collected. Out in the front of the building guys mingled around telling everyone they'd be there waiting for the rest of their lives unless they paid them a fee to speed the process up....and then inside there were signs saying not to trust these 'touts'
and that all the forms are free and you shouldn't pay anyone for them. We didn't as we were forewarned. We just patiently waited and sweated. By the way, if anyone reading this needs to go to Laos to do a similar thing - the forms are available free of charge in the consulate building on the left as you enter the grounds. They provide free glue to stick your photos in too!
Finally, we managed to get our huge wads of official documents through a tiny window to a poor bloke who had to check it all. Behind him, we could see piles of passports and documents for processing. After some poring over documents and asking us 'What's this??' about a letter from our company written
False leg mountain
in the Cope Museum. A charity who support victims of landmines in Laos.
entirely in Thai and us replying 'No idea. It's in Thai.' he accepted it all and told us to come back the next afternoon...
The COPE visitor centre
We wandered away from the consulate that afternoon and decided to take a stroll through Vientiane. We walked. And walked. And walked...for probably about 5 minutes in the beating sun until I announced that I could not go on and Kate should leave me and save herself.
But luckily, around that point, we spotted, what looked like a museum on the other side of the road. We reckoned it probably had aircon so made for it.... Turns out we'd blundered onto the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE for short. And yes, it had aircon. COPE
is a not-for-profit organisation that began in 1997 to provide medical care to victims of unexploded ordnance
('bombs', that is), often by providing prosthetic legs etc. As you may or may not know, the 'secret war' over Laos during the Vietnam/American war resulted in tons of bombs being dropped all over the country.
Apparently, more explosives cascaded down onto Laos than were dropped on the whole of Europe during WW2.
This included the widespread use of cluster bombs - scattering small 'bomblets' far and wide over, often, rural land. The result was disastrous and the effects are still felt today as many of these bombs did not explode on impact and were left hidden in soil and undergrowth until some unsuspecting person wandered innocently across them. As a result, people have died and lost limbs. COPE is an organisation that attempts to help the survivors.
The visitors' centre starts off with a haunting map of Laos showing the extent of the bombing campaign and a short film to show the timeline of events. All the while you stand under a massive 'sculpture' of what looks like dangling Christmas baubles. Closer inspection reveals it's a clusterbomb mid-explosion with each bomblet dangling on a wire above your head. Following the film the centre includes a lot of history on the secret war, but then moves on to talk more optimistically about the progress made by COPE in helping and treating victims of UXO throughout Laos. They help fund and provide prosthetic limbs, displays of which are all over the museum, including displays of home-made ones produced before COPE got involved.
Overall, COPE was worth the visit and I would definitely recommend going there and making a donation to the good work they do.
Maybe get a tuk-tuk though and don't walk it in hot season....
Find info and the address above on the website.
Chilling by the Mekong
So after a trip back to the hotel (in a tuk-tuk) and a quick shower, we headed out again towards the riverside. We remembered sitting by the river having Beerlao back in 2006
and wondered how it had changed. This distance was walkable and the sun was a little lower in the sky. So we basically hit the river and walked along it until we got tired.
As said above, Vientiane has remained the laidback city we remember. We strolled along by bars and restaurants and looked out over the flood plain on the bank of the Mekong until we reached a place called Highlander Bar
where we stopped for a beer. I did wonder why it was called that as we didn't see any highland around...but then the tartan bottle holder explained the name.
We also stopped in another place just in time to see
some riverside aerobics - just as we remembered from 10 years ago.
Then it was time to meet a friend of a friend and try and interesting drink concoction...
You put what in your mojito...???
So we have a friend of a friend in Vientiane. Weirdly, he's not an English teacher. He's a biologist buddy and ex-bandmate of someone I went to university with
and he now lives and works in Vientiane studying antibiotic resistance (of course!). We'd never met before, but my friend put us in touch and we met for drinks in a great place called The Spirit House
where he introduced us to a new drinks sensation.
"Have you had Castro's mojito?"
I was pretty sure I hadn't, but I was impressed by the name and wondered if it was the opening line of a satirical joke on communism.
It wasn't. We ordered one each and it basically consisted of a mojito and a bottle of Beerlao
. The idea being, you drink a bit of mojito and then top it up with beer. Then drink the beer/mojito mix and repeat. I was sure it would end up tasting a bit
like a shandy. But it didn't. Try it! Impress friends! Pour beer in your mojito and when they look disgusted, tell them it's a Castro's Mojito and say
'Everyone's doing it in Laos'
..... you will go from being an uncultured lager lout to a pretentious hipster in seconds.
If that's what you want...
Well, I best close the story by telling you that the trip was ultimately a success.
We returned to the consulate the next day and after a mere 3 more hours waiting (....) we were awarded the relevant documents and skipped off to a restaurant to eat some delicious food. By next morning we were winging our way back to Bangkok, bottle of gin safely in our suitcase, visa in our passports and smiles on our faces from a not all-together unpleasant return to the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Let's not leave it 10 years till the next visit this time, Lao people!
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