Caution: Long post ahead, with minimal food!
I had been staring at the Thai - Lao Friendship Bridge every chance I had during our stay in Nong Khai. It didn't help that a view of the bridge was in clear view, after just a few steps from our room.
The process of crossing the bridge was quite simple; clear Thailand Immigration and catch the shuttle bus across the three-quarter of a mile bridge (15 Baht):
In a rather interesting "turn" of events; traffic in Thailand drives on the left, while vehicles in Laos drive on the right. Traffic lights on the Laos end of the bridge manage the change. Upon arrival at Laos Immigration, you need to fill in the application for Visa on Arrival. The price is $35 each for US Citizens...there is a sliding scale of prices based on Country of origin. For some reason Canadians pay the highest prices $45, while predictably, citizens of fellow Communist Countries pay the least - Cuba and PR China, $20/US.
You'll need to fill in a destination in Laos on your immigration form; just pick out something from Lonely Planet or another guide. The taxi and tuk-tuk mob once you clear customs is pretty crazed....this was the only time we faced such a "feeding frenzy" in Laos. $10 got us to Vientiane about 40km away. After checking out a Guest House, we kinda decided that we had enough of Guest Houses for now....we ended up at the Lao Orchid Hotel, and got a top floor suite for $65 a night. Super clean, great A/C...and most of all....something we hadn't experienced in a few days....television! The service was also amazingly good, especially a young lady named "Ai". More on Lao Orchid in a future post. In an interesting coincidence, we filled in Lao Orchid as our destination on our immigration form....
After checking in, and a quick shower (yes, it was very humid), the Missus had decided that we "just" had to do the Walking Tour outlined by the Lonely Planet Guide. As I looked over the guide, it said the "tour" was over 6 kilometers! Yikes, shades of the Matra - Taphin death march. And of course, just to one up the folks at Lonely Planet we'd start a few more kilometers out at Pha Tuat Luang. The Missus was obviously channeling Her inner Clark Griswald.
"perhaps you don't want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away? "
Luckily, the one little tidbit the Missus followed, was to take the trip out via tuk-tuk, which dropped us at the gates of Pha Tuat Luang.
Pha Tuat Luang is considered the most important national monument in Laos. According to legend Ashokan missionaries from India erected a Stupa here in the third century containing a piece of Buddha's breastbone. The history of Pha Tuat Luang is as tumultuous as the history of Laos, and Southeast Asia itself, suffering through several assaults, and finally sacked by the Siamese in the early 19th century.
In fact, when the French arrived in 1867, they found the city totally abandoned. Even good intentions have not always worked out well for Pha Tuat Luang. When first restored by the French, the main entrance was restored facing South, instead of East!
The grounds were fairly busy....with a large group of Chiang Mai University student teachers, the one's in pink are Kindergarden Teachers, in Blue, Elementary School Teachers.
After about 2 kilometers, That Luang Road turns meets the main drag, Tha Lan Xang, at this large monument:
It's Laos' version of the Arc de Triumphe, called the Patuxai. Though the resemblance lessens as you approach...and the motifs on the upper level is unmistakeably Lao. I found a little tidbit of history of the Patuxai to be amusing. In the 1960's, the US purchased, and donated cement that was to be used for building a new airport....but Laos used it to build the Patuxai instead!
The Missus was fascinated, and charmed by the Patuxai:
I, on the other hand, agreed with this, honest to goodness...well, honest sign posted.
Does the Vientiane Tourist Board know about this sign?
Tha Lane Xang, with it's Government and NGO offices is by far the busiest street in Vientiane. Still, check out the traffic:
What makes the situation dangerous, is that what traffic there is goes at a pretty fast clip. And all the cars come in waves. And while walking down Lane Xang we came upon a sudden glut of cars.......it seems like the very large school on the boulevard was out for the day. We needed to cross the street...what to do?
He-he-he....just use the crossing guard! This young lady meant business!
On the second floor was a huge collection of jewelry shops. A simply mind-numbing number of shops and stalls ....
And suddenly we were in a modern, air conditioned mall.
Not quite what we signed up for.....but air conditioning was nice....very nice!
Next stop? That Dam (it's That Dam, not that Dam)...okay, another Stupa. Off on a side street lies the "Black Stupa" that supposedly houses a seven-headed dragon that came alive in 1828 during the Lao - Siamese War and protected the local population. This Stupa, according to legend, was once covered in gold, which was removed by the Siamese during the same War. I guess the dragon was too busy protecting the people? Right now it looks pretty...well unimpressive. One of the more interesting things about this walk was that we passed the American Embassy along the way.
Walking to the end of Lane Xang (yay!) is the Presidential Palace:
Luckily for me, the Presidential Palace is not open to visitors (whew!).
No such luck with Wat Sisaket, the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane.
All kidding aside, the Temple grounds are quite beautiful.
Wat Sisaket is also known to have an inner building holding over 2000 Buddha's. Unfortunately (wink-wink, nod-nod), we found that all these places close during lunch. And my parched throat, and my growling stomach was telling me it was time for a break.
We skipped our next stop, and the Missus led me to a building on the banks of the Mekong called PVO. Why PVO? Well, skipping our next destination, it was the "lunch stop" in the Lonely Planet Guide.
PVO is known for their version of the Vietnamese Sandwich, Banh Mi. I didn't quite know what to think of a Vietnamese Restaurant and Motorcycle Rental. But the ice was, well, ice, the water, was, well, wet, and the Coke Light was saccharide goodness.
The Sandwich, though big enough for the both of us, was not very good.
Instead of being crusty, the baguette was hard, dry, and scaberous. There was an entire scallion thrown in the length of the sandwich. And it was totally saturated in mayo. This was probably the second worst meal on the vacation, and I've never let the Missus forget it....take that Lonely Planet!
Riding the wave of rapid hydration I took a shot at talking the Missus out of finishing the "walking tour". No dice, She was not to be denied. To put it into the words of Mr Griswold:
"I'll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun."
So we back-tracked to Wat Haw Pha Kaeo. The grounds housed an impressive temple, which was originally built to house the Emerald Buddha. We again ran into the education students from Chiang Mai University. A large collection of Buddahs reside inside the Sim. But for us, the various Buddhas lining the outside of the Sim was more impressive.
The Lao-style Buddha's are posed in various positions, including, Offering Protection (hands are out front, with palms facing front), Contemplating Enlightenment (hands out front, crossed at the wrist), and Calling for Rain (photo to the right).
There was also a huge jar from the Plain of Jars located on temple grounds. I actually enjoyed this! Hey maybe the Vientiane Death March wasn't too bad after all....
The Missus continuing with the single minded goal of accomplishing this walking tour in record time, marched off out of temple grounds, and headed left on Sitthathirath Road. We managed to squeeze in a stop at Wat Mixay, before heading back to our hotel on Chou Anou....and a much needed shower (I sure smelled past my due date by this time).
If you're ever in Vientiane, or Luang Prabang for that matter, you should pick up one of the excellent maps provided by Hobo Maps. We found the maps to be priceless. You can follow our walk on this map of Central Vientiane. After a short break, and having replaced the 4 gallons of fluid I lost during our walk, and ignoring the "snap, crackle, and pop" of my joints (apparently my synovial fluid was drained during this walk as well), I was looking forward to this:
The Missus had also moved on....She was already spending time with Her new constant companion, the Lonely Planet Guide, circling places of interest for tomorrows "walk". I could already see our Griswold-ian future:
"Tomorrow you'll probably kill the desk clerk, hold up a McDonalds, and drive us 1000 miles out of the way to see the world's largest pile of mud!"
But of course that's a whole 'nother post!