Wat, wat, wat

January 21st 2019
Published: January 21st 2019
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Vientiane to Phonsavon

This morning we have a lie in. It’s check out day and tonight we are on the sleeper bus - whether we will sleep or not is anyone’s guess!

We check out at noon and head for the bank before our planned trip to Xieng Khuan, otherwise known as ‘Buddha Park’.

We head for the same bank that we used on Saturday. Today we are told we cannot change money at the inside counter, but there is a counter outside. We proceed to said counter with our $400, only to be told that three hundred of them are unacceptable - because they have been used! They do not accept ‘dirty money’ although they are more than willing to dish it out! Plus they accepted it two days ago! We try five more banks and money changers - all with the same result. Finally we find a money changer who does agree to take the notes for a massive $56 commission - rip off or what?

Back at the hotel we delve into our money tin to see what other cash we have. Fortunately I exchanged £1000 worth of dollars at Heathrow and there is a reasonable amount of new notes amongst it. We don’t want to be subject to extortion unless we are desperate.

We head back to the money change booth where yet another of our notes is rejected - it is brand new but there is a tear about a mm long - apparently that’s also unacceptable. You would need a microscope to spot it.

Money changed, we are now feeling hot and bothered. The Buddha Park is at least an hours journey by bus in each direction. It involves a change of bus at the central station and we are now in the full heat of the day. If we had never been there before we would probably have made the effort but as a repeat visit we have both lost the will to visit what can only be described as a Stone Age theme park. It’s obscure and fun, but not in this heat!

We head for the Scandinavian Bakery for our usual ‘two egg special’ - interesting as it’s always three eggs! Probably we could share but we don’t. The bakery has great air con and a plentiful supply of English language newspapers including the Bangkok Times.

Replete, we set off to visit Wat Si Saket - believed to be the city’s oldest surviving temple. Built 1828-1824, the guide book says it’s in dire need of a facelift!

We have arrived at the wat and actually it’s not that bad - it’s very old after all! We enter the inner courtyard which is lined with Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, including tiny ones in cut out niches.

Right in the centre stands the inner temple with several devotees. We are allowed to enter but photography is not permitted. The walls are covered with colourful painted murals. These are undergoing some restoration as some sections are brighter than others. Many of the scenes depict man hunting animals including elephants - an odd theme for a place of worship? The outside also has some interesting relief sculptures.

We sit outside in the shade to write some postcards before heading on to our second wat of the day - Wat Si Muang. This involves a long hot walk so it had better be worth it!

Brightly coloured, Si Muang is typical of South East Asia with plenty of mirrored bling and bright orange paint. This is supposedly the most visited wat in Vientiane - I’m not sure it was worth the effort? It’s the site of the city pillar and as such, home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane. The large ordination hall was rebuilt in 1915 after a fire in 1828. The stone Buddha is an original which survived the inferno. It is believed to have the power to grant wishes. This is how it works...lift the Buddha off its pillow and mentally make your wish three times. If your wish is granted, return with offerings of bananas, green coconuts, flowers, incense and candles - two of each! There is also a place to deposit broken items. It is believed that the Buddha will heal the bad luck created by breaking said items.

Hot and sweaty, we retrace our steps, finishing our day at Wat Mixai. This tiny wat is a much plainer affair with egg yellow colouring and wall paintings. There isn’t much more to say about it other than it’s thankfully close to our hotel.

We pick up some munchies for our long bus journey tonight and flop down in our hotel lounge - the air con units are not functioning and it’s a bit like sitting in a sauna!

It’s nearly 6.20pm. There is no sign of our minibus which is due to arrive between 6-6.30pm to shuttle us to our luxury VIP sleeping bus. We are not unduly worried - we know how the timekeeping is in SE Asia - we will worry if there is no sign by 7.30pm as the sleeping bus is due to depart the Northern bus terminal at 8pm.

It is 6.30pm and there is a loud honking outside our hotel. The receptionist indicates that’s us and helps to carry our luggage out to the open back pick up truck outside. To be honest, we are not shocked that our minibus has turned out to be little more than a cattle truck with bench seats and a tin roof - it’s pretty normal here and it’s also pretty normal for the travel guys to talk up (ie bareface lie about) what they are selling!

We are the first pick up so we climb right inside, upending our luggage in the middle of the truck. There is plenty of room at the moment but we are pretty sure it will be standing room only by the time they have finished.

As predicted, we are pretty much choc-a-block once sixteen other passengers have been collected. We are practically sitting on each other’s laps and the lady opposite is nervously clutching her guitar which is also subject to a luggage crush in the middle of the truck. Finally our driver condescends to allow the final two passengers into his cab as he reluctantly lowers a jump seat. I think that makes nineteen of us in total! Honestly, anywhere else in the world we’d all be jumping up and down and complaining like crazy but here we all just shrug our shoulders, say that’s SE Asia for you and laugh!

Now the trip to the bus station is quite a lot longer than we had anticipated. The open sided truck is actually giving us quite a nice through breeze though it’s hardly fresh air - particles of dust are showing clearly in the headlights and there’s a strong smell of diesel. Ian and I exchange worried glances...we are both thinking the same thing - we hope this truck is not going all the way to Phonsavan!

At last we pull off the road and into the bus station. Here our driver leads us to the bus counter where he proceeds to purchase our tickets. So much for pre-booked reservations then! Something tells me that our bottom bunks near the front of the bus are not going to materialise, let’s just hope we get tickets!

Our tickets are issued. Berth numbers 19 and 20. Well that’s very unlikely to be front or lower judging by the numbers! We have no idea which bus we should board as everything is marked up in Lao and now our man is involved in a massive argument with another traveller who says she was assured she would have a berth to herself (they are double berths). I don’t disbelieve that she was told that, but somewhat naive in believing them!

Eventually our man breaks free and shows us our bus. It looks like we are the only foreigners travelling to Phonsavan - the others are all headed south towards Pakse. We stow our main luggage below and the driver tells us to wait outside and come back at 8pm. We go in search of food. There isn’t a lot of choice. We plump for chicken balls fried in hot oil and covered in some kind of thin sauce. Actually reasonably tasty and definitely 100 percent unhealthy!

It’s 7.50pm and we are allowed to board the bus. The conductor is handing out sick bags - that’s not a good sign! It’s a well known fact that SE Asian folk don’t travel well, especially the children.

The bus is laid out as double bunks, although double is a somewhat stretching the truth - let’s say they are wide singles to fit two thin people! There is a very narrow aisle down the middle which we are just about able to squeeze down. There is a very odd numbering system going on with no sign of a number 19 at all but I do find 20 - it’s the top bunk right at the back to be shared by 6 people. Now they really are having a laugh - I’m back off to the front to get this sorted out! If that lady thought sharing with one other fellow traveller was bad she should try sharing with five Lao and all their travel sick toddlers!

I think the bus driver understands that I am not very happy as I manage to convey that we are a married couple requiring a double bunk together and we were promised a lower bunk at the front of the bus. We are promptly reallocated bunks 30 and 31. These are second berth from the front of the bus but upper nonetheless. I suppose one out of two can be regarded as a victory - in fact a better result than I had anticipated!

We climb up into our bunk (me with great difficulty) - I am not good at climbing vertical ladders! Ian assists by pushing my backside. We then attempt to sort out our bedding in the confined space. A very helpful lady on the opposite upper bunk tells us that we can take the bunk behind and have one each - it’s not full tonight, she explains. We’re not sure what the conductor will have to say about this but she says she will square it with him. Sure enough the conductor appears and, after a short discussion with the lady, waves Ian into the spare bunk - a very satisfactory conclusion all round!

We close our window curtains and settle in for the night...it’s a 10 hour journey to Phonsavan.


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