Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Vientiane, 4000 Islands and Champasak

I've been reading LP where it says that in Laos there are no lines, it's whoever can shove the money first into the ticket window wins! Oh no, here we go again, India #2! :S After a whole month in Thailand, I haven't been irritated not even once, and with my built immunity and renewed strength, I think I can tackle it!
I left the guest house in Nong Khai and 2 hours later, I was in the capital of Laos - Vientiane. Don't worry if you've never heard of Laos, and its capital, I didn't know about it either before I started travelling. As there is a saying: Vietnam plants the rice, Cambodia watches it grow and Laos listens to it grow. Nothing is ever happening there, so it just doesn't make it to international news. Could've been there sooner, but the only "Visa on arrival" counter, could only work that fast. From what I've read, Laos is one big village, with the majority of population being very poor, non existing roads, and constantly breaking chicken buses. The first high school opened by French was only established in 1947! Indeed the education is not valued in Laos, what is valued are your skills at the rice fields. Hopefully the money from this $42 1 month visa would go for a good use!
I started talking to a couple who were behind me in a line, and we shared a taxi together to town. The taxi driver said 300 baht, and I said 200. He asked how many people, and I said 3. He was holding his stomach laughing, but when we kept on walking, the price went down to 250, we kept on walking ... ok, ok 200. Oh, look who's laughing now! Although after half an hour ride in a very new, clean, leather-seat minivan, I started feeling bad for bargaining.
Vientiane is a very nice small capital of only about 200,000 people on a bank of the Mekong river (which passes through most of SE Asia). The touristic center is filled with all kinds of yummy cafes and restaurants from all over the world. Everything has 3 sets of prices on them, Lao kip, Thai Baht and US dollars. Exchange rate is 1 to 7500, and everybody has a chance to be a millionaire with 1,000,000 kip being only $130. I find myself converting Kip to Baht to Dollars to make sense of the prices. So it takes a while to order anything :)
Absolutely every hotel, guest house, restaurant and a hole in the wall establishment has ads about all the buses that it can arrange for you, mostly with the pickup at the hotel. I have to check how these compare to regular buses, but can things be any easier than that? The list of destinations is very comprehensive. The buses go everywhere in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and if it's an island, they include a boat too! All the buses are equipped with washrooms, they serve food, snacks, and wet towels. I wonder if I'll feel like a backpacker in this place! :)
I sat myself in a very modern coffee house where they serve coffee and tea from around the world, opened my Lonely Planet and started making the route of my journey. I only covered about a quarter of the country and I'm already at 2 weeks. What to skip, what to do ... this is the question.
Couldn't sleep at night because had coffee at 6pm :S It's rainy season, the sky is grey, and it constantly drizzles. If the sky is grey, I'm grey too. My head hurts, I feel down, and I want to sleep, so I had the coffee, and I didn't want to sleep anymore ... at night either :) Ok ... try #2! Had a coffee in the morning, this time it worked right :)
Went for a sightseeing tour. First was some arc Patuxai dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Construction was completed in the late 1960s and it was built using concrete donated by the USA for building a new airport, hence its other nickname: Vientiane's "vertical runway". It's compared to the "Arc de Triomphe" in Paris, but like a plank on its side says "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete", they don't even believe in it themselves :) There are still lots of signs of Laos being a French colony. All the streets in the center have French names and most of the restaurants are French featuring a French menu!
I ordered noodles and pork balls at some local restaurant. When it was time to pay, the woman told me 30,000 (~$4), it seemed kind of expensive for noodles, and thank god I didn't have enough Kip. I asked to pay in Baht, and it came to $2. That's better :)
The market was strange. There were shops selling miscellaneous small items, locks, chargers, pens, and then guitars and badminton rackets ... random! Right beside the market, there was I think the biggest mall in Laos. But they even couldn't fill in 3 floors. The 3rd floor was completely empty, and half of the other shops were closed. Revlon and Rado shops seemed to host only the sellers. I went to a few supermarkets, but they're under stocked, and have no variety at all. If that's happening in the capital, what will be in other towns?

4000 Islands
(LP) There must be some rule in Laos that says the further south you go the more relaxed it becomes, because just when you thought your blood pressure couldn't drop any more, you arrive in Four Thousand Islands and the few you are likely to visit on this scenic 50km-long stretch of the Mekong are so chilled you're liable to turn into a hammock-bound icicle.
I don't know how much the public buses cost, but I decided this time to take the whole package. It included a pick up from the hostel, sleeper bus, minivan and a boat to any island you'd like to go to. Seems pretty easy! But how will I feel the real Laos if I'll always be on these tourist buses?
They took a few of us to the wrong terminal, and after they checked my ticket, they shook their heads, made a few quick phone calls, put my suitcase in the car and we speed across pot holed roads in the rain to the other terminal. I wasn't scared after India, and not even twice when we came so close to throwing someone off the bike. We barely made it to the other terminal, and I got into the sleeper bus. I've never been on a bus like that before. It's 2 floors, and on the 2nd one you almost have to crawl to get to your spot, which is a double bed, but the size of a single bed. It has a mattress on the floor, 2 pillows and 2 blankets. My bed was the only one that had 1 person in it. Thank god for that!! I can't imagine sharing a single bed with an unknown person! It was also very cold, they really put a good use of an AC, and without 2 blankets I would've frozen. I tossed and turned all night, but I was so happy, I don't know why ... these beds are way too cool ! :) In the morning, they put us in different minivans, and drove us for breakfast, then 2 hours later we made another stop for ice cream and washrooms (how smart!) and took us to the boats. When the boat was in the middle of the journey, it started to rain very hard, we were all soaked along with the entire luggage. Some of us waited in the restaurant for the rain to stop, and when we were in the middle of our fabulous food, it was bright and sunny as though the rain has never happened. Of course it did happen, and the walk to the bungalows was a very muddy one. I couldn't roll my suitcase in the muddy pave less roads, and I pretty much took the 1st bungalow that I came across. It's a nice room with a mosquito net, a fan, and a huge balcony right on the river with a hammock for $2.50.
I was tired from the sleepless night, but I didn't want to waste a day napping, especially not on a 1 month visa. So I got my rain coat and set to walk around the island among vast rice fields, cows and buffalos. People here love their buffalos, they help them plant the rice, and you see many kids playing with them, riding them, and picking the ticks out. A few times I was scared to pass them, because they roam around free, and then they just stare at you and don't move. I swear these buffalos have an Indian heritage! :) And after that cow that run at me on the hike in India, those are not just cows anymore, those are sri sri cows! :)
Why don't lesbians shave their legs? I understand that there is a feminist side of being a lesbian, and if a guy doesn't shave, why should I? But isn't it prettier to not have a forest on your legs even for yourself?
I signed up for a kayaking tour, and the 12 of us listened to pseudo English instructions asking each other if anybody understood anything. We didn't, and we just decided to paddle ... I mean, that's what you do in a kayak, right?
The first part was beautiful, in a very narrow part of the river with jungles on both sides. We didn't even need to paddle because the current was so strong. We stopped to look at wild waterfalls. The shaking wooden rope bridge above it, made the experience that much more exhilarating. I don't think you could even raft in these falls, the water had so much volume and speed, it was scary to look at, I can't imagine what would happen if you were to fall of your raft in there! We then saw other falls from a distance, and walked through a jungle to a spot where they brought our kayaks. I wonder which way they went?
According to all countries except western, nobody tells you anything about what's going on ... ever! We reached a big part of the river, which almost looked like a lake, and just followed the guide to the shore. Our kayak was last, and we stopped to ask the parked boats what are they waiting for. They said that it's the spot to watch for dolphins. We knew that we have dolphin watching on the trip, but the guides didn't tell us, and there were only us and another kayak enjoying the experience. When we got back, they all wondered, did we get tired or lost? They didn't even understand why we got stuck in the middle of the river for so long. Such a shame :(
Only the first part of kayaking was beautiful. The rest was in open water, and it was more for a workout (and god knows I need it!) than for a scenery. We parked, put the kayaks in the track, got squashed in the space that was left, and went to see more falls. They were beautiful and powerful, but the ones on the bridge were still my favourite. Back in the car, we were all exhausted, only to find out that we have more kayaking to do. On the bank, we watched a monkey in the cage, very sad sight to see such big monkey in such a small cage. He looked at me, and gave me his hand, 3 times, on the 3rd time, I slowly outstretched my hand to his, when out of nowhere, he grabbed it, and jerked me to the cage, then let go, and went to sit in the corner to laugh. He didn't scratch me, or hurt me, but everyone was shocked, and my heart was pumping. Those monkeys, they're smart ... and cruel !! :)
Back in the kayak, we had to paddle across a wide river. We saw the end, but for some reason we went up on the opposite side. I figured out that the current is so strong, if we'll set out to cross the river directly opposite the exit, we will never make it. And oh man, it was some hard peddling. We were so tired from the whole day of kayaking, and the hardest part was this last one, and there was no stopping, and no giving up. Peddling hard for good 10 minutes with energy reserve way low on the red line.
I was tired that I was contemplating whether to go to sleep at 5pm ... but pulled myself through it :)
Next day I rented a bicycle and went to the next island. I saw many more animals than people throughout the ride, chickens, ducks, water buffalos all gazing by the side of the road, and occasional people with Vietnamese hats working the rice fields. At the occasional houses or restaurants, you share the table space with cats and dogs and sometimes monkeys! At one restaurant when I was lying next to a table (in a lot of restaurants you can lie down on the mattress on the floor near the table), when a cat went by, climbed on top of me and fell asleep.
It rained sporadically. Sunny, sunny, then a big black cloud comes right above you, and it starts pouring rain. There is nowhere to hide, but you look up and you know that it will stop raining in less than 5 minutes. Then just as everything gets soaked, it gets dry in a matter of minutes with the blazing sun.
At one of the waterfalls, the sign said "For your security, leave the bike with the guard. Do not leave the bike anywhere else unattended!", and then a little girl comes running with a ticket, which is the cutest thing ever, it's either that or "Khop chai lai lai" which means thank you very much, which I think is the cutest thank you in any language.
Going to a next place ... this 1 month visa thing does not make things easy. At the boats nobody tells you anything, and people come and ask and ask just to be told nothing or to wait 5 minutes. Then everybody gave up and sat down. When an empty boat came, the organizer was saying in surprise, why are you all sitting? Come aboard the boat! :)
At the mainland, there were so many buses, and again, no directions. I remembered Lonely Planet tip #1: Pack a lot of patience with you, you'll get to where you need to be, but nobody knows exactly when. I told a few people my destination, and waited. Everybody around me was running, looking for the correct bus, some were losing their temper with the organizers, I just kept quiet knowing that they'll eventually call me. Half an hour later, they did, and I boarded a bus to go to Champasak which only 30 years ago was a seat of royalty. I don't know why they chose Champasak, because it's a 1 street town, with absolutely nothing to do in it, except see a nearby temple. Here I go, giving a temple another chance. I have a need for exercise, so I walked back and forth along the street for 2 hours, greeting all the smiling and waving kids with sabaai-dii. It's not rare to see kids helping parents in a store or a restaurant, doing house chores, going to a store (or riding a scooter) to buy something.
I need help. I need different ways to say 2 phrases:
1. Thank god
2. god knows
As I think everybody's already aware that god is not on my top 10 list of beliefs, and I feel like I'm betraying myself and others for using these phrases.

I haven't seen that many geckos in my life on one ceiling. There was a single light in the evening in the guesthouse's restaurant, and 1000s of small bugs flying around it. I tried to count the geckos, and I reached 60. I'm sure there were more. And they were just sitting there quietly, occasionally making their move for the kill, but it looked to me like they could be like Wales eating plankton, just open your mouth, and run through the cloud of bugs :)
The checkout was at 12, and I had to see the wat (Buddhist temple) before that. I woke up at 7, I'm still rubbing my sleepy eyes, and already cycling 10 kms to the wat. The temple was ok. It's a world heritage site, but I think it just got this title because there is nothing else to see in Laos, so they think, we have this one temple, let’s make it count! There wasn't much to see, but again, I was glad for the exercise, and the location was beautiful. 

1 comment:

  1. Фотографии Вьентьяна меня удивили: выглядит все так чисто и ухоженно, очень "по-европейски". Это только столица такая? а подальше, наверное, уже не так "вылизано"?