By chance, Jon, another volunteer from the elephant festival, was also booked on the same bus to Vientiane as me. It was a VIP bus, which meant a real coach, but you still wouldn't expect to find the Queen on it. It doesn't matter whether you have a 'modern' (it's all relative) coach or an old minibus boneshaker though, the roads are still slow and twisty and they still need to grind up many of the hills in first or second gear, not to mention come back down the other side in the same gear so as to be able to stop it running out of control.
The ride took nine hours, the first two-thirds of which were at this gruesome, stomach-turning pace. You might think that the Lao people are used to these things, but in actual fact they handle it much worse than the falangs (foreigners). These rare long-distance journeys are about the only time most of them ever ride in anything bigger than a motorbike or tuk-tuk, so it is not unusual to find at least one of them throwing up into a bag when on one of these buses. I say that, but I haven't seen it myself yet. But, it seems like every time I get off a bus, I hear the people I was travelling with saying "Did you see that Lao women throwing up? Even when her stomach was empty she was still retching, I felt so sorry for her.".
Arriving in Laos's capital city, we took a tuk-tuk into town to look for accommodation along with Gary, who we had met on the bus. He was a TV journalist from Australia taking a month-long holiday in south-east Asia. Jon was English born but had lived most of his life in New Zealand since twelve years old. He was a long-term traveller like myself. A week before he had left home in December, a friend from near Geneva had called him up to invite him to spend the Summer looking after bees with him, which he had accepted and is due there in April. Therefore, whenever he has to write down his occupation on a form whilst on this trip, he's writing "Beekeeper".
We first went to a guesthouse Jon had used on a previous visit, but it was full. The next few we tried were all full also until we were able to get a triple room for 120,000kip, which wasn't bad. We then found a riverside bar to get some dinner and a couple of drinks. My first impression of Vientiane had been "This is horrible, it's just like China!" Now, I was finding that it was more like what I had imagined Vietnam to be, for example when the waitress tried to introduce us to the "ladies" sitting at the next table. The correct term would be "ladyboys", but apparently they don't take kindly to this and have been known to attack people with their handbags if they say it to them. Although the tourist area where we were staying had a small but steady number of "ladies" to say hello to you each night, neither of my international comparisons for the city were really accurate and it didn't seem so bad after a few days there.
We all wanted to go off to use the internet the next day, although every connection in the city was painfully slow. We were advised afterwards that this sometimes happens for a few days. Having dinner that night in a bar/restaurant called Blue Bananas, we got talking to the owner who was an English ex-pat from Leicester called Simon. We planned to go 80km north the next day to a national park on rented motorbikes, although I would just have ridden as a passenger as a bigger engine did not appeal for my first ride. Simon was able to put us in touch with a friend who gave us plenty of advice and even asked if he could join us.
The next day it didn't quite work out like that though. Jon was feeling sick, in retrospect possibly caused by the water and ice cubes from the bars by the river. He ordered his breakfast in a cafe with us but couldn't last until it arrived before making his excuses and returning to his room. He was shaking so much, he could hardly get his money from his wallet to leave behind on the table.
Gary and I formed a revised plan to hire smaller 110cc bikes and ride 25km east of town to see the Buddha park. I figured it was about time I learnt to drive one myself. After we had paid our money and got our bikes from a hire shop, the man who ran it realised that I had no idea what I was doing when I climbed aboard and Gary was having to explain pretty much everything beyond 'This is how you steer' to me. He tried to stop me taking the bike but we assured him that it would be OK so he reluctantly let us go.
It was pretty strange for me to get used to. One part was learning to use the brakes by instinct and not after a two-second delay while the brain processes the information: red light or blockage ahead; must stop bike; press right foot on brake pedal; squeeze right hand on brake lever. The other thing was controlling the speed by turning the throttle on the right handlebar. My instinct whenever faced with a bump or possibly even a tense moment when an animal jumps out in front of me, is to grip the bike harder so I am more secure and less likely to fall off. But, of course, gripping harder means more throttle and sudden acceleration. The accelerator was also a lot more sensitive to small adjustments in pressure, which took a lot of getting used to. As Gary tried to explain to me "Imagine you're rolling a raw sausage".
Somehow we made it out of town without me hitting any people, animals or other vehicles. Another thing I didn't hit were any speeds above 30mph. It seemed scarily fast to me, but Gary was probably trying not to fall asleep.
Once at the Buddha Park, it was a surreal place created by the sort of mad genius who should either be assigned an unlimited budget or locked up for life - no half measure would suffice. In this case, it seemed that the former principle had been applied. The park was relatively small but contained dozens of stone sculptures which merged Buddhist and Hindu iconography. It was only built fifty years ago, although the disrepair of a lot of it suggests that it might be hundreds of years old. See photos for details.
Afterwards we rode back into town, with me letting rip on the engine a couple of times and having it up to 45mph when on the open highway with no other vehicles around.
First I went to the Vietnamese embassy to apply for a visa. Disappointingly, I had to wait two business days before collection, which meant from this Friday afternoon until Tuesday morning. By paying an extra five dollars, I could have an express service to collect on Monday afternoon. This was disappointing because when Gary had come previously to apply for his visa, they had granted it to him on the spot with no extra fee!
Next we rode to Pha That Luang, a large national monument. Close by were a couple of stupas, all of which were interesting to walk around (outside only). Also just a couple of minutes away were the Unknown Soldier's Monument and the National Assembly building. I was walking up the steps of the monument before I was called down by the staff as it wasn't allowed. Meanwhile, Gary tried to get inside the government building but was turned away by other staff who felt he wasn't vital to the ruling process that day.
Jon came out to join us at Blue Bananas that night, but only lasted half an hour before his stomach dictated that he return to his hotel room quickly. Afterwards Ingrid, also from the festival came down. Both her and Gary were Australian, so I sat back and listened to them talk away in Aussie slang. Bangkok is nicknamed 'Bangers', apparently.
Gary left for Saigon the next morning. Jon was due on a bus south that evening, so we all checked out of the room and I found somewhere cheap for myself for two more nights. Then Jon and I took a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian embassy to see if he could get a same-day visa. He could get one from the south of Laos also, but thought it might be good to take this opportunity to get it early instead.
They were shut for lunch when we arrived, so we walked towards Wat Sok Pa Luang, a monastery famous for its saunas and massages. On the way, we were found by Coralie and Fabien, also from the festival, who were driving past by chance. They were busy heading somewhere but we agreed to try to meet up for dinner that night.
At the wat, we booked ourselves in for one of their famous sauna and massages. Hosted on a simple covered, wooden platform, we changed into sarongs and entered the herbal sauna cabin. It was already a blisteringly hot day so as the hot steam poured up from our feet, it was difficult to endure it for long. Sweat streamed all over my body and I don't think I had even been in there for terribly close to ten minutes before I made my escape. No one else was lasting any longer either, mind you.
After a rest outside to cool down and towel off, we began the massage. It lasted an hour and was suitably relaxing. Instead of lots of rubbing or, as we had more expected, a Thai-style massage where they bend you into a variety of contorted shapes, it comprised mostly of applying pressure to key points on the body for a few seconds at a time. When he got to the abdomen, I did have to stop my masseur after his third compression with his palms as it was bloody agony; my stomach still mixed up and churning since the day I arrived in Laos.
I've always thought that, after a massage, they should let you lie on the bed and relax or even sleep for at least half an hour afterwards. I've never seen a place that offers this service though and this one was no exception. So, we were quickly back out in the intense midday sun walking a mile back to the Cambodian embassy. Upon re-arrival, there was still no sign of anyone in the compound or through any of the doors that we stuck our heads around. It was only then that we realised that today was Saturday, so of course it was shut. And the prize for Biggest Idiots goes to...
We went back into town and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting outside a cafe until Jon left to catch his nightbus to the south of the country. I went to Patuxai, a monument looking like the Arc de Triomphe, to meet Coralie and Fabien for dinner. I'm told that the Americans once gave the Lao government a load of cement to help build a new airport but they instead used it to build this thing instead. Hence, it had earned the nickname 'the vertical runway'. It makes a good silhouette at a distance when looking along the long Th Lan Xang approach road, but the closer you get the crappier it is.
I had assumed that Fabien and Coralie were directly involved in the Elefant Asia charity, but this turns out not to be the case. Coralie started helping them a week beforehand by matching up homestay locations with festival attendees looking for somewhere to stay. Fabien was just being helpful whilst at the festival that she was working at. Their real reason for being here was their Noria Project (www.noriaproject.com). They have driven all the way from France in their magnificently-decorated Citroen CV. On the way they have been seeking to learn about and publicise the issue of availability of clean water in the countries and cultures that they have come through. Looking at their website, they have managed to get written about in no small number of local and national publications on the way also.
I had one more day in Vientiane, with a couple of jobs to get done. First up, I wanted to buy Lonely Planet books for Vietnam and Laos. I had a Mekong Delta book that covered both (plus Cambodia and bits of Thailand and China) but was finding it a bit too brief to be truly useful at times. I know that I wasn't long from leaving Laos so maybe this wasn't good value for money, but I also rather like the idea of having a proper book on my shelf for each country after I get back home.
Almost immediately after setting out, I stumbled across Coralie, taking her laundry somewhere. She was able to direct me to a nearby book shop where I met Kelly, who had also volunteered at the festival. She then directed me to a cheaper bookshop where I semi-coincidentally met her again fifteen minutes later! The books were indeed cheaper there but after I opened them later I realised that they were the pirate copies I had heard about. Poorer-quality photographs, slightly blurred printing and harder-to read maps. Also, in my Laos book, p186 appears between p185 & p187 and also again between p285 & p287.
But, it was still job done. Next, I wanted to discover the exact times of the buses the next morning. I couldn't find the information from the internet or the travel agencies in town. I could just get to the bus station early the next day, but Lonely Planet reckoned the buses were at 5am, 6am and 7am, so it would have been easy to get there early and still miss them or to get there very early and end up waiting for lunchtime.
I hired a tuk-tuk to ride the regulation 10km out of town to the south bus station (situated, conversely, on the north-east edge of the city). It turned out Lonely Planet was correct about the times, but at least I knew for sure. The engine of the tuk-tuk had regularly cut out during the ride and when I came back to where the driver had parked up, I found him with the engine open trying to make some repairs. Whatever he did, it didn't work much though as we cut out even more on the way back into town. At one point, not far from the end of the ride, we faltered in the middle of a junction. Realising that there was no chance of us moving again before the lights for the oncoming traffic turned to green, I had to hop out the back and push us out of harm's way and then along a side-street to a shaded area where we could stop for more mechanics.
After a few more minutes of engine repairs, we were at the Vietnamese embassy where I completed my third job for the day by collecting my visa. I tried to meet Marsolon, a guy working at the festival for Laos Telecom, for dinner that night but crossed messages got mixed up and it never happened. So, after a late scare when my hotel told me that they had lost my laundry and wouldn't be able to get it until the middle of the next morning (even though I was leaving at 5am), that was my lot for Vientiane. It was a bigger city than I had imagined and certainly looked more than a population of 300,000. In the very centre it didn't feel anything like the rest of Laos, but many capital cities do not. Further outside, there were more small-scale industrial of official locations, but the flavour still began to match the relaxed and impoverished nature of the country.
I left my hotel at five-fifteen in the morning. Not for the first time on my trip, I found that the front doors were padlocked shut while the person on night duty slept in a bed nearby. Quite what happens if there's a fire is anybody's guess. On this occasion, the chain was long enough to allow me to prise the door ajar and squeeze through. Out on the street, the tuk-tuk drivers tried to fob me of with their official-looking laminated card of standard prices to standard destinations, like the south bus station. 60,000kip? I paid 40,000 and only that because I figured it was reasonable to pay a small mark-up at that time in the morning.
I got there just in time for the 6am bus, thinking that if I missed it there was still the 7am option. But I made it OK and out we rolled.