Laos: Part One – Vientiane

Here is a diary of my time in Laos, complete with expenses, to hopefully give an idea of how cheap travel can be, and how I can make my money go literally a long way around the world.

06/01/2015: Train Bangkok to Nong Khai

I booked my train ticket on the morning of the day before my journey, at this time all of the lower beds had been fully booked already, so I was glad that I booked when I did.

I arrived an hour before departure, and the train already at the platform, and had just been cleaned, and people were already boarding. I got on board and started reading. By the time the train had left there were two Asian men on the bottom bunks below my bed, talking loudly. The tonal way speaking made it incredibly difficult to concentrate on reading, so I decided to just hang out on my bed with the curtains closed. The issue with this was that their loud voices made it sound like something was being announced by staff on the train, so I had to keep peeking out to be sure. I soon gave up, put some music on, and let the train rock me to sleep.

Train (2nd Class Upper Sleeper) = 688 THB (£14.00)

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07/01/2015: Vientiane, Laos

A pretty sleepless night, as they never turned the lights off during the night. Also, it was difficult to get comfortable in such a small bed which was close to the same height and width as me. There was also a fear of falling off the bed to contend with too. The train arrived a bit late, but was easy to get off the train and find a songthaew (a pick-up truck with benches in the back used a bus) driver to take me as well as others to the border for 20 THB each (40p). This leg of the trip only takes about 5 minutes, and could probably be walked in 15 minutes if you are running low on Thai Baht due to imminently leaving the country. I waited in line for about 15 minutes to get stamped out of Thailand. Then as you leave you can buy a bus ticket across the Friendship Bridge to the Laos border, the ticket cost 15 THB (30p), and is worth taking as maybe a 3km walk in the increasing heat. At the border, I just followed the group of westerners to pick up my Visa on arrival application form and arrival card. Upon completion, they check your forms, take 1 passport photo from you as well as your $35 USD for the visa. After about 10 minutes, a bunch of passports were handed out, and you can just walk straight through the passport control and into numerous people offering you a taxi into the city. By this time I was talking to two other guys, and we got a nice air-conditioned taxi with leather interior to take us straight away to the city, this cost 100 THB (£2.00) each for the roughly 30 minute drive. The other option is a busy public bus for half the price.

First impressions of Laos are that it is a lot cleaner, and roads a lot smoother than expected. A national population of around 7million people meant is isn’t that busy either, but, is more expensive than other backpackers have made out. I booked to stay in Vientiane Backpackers for 4500 kip per night (£3.60) for a 12 bed dorm, my first meal cost 30000 kip (£2.50) for beef larb. Although cheap compared to western countries, not good value compared to Thailand. In the evening, I bought my first BeerLaos to have at sunset overlooking the Mekong River, on the way I saw one of the guys I shared a taxi with, who joined me. After sunset, some music started playing, including “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” as a large group of local people did a public group exercise on the promenade. We followed this with another beer at dinner, and another in a surprisingly trendy bar in what is supposed to be the poorest country in the area. I then called it a night as I had to wake up at 3am to attempt to get a ticket for Coachella Festival, which I failed to get.

Dorm with breakfast = 40000kip. Lunch = 30000kip. Dinner = 20000kip. Water = 5000kip.              Coke = 5000kip. Beer x3 = 33000kip TOTAL: 133000kip (£11.08)

08/01/2015: Vientiane, Laos

I woke up groggy after the few beers and disturbed sleep due to early morning, but was still determined to do what felt my first touristy day in a long while, since maybe when I was in Myanmar. I started with a walk to the Victory Gate, which resembles the Arc De Triumphe in Paris, but is was never completed. However, it marks their victory over the French, and they made it bigger than the French equivalent to prove a point. I spent some time here as there is a small park nearby to chill out and read as the number of tourists increased during the morning. I then continued my walk, and went to Cope Visitor Centre, as recommended from a friend. This is a visitor centre based at a medical centre specialising in helping people who have lost limbs, or occurred other disabilities due to unexploded bombs from when the USA attacked about 50 years ago. They had shells from some of the bombs on display, and had many false limbs there too. It was eye opening to the quantity of bombs dropped, making Laos the most bombed country in the world, and how it is trying to educate people in rural areas to be careful and how to not injure themselves in the first place. They also tell them they that there is help available to them, which can help them get back to work and continue a more normal life after their incident.

Dorm with breakfast = 40000kip. Lunch with drink = 20000kip. Dinner = 20000kip.

TOTAL: 80000kip (£6.67)

09/01/2015: Vientiane, Laos

I started today by walking to Pha That Luang via That Dam Stupa. The stupa wasn’t anything special, after being to Myanmar and specifically Bagan, where there are another 12000 similar stupas, albeit this being in a city centre so different surroundings to Bagan. Pha That Luang is the national symbol of Laos, and is a golden stupa. Again, with comparison to Myanmar, it is not as impressive due to the smaller size compared to in Yangon, Myanmar. However, in Vientiane, at least the pagoda isn’t under maintenance. I had a look around a couple of temples close by too, before heading to see what the main shopping mall was like. On my walk to the mall, one of the random moments of travelling happened.

A middle aged woman started talking to me, and discussing where I have visited, and what else I should visit today. She told me about her moving to London in March, and was asking me for advice on how to look for a place to live, and public transport etc. We sat down at a bus stop for about 10 minutes talking, then she invited me to her place for lunch. I was apprehensive about this, and not sure if this is some sort of scam that I had not heard of, so I was being very wary, and was tempted to decline the offer, but she had been so friendly up until this point. We were going by tuk-tuk, which made me even more concerned, as potentially taking me to an unfamiliar area, which would be more distressing if something bad were to happen. We found a tuk-tuk, and it hadn’t taken us that far before we stopped, and I was asked to pay 20000kip (£1.65) towards the fare. This made me uncomfortable and felt like the start of something expensive for me. She commented that I don’t smile much, but it was the concern that was making me look like this. Moving on, we went into her home and was introduced to her brother and her niece. It was a nice place, and not like an old fashioned traditional home that I was expecting. Her brother had lived in Australia, so spoke very good English, and was asking me about my trip. He then offered to get me a job in Vientiane as a croupier in a secret VIP casino owned by a government official, and told I could earn around $2000-3000 USD a month. Unfortunately I could not accept due to ongoing travel plans. Lunch was then ready so I sat in the kitchen with the lady, Kim, and was treated to grilled fish, rice and a delicious local soup. Shortly after lunch we left and I was on my way to continue my plans for the day. In the end, I had nothing at all to worry about, and gained nothing but a free lunch, a new Laotian friend, and a story to tell. In Cambodia, I read that this is the start of a scam, where people end up playing poker and losing lots of money.

As I said, the tuk-tuk hadn’t taken us very far, and when I got to the main street lead by Kim, I knew exactly where I was. So I headed to the shopping mall, with as I had read that it contains the first escalator in the country. Known to locals to the direct translation as ‘electric ladder’, and according to WikiTravel people come to stare with amazement, and are amazed at the courage of people who use it.  Unfortunately, all I saw was an escalator.

My final stop of the day Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane, at nearly 200 years old. Apparently, as it is done in the Thai style, it was left untouched during the war. Upon entering the temple area, surrounding the temple is a building filled with thousands of small Buddha statues, in little holes in the wall. I walked around this before entering the temple. To me, it is just another temple, but the most impressive thing I liked about this one is the murals on the walls inside the temple, apparently depicting life as it was in the city when it was built, I was not allowed to take photos to share. In the evening, I ran into the guy I met on my first day in Laos, so after dinner, we met up for a few beers to end the day.

Dorm with breakfast = 40000kip. Shared tuk-tuk = 20000kip. Temple entrance = 5000kip.           Dinner = 15000kip. 4x beers = 40000kip. TOTAL: 120000kip (£10.00)

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10/01/2015: Vientiane, Laos

I had a day of rest, with just a small stroll around town, sampling the local coffee, and going to a pub to watch Sunderland v Liverpool.

Dorm with breakfast = 40000kip. Lunch = 13000kip. Water = 5000kip. Coffee = 8000kip       Dinner = 15000kip. 1x beer = 10000kip. TOTAL: 91000kip (£7.58)

11/01/2015: Bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos

My initial plan for today was to visit Buddha Park with someone I met in the hostel, as although it is just a park full of Buddhas, it does look intriguing. Torrential rain, however, caused my motivation for spending time in a park to die almost instantly. By the time the rain eased, I decided I would go and visit the Laos National Museum, I arrived at 11:57am to see that it closes at midday. Therefore I went for lunch, and headed back to the hostel. The afternoon was a long one as I waited for my 6:30pm pick-up for the bus station, however it was reasonably productive, as I started planning and booking my time in Japan, as well as other stuff for the rest of the year.

It did make me realise how easily motivation to do sight-seeing while travelling can fade. I realised that I am currently writing about my past, while planning for my future, and still also trying to live in the present. Four nights in Vientiane was too long, as can quickly become bored by day three. My next few stops in Laos are shorter ones, which gives me the kick up the ass that I need to do stuff.

My pick-up for the bus station was on time, and was a surprisingly nice vehicle, being the first one with a camera on the windscreen mirror, as well as one to assist with reversing, and people say that Laos is poor. After picking up some other travellers, and monks and their worldly belongings, we made it to the bus station just in time for my 7:30pm departure. The journey was an unpleasant one. I paid the cheaper price to have a seat instead of a ‘sleeper’, and I ended up having the two seats to myself as was less than half full. The bus wasn’t the issue though, after about 15 minutes into the journey, we left the city and started to cross the bad roads I had heard about. We hit a pot hole about every 20 seconds, and sometimes more than one in a row, so the bus tipped up and down like we was riding a wild animal. It was an almost sleepless, only getting sleep when the bus stopped for breaks, even then it was uneasy as that is when I wanted to keep an eye on my luggage. To top things off, early in the morning it started to get cold, and I was wearing all of my warm clothes.

Breakfast included. Lunch = 10000kip. Coke = 5000kip. Dinner = 15000kip. Bus ticket = 160000kip. TOTAL = 190000kip (£15.83)

To be continued…

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