Vientiane on the Quick

Friday, May 30, 2008

I found myself standing on the streets of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, wondering where I was and where I was going. Generally, a bus trip is ended at a known locale or with everyone else at the bus station. This trip ended with a quick turn from a rather majestic looking building into a small side street. It was hardly dire straits. First of all, I knew that we were close enough to the tourist area. Just before our abrupt side-street park, I had seen several places with signs in English for massage, food, and internet. And that majestic building had to be something important: it would surely be on my map. So with a close investigation, I discovered I was at the foot of the Lao Culture Hall and that there were several guesthouses in the streets ahead. I found a pretty decent one for 50,000 kip, the cheapest I was liable to find in the capital, and wandered around. I found myself on the Mekong river again. The Mekong and I had been on a parallel course from the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos down to where I crossed from Thailand to Laos in Huay Xai, sailing two days together to Luang Prabang, and now here. Unfortunately, none of my friends had washed ashore in the capital with me, so I sat on the river having barbecued pork from a food stand, the two of us reflecting on the setting of the sun.

I’m often asked, especially in Asia where such a thing is unheard of amongst locals, how I can travel alone. Who will take my photo?? It has its ups and downs. Ups include a completely selfish itinerary. Where do I want to go today? OK, done. No conferring, no guessing if the other person is being nice or straight, no compromise with anything but your wallet and timetable. You avoid the occasionally awkward, “I want a day to myself” admissions, you meet new people a lot easier (you HAVE to), and if something really goes awry, you can twist the story however you like to anyone back home or simply never admit to it happening. As I enjoy laughing at myself as much as at others, this latter bit almost never happens. The pitfalls are that there are times when it is just you and you don’t want it to be, that you have nobody back home who will enjoy a travel story as much as you, and that things like rooms and transport are invariably more expensive. Vientiane is a place where it is good to have a travel friend, and I was without. I wandered the streets but found nothing social happening. At all. For the first time since… Chiang Mai, I spent the entire day and night without anything more social than a bit of time on Facebook and with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman creating a Bucket List.

My main plan for Vientiane was to spend as little time in it as possible, so I went to the Chinese Embassy the next day to apply for a visa. First, however, I’d decided to see about changing my flight. As much as I didn’t want to get home in the autumn, I wanted to see the Philippines more, so I spent the morning on the phone with Air Canada and then STA Travel, whom I lovingly consider the most useless travel agents on the planet. Air Canada insisted I had to change flights through the agent, and of course they insisted I had to do it through the airline. I can’t believe I was foolish enough to lump a horrible airline with a semi-sentient travel agency. I managed to get both – after far too much cajoling – to check about changing dated and both reported there was nothing through until September. My own internet check revealed a flight on the 14 of August, but hardly worth the change fee. I am definitely coming home August 5. By now, it was afternoon and I went to the Chinese Embassy, negotiating a return tuk tuk trip for 20000 kip. I was told that even with a ticket out, I would be refused a visa without a ticket in and hotel accommodation booked. What with the Olympics, earthquake, and Tibet, they can’t be too careful this year, I suppose. Luckily, Dan, an American friend from Singapore and Luang Prabang had gone through all this already and had some web links ready for me when I came back from the embassy and started on the flight and hotel bit. It appears my first stop in China is to be Kunming, which should be a good base for exploring Tiger Leaping Gorge and hopefully a good jumping off point.

I came back and had an early dinner at an Indian restaurant that, somewhere, I’d heard was good. There was a German girl sitting alone and I asked to join her and we had a great meal and both took some travel tips with us. More and more people are telling me not to bother with Vietnam, and my new thought is to whirlwind it (unless I like it a lot), get a couple weeks in the Philippines, fly from Manila to Hong Kong and then to Kunming. Borneo is sadly off the list. Maybe. Again, traveling alone, I have nobody to commit this to. We parted ways after dinner and I spent the evening finishing A Darkness at Sethanon, the last book of the Riftwar Trilogy, and doing an awful lot of nothing. I actively looked for a nightlife again, but came home empty once more.

The next morning I was at the Chinese Embassy first thing. To get my visa in one day would require $62! Generally they cost around 20, but whatever, I just wanted it done and I’d heard Vientiane was one of the easier places to do it. Afterwards, dropped off by my 20,000 kip tuk tuk which I had to negotiate rather fiercely even having taken one the day prior, I went to look at the next step. Get out of Vientiane, that much was clear, but then? Pakse was the logical choice. It was where I was originally going to meet up with James for a kayak/canoe trip down the river to the 4000 Islands, again along the Mekong. But it turned out that all the busses there left at night and flights were expensive to say the least. I’m not much of a night bus or sleep en route person, though I’d like to be. But the thought of another day in this town didn’t fill me with excitement. I admit this judgement unfair. I had done no sightseeing; no temple gawking; no excellent food missions; no photography expeditions. But I wanted out all the same and it was just coming up on noon.

I rushed back to the guesthouse and managed a late checkout, went and grabbed lunch, and then the rain began. Deluge is a more accurate word, and I was running late for four o’clock, when I was to pick up my passport. I braved the rain in my poncho and stood getting soaked anyway trying to negotiate the proper price – 20000 – to go to the Chinese Embassy and back again. Standing in the rain and playing this game for the third time only to have him tell me such a thing was impossible and all but call me a liar when I told him this was my third such trip was too much. 20000 – yes or no? I’m getting soaked. No. OK, thanks, bye. Walking away, “OK, OK”. Fine. I walk back the 20m and he waits until I start crawling in before he says 35000. I am too livid to do anything but give him my most evil look and trudge off in the rain after another tuk tuk. Finally, I found someone who would do it for 20000 and we were off.

Getting stamps in passports is always an exciting part of entering a country. But getting a visa in advance – my first ever – is far moreso. A pretty piece of paper granting access to a fairly restricted country not only gives a rather ludicrous sensation of importance, but it also leads to thoughts of future travels: The Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Hong Kong, sometimes thinking about places far away gets the travel bug going again. I’m thinking about the excitement of this and of being on a bus this very night to the south of Laos as I get back to the tuk tuk. Where do I want to go, he asks. I think this very polite as generally they just drop you where they got you, which, this time, was all I wanted anyway. 20000 more, he says. Ah! This old scam. Change the terms after you’ve started your business, but we had definitely agreed on a return trip price. The Chinese Embassy is in the middle of nowhere and why on earth would I book one way?

We argued back and forth for awhile where I not only made clear that we had already agreed on a return price, but that I had only paid 20000 for a return trip the two previous times I’d come. I’d had enough and walked away without giving him a cent. He wants to cheat tourists, he can foot the bill for the trip here or try to find another customer. My certainty in his dishonesty was affirmed all the more by the lack of resistance he gave when I started walking. No trying to get money for the one-way fare or anything, he just drove off. Of course, that could be because he thought I had no idea where I was and would never find a way home or a tuk tuk to take me. He was only half right. Since this was my third trip, and each time the driver had come a different way, I had a pretty good idea of what was where. I walked towards some markets and had a bit of a snack, some sort of rice/fish balls and satay, and walked some more. I ran into another tuk tuk driver that spoke very little English and had his friend negotiate. His English was great, and I explained my three trip story to him and he to the driver but still no budging. I said I didn’t think it was a fair price, thanked the interpreter, and was about to walk when they invited me for beer.

Now that’s a new twist. How much for the beer, I asked with a wry smile, wondering at their game. No, no, I buy the beer. So I sat down with Mr. Air (the interpreter) his girlfriend, and two tuk tuk drivers and between us we had four large Beer Lao and some snacks. Mr. Air was very friendly and chatty, also an engineer, and we got along quite well. He offered me a lift back since he was going that direction anyway, and then ended up giving me a bit of a tour of the city. Walking away from that scamming tuk tuk was the best thing I ever did. Exploring Vientiane more, I began to regret my hasty ticket out that very evening. The city is more like a collection of villages with a commercial centre at its heart, and I feel like with a bike I could’ve seen that side a bit more, not to mention had a good guide in an awesome Russian jeep quite possibly. After looking at Patuxai, the Laos equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe (built out of American cement donated for an airstrip), they dropped me off and I was soon on the bus with a familiar face from tubing, the Aussie girl who’d given me a lift on her tube, Hanna. As well, a Dutch girl named Sacha and a Polish couple.

The bus was beds, not seats, which I thought the greatest thing ever until I learned I’d be sharing it with a stranger. And then, when they boarded, it was two strangers, an older man and his grandson. Luckily they made a big deal about it and I wasn’t especially excited looking, and I got my own bed with probably the most legroom of all. Considering that no Asian trip is without breakdown, we made it uneventfully to Pakse at 7 AM, our only stops were to repair the air conditioner (it got quite hot quite fast in there) and in a couple cities. I wasn’t sure whether to spend the day in town or not, so I just tagged along with the Polish couple to go up the Bolaven Plateau to a town called Tadlo. I was going to go up there anyway, might as well keep on moving and get there today.

Although I had friends this time, it was a quiet place with little to do. We settled in at Tim’s Guesthouse and I wandered up along the river past some waterfalls and into a small village with goats and chickens and pigs running everywhere. I didn’t mean to get here, but as I walked up the riverbank I heard a giggling and some kids were running away at the sight of me. I stopped for a bit and they curiously looked around the corner and when I turned to look at them, off they went again. Then back once more to look and I thought it’d be funny to chase them so I pretended to start and they took off laughing. So it was I ended up in this quiet village with nobody that spoke English, kicking a wicker ball around with the kids, taking their photos and letting them take mine (none turned out) and so on. As I was leaving I noticed that one kid hadn’t run after me, he was still working on pounding rice into flour in a mortar and pestel. I took up the other one and helped him for a bit, mostly making a big show of it for the other kids. I made a sort of game of it and when I left, all were crowded around for their turn grinding.

And this is where, for now, the story grinds to a halt. I enjoyed my evening among the clouds on the plateau, and a nice swim in a waterfall after crossing what has to be one of the scariest bridges I’ve ever crossed. The evening was quiet which suited fine because it had been a long two days. Plus, the next morning I would be heading back down to Pakse, back down to the Mekong, which is starting to feel like an old friend. Maybe James wasn’t around, but I was still interested in a trip down the river to the 4000 Islands, 3 day trip or not. Either way, my fate and that of the Mekong would be the same. We would both flow through Pakse, down to the 4000 Islands, and from there into Cambodia before going out to sea. What lay downstream precisely, one never knows, but adventure is sure to be found.

Vientiane and Bolaven Plateau Photos

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