Now I know why everyone who’s been here says ‘Oh, I love Laos!’. It’s because Laos is lovely. It seems to have a lot of the best parts of South East Asia without the madness and the hassle. Not that the madness of other places isn’t fun (it is!) but it’s also great to be somewhere calm and peaceful. Laos is green and hilly with forests and streams, and not too many people. My favourite kind of place.
We almost missed our bus from Don Det, well actually, we DID miss our bus from Don Det. We were waiting and waiting at the bus station in nagathingamyjig and we kept asking, is this our bus? No. Is this our bus? No. Eventually, it turned out that our bus had forgotten to stop and just sailed on by. A different bus felt sorry for us and let us on. We thought they were going to take us all the way to Pakse but instead they chased our real bus and made them pull over and pick us up. Ah, the kindness of strangers.
Pakse – pronounced Pakse as in ‘bouquet’ not Pakse as in taxi – was still ridiculously hot. Although it does have a fabulous authentic Italian restaurant (Dok Mai Laos). After a few days in an air conditioned box of a room at the very interesting You Empire Hostel (lovely people) where I tried to work using JH’s guitar as a desk, we prepared ourselves to brave the night bus to Vientiane.
The night bus or ‘Sleeper Bus’ is a very clever invention. It’s a double decker bus consisting entirely of double beds (sleeper capsules). Such a great idea to be able to lie down. There’s plenty of room to sit up too and you get provided with a blanket and pillow. The only downsides are that the mattress is a bit thin and it’s SO bone-shakingly bumpy – way too bumpy to work on my laptop and even too bumpy to read a book. Sure beats sitting up for eleven hours though.
We were most pleased to arrive in the small cosmopolitan Laos capital of Vientiane. Such an easy laidback city of cafe culture, excellent food, cheap beer, and little back street jazz bars. It should be high up on the list of the world’s most liveable cities, except it’s still too hot for me.
One thing that colours my whole experience of a place is where we stay. It seems I find it difficult to work productively without a table and chair. It’s not very ‘digital nomad’ of me I know. I need to work on that. Our ‘Bed and Breakfast’ apartment in Vientiane was perfect for some time out. Terrible breakfast but the apartment was big, private and wonderful.
There is a huge arch in the centre of Vientiane that looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The story goes that in 1960 the US donated a heap of cement and dollars for Laos to build an airport runway. Instead they built the Putaxai. So funny.
Sadly, the lack of a new runway didn’t stop the US from totally bombing the shit out of Laos constantly for nine years during the Vietnam war (1964 to 1973). Even though they weren’t actually supposed to be at war with Laos, the US dropped two million tons of bombs across the whole country, including 260 million cluster bombs, everywhere described as ‘a plane load every 8 minutes 24 hours per day for 9 years’. Apparently Laos is still the most bombed place per person on earth. Half a century later, dozens of people are still being killed every year from enexploded bombs (UXOs). An absolutely despicable crime against humanity.
In complete contrast to this horror, Laos is a very peaceful place. There are some extraordinarily lovely temples and oodles of statues of the Buddha in Vientiane. The Wat Si Saket, the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane, has over 10, 000 Buddhas. Each one is beautifully unique.
In the other temples, and scattered around the city there are many more Buddhas. There are old Buddhas, new ones, big ones, small ones, wooden ones, stone ones, gold ones, thin ones, and my favourite chubby one.
A lovely long tuk tuk ride out of town there’s a wondrously strange sculpture park brimfull of statues of all sizes. In addition to the many Buddhas (including a 40m reclining one) there are also some Hindu deities and other bits of whimsy thrown in.
Probably the most jaw dropping sight in Vientiane is the huge 44m high golden Pha That Luang. The main golden structure was built in the 1500s but the foundations apparently date back to the 3rd century and are said to contain the Buddha’s breastbone. The centre bit is real gold – 500kg of gold leaf – and oh so shiny.
We were pretty comfortable in Vientiane and could have stayed a lot longer, but moving right along…a cruisy few hours was spent heading north in a not-too-squashy minivan through clouds of dust caused by the relentless progress of China’s ‘belt and road’ project. In this case, the new railway from Kunming in China all the way to Vientiane in central Laos. Construction is already just north of Vientiane and it’s due to be operational in 2020. It’s somewhat disturbing seeing the ‘big machine’ in action and difficult to tell where China begins and ends – big signs in Chinese, all Chinese companies and workers involved in the construction. Welcome to the Northern Laos Autonomous Region of China.
In a swirl of smoke and dust we arrived (like Dorothy) in the small town of Vang Vieng. A gorgeous settlement of mostly wooden buildings along the Nam Song River, circled by pointy karst limestone protrusions and mountains. Very pretty, very hot and very much on the backpacker trail.
Vang Vieng was a big party scene for a while but is now morphing into an extreme sports adventure type place. Think dune buggies, tubing, zip lines, ballooning, hiking and such-like, interspersed with a few small bass-thumping night clubs and hard drinking establishments left over from before. It feels very relaxed and charming though with beautiful scenes that appear unexpectedly around corners and down side streets.
Amongst all the delights on offer we chose to go and see the elephants. It’s a village project where they’ve rescued some elephants from worse conditions and brought them to live around the village. Each elephant has a ‘mahout’ or keeper who bosses them around and keeps them in line. I found the whole thing not exactly to my liking as I’d prefer to see the elephants released into the wild to go about their own elephant business. However, money from tourists goes to leasing forest land for the elephants to live in and provides an income for the village. All in all, the elephants appear to be much better off than they were before. A pragmatic compromise I suppose.
Still, despite my misgivings, it’s very special and humbling to be able to meet and greet these majestic creatures. We followed them around on foot for a few hours in the burning hot sun, watching them tear down vines and small trees to eat, interact with each other and bathe in the river. I couldn’t tell what they thought. I hope they’re happy.
Our guide to go and see the elephants was a very lovely man called Thon. He’d spent eight years as a Buddhist monk before leaving and going to work in Thailand for five years to earn enough money to set up a chilli farm. It was very interesting to hear his thoughts on life and death, reincarnation, meditation, philosophy and many things in between. When I asked him why he was no longer a monk, he said that he thought eight years was enough and that he wanted to use technology, talk to people, feel lustful thoughts and grow his hair. Indeed.
It’s started raining in Vang Vieng which has cooled things down a bit (but not enough). It’s a peaceful place to finally finish this work contract that’s hanging over my head and occasionally glance over the wooden rooftops at the beautiful mountains from our guesthouse verandah, appropriately named the ‘Nice View Guesthouse’.