Back in the Saddle!

Lao: The beauty of the landscape is breathtaking! And the warmth of the people, especially in the small villages out in the countryside, is really special. I think it’s impossible not to fall in love with this place. A definite recommendation for anyone out there thinking of traveling to somewhere more remote and less developed.

Having said that, tourism is blooming here, particularly in a few places, and it has had a noticeable effect on the local attitude – not wholly for the better. But I cannot blame them: money and greed of course become a phenomenon, sadly, but so many tourists seem leave their brains at the immigration counter and their behaviour is just despicable. I mean, how difficult is it to figure out that it’s NOT POLITE to enter a temple in your swimming outfit; or to yack loudly and play paparazzi at the temple or stupa while monks and worshipers are deep in prayer or meditation?

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If you’re thinking of come here – in fact if you’re thinking of going ANYWHERE, ask yourself if you’re going to RESPECT the local people, customs and culture – and if the answer is “no”, please just stay at home. Else I fear it may not be long before us falang (foleigner) no longer feel so welcome anymore.

Anyway: Our first stop in Lao after an hour flight from Hanoi is the capital Vientiane (aka Viang Chang). We’re a bit worried about the immigration process as we don’t have the 35$US exact each and we’re not sure how the 100EUR bill will split – if at all – into a visa for two people with change… Surprisingly, a young Lao lady attendant escorts us out of the immigration area, through passport control, beyond arrivals, to the money exchange counter to get the currency we need and then back through it all into the immigration section to get our visa sorted. Wow! Where does that happen??! Everything is sorted with a smile and we’re soon on a tuk tuk into the centre of Vientiane for 50,000 Lao Kip. (We’ve probably paid more than we should but we expect this as new arrivals at airports).

We check into the Mixay Guest House on Rue Francois Ngin for 17$US a night the double room (TV/AC etc). It’s not cheap but it’s clean and the staff are very friendly. Here we meet Julia. I notice her because during several consecutive trips up and down the stairwell, Julia is tucked away in a corner half way up the stairs fiddling with her Iphone and it’s rather puzzling. It turns out this is the only spot in the building she has reception. Julia is Swiss and has been here for a couple of months already. She’s a student nurse and she’s doing a placement in a local hospital through a long-standing partnership founded by a Swiss doctor some time ago. She tells us about how different standards are in hospitals here compared to in Europe, how many babies get born nd how they get delivered – interesting to know. We go out for a few dinners together and we explore the town and the temples by rental bicycle (10000LAK/day) for the next three days.

Julia, great to meet you and hope the rest of your stay was enjoyable. I’m sure you once you settle in again back at home, you will ever be longing for another chance to hit the road and experience more beautiful places afar. Let us know where you go and how you liked it. 🙂

Lao is a Buddhist country. There are beautiful temples everywhere – so meticulously built and decorated. Monks walk the streets in orange robes. They maintain the temples and temple grounds and busy themselves with their studies, generally including Buddhism and then some other subjects, depending on which temple they happen to be associated with. Mornings and evenings there are chanting and meditation rituals which are really nice to attend if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Just ask a monk whether it would be ok and then leave your camera at home so you’re not moving and clicking and bleeping around like a tit while everybody around you is in full concentration. 🙂 The ceremonies take about an hour and there’s nothing much else to do but to sit and listen or meditate, but I find it a very relaxing experience and the chanting is quite different to the same ceremonies held in Thailand or neighbouring countries.

Vientiane is a quaint town with considerable French influence, as you can tell by the street name above, and therefore plenty of decent bread is available :). It’s got a very laid back atmosphere, plenty of places to eat and drink, and not much to do after midnight. Being out of blood-sucking Vietnam, we feel we’ve arrived in paradise again: people are friendly, the food is excellent and accommodation is clean and relatively inexpensive. In no time we’ve learned the local greeting (Sabaidee) and thank-you (Kop Jai). We spend our time walking and cycling around town, eating street and restaurant food, drinking Beer Lao and talking to other travelers. We have a chance encounter at a restaurant with some Dutch friends we made in Vietnam, Ben and Denise, a lovely young couple, friendly and full of energy. We plan to hook up in Vang Vieng a few days later if we can, but this doesn’t work out because of our riding schedule and we leave the place literally 10 hours after they arrive. Too bad – I hope we’ll bash into them in Thailand somewhere as I know they’ll be heading there later on.

By the way: Beer Lao is a Southeast Asia / Indochina legend and, in my mind anyway, considered a highlight of the entire region by lovers of quality beer the world over. I didn’t buy the T-shirt though. 😉

PS: Why LAO and not LAOS? Well as far as I can ascertain, the LAO”S” comes from a misspelling in some french book published years ago and it stuck. But most definitely locally it’s known as LAO.

Also on the drinks front: Whisky Lao is not bad at all; there’s Tiger brand and then there’s a/some more refined one/s which are worth drinking. And your visit will not be complete without trying LaoLao – nuff said!

As far as night life in Vientiane is concerned, there isn’t much as far as I am able to ascertain. The last bar in town shuts at midnight and then there’s a place on the eastern side open til three or so, within a hotel complex I think – I don’t get to visit it. Tranquil as this place is, it is a bit of a shocker to see a transvestite hooker smile at your from the bar or a gorgeous young Lao girl following you on her scooter offering you a supposedly good time… sadly there is always some bad with the good, and sex tourism seems to have infected this place along with its more popular neighbours.

After a few days in Vientiane we figure out that we’d be within our budget to hire a motorbike to tour the country and we’re off around town checking out deals for motorbike hire. There’s not much competition here and it seems the guy to hire from (most convenient service and location) is Thierry from Jules Classic (Tel.+856-2097282636). It costs us US$27 a day, 10 days incl. helmets and bungees, an extra $50 for bike pickup in Luang Prabang and they store our bulk luggage for us and drop it off for us in LP during the bike handover. Passport as deposit of course. Two days later we saddle up with a reduced luggage of 10Kg on an 250cc Honda Baja and head North for Vang Vieng. (Jules Classic say they check each bike before renting, however in our case the idle and chain tension were severely maladjusted, so check you’re happy with everything before you go!)

– Tom Yum soup, Lap, steamed bamboo and papaya salad – without the fish sauce.
– A good Whisky Lao, LaoLao and of course: Beer Lao
– There’s a swish boutique hotel in the centre of Vientiane (cannot recall the name) but it’s got a restaurant garden and a large bar – go there and try their LaoGria! (Sangria made with their local brew)
– Try an egg pancake from the bicycle kitchen

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