Laos – Vientiane

DSC_0545 As the capital of Laos, Vientiane is the main gateway for both domestic and international travel.  My impression is that most visitors use it as a stopping off point before exploring or leaving the country.  On a bus, I even overheard one backpacker say “There’s not much to Vientiane – one night maximum.  Just wats.”  She obviously had a different guidebook;  mine declares “at the height of the American influence in the 1960’s, it (Vientiane) was renowned for its opium and sex dens”. Aside from this and its French colonial history, I knew there would be more to Vientiane, so I decided to make a full weekend and explore beyond the wats. Continue reading

Laos – Vang Vieng

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When I was researching my trip to Laos, I almost decided to give Vang Vieng a miss, mainly due to its backpacker and hippie hangout reputation. These doubts however were overridden by the beautiful scenery and amazing caves that Vang Vieng is famous for.  Plus there are decent hotels right on the river well away from the party scene. Continue reading

Laos – Bangkok to Vang Vieng

image I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about Laos, but do remember it was in a conversation about their civil war in the 1960’s. Of course the neighbouring conflict in Vietnam grabbed the headlines, and the conflict in Laos became known as the secret war – mainly due to the USA’s clandestine support to the Laos insurgence fighting the North Vietnamese. Fast forward 50 years and Laos is now open to the world for all to visit and admire this stunning landlocked country. It lies to the east of Northern Thailand and a large part of the border is the Mekong. From the map, the most straightforward alternative to flying was via Nong Khai, crossing over the Mekong into Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

I took the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Nong Khai. There are three overnight services every evening, with the 8pm departure offering sleeping cars. I arrived in Bangkok around 1pm, so headed to the left luggage first. Occasionally in life you suddenly walk into something very random and unexpected. When I arrived at the station, there was a fashion show to celebrate 117 years of the State Railways of Thailand. And all the models were train drivers and staff – it was a lot of fun to watch! Thais have a special thing about cowboys…20140326-204329.jpg Later when I came back to catch my train, there were a couple of beautiful steam engines on platform 5. Here is one of them….

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The service to Nong Khai takes 12 hours and a second class sleeper berth costs 688 Thai baht, about £13 or $20. Quite a bargain really and perfectly clean and comfortable. After an hour or so the steward converts the lower seating into a flat bed, then makes up the beds. Just like KTM in Malaysia, unfortunately the air conditioning was at an arctic temperature setting.

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The train arrived at Nong Khai a little before 8am the next morning and I hopped in to a tuk tuk and made my way to the border crossing. It was less than a kilometre from the station. As it was quite early formalities were relatively swift. After exiting Thailand, I paid 20 baht for a shuttle bus that takes travellers the 6km stretch over the Mekong and no mans land to the Laos border crossing. Here was my first glimpse of the Mekong and of Laos…

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Formalities were a little longer at the Laos border.  A visa on entry application form was completed and submitted with $35 and a passport photo. They also take Thai baht or Laos Kip. Paying by US$ is best value. 15 minutes later I had my Laos visa and was on my way. Vientiane is about 20km north if the border crossing – my choice to get there was a shared tuk tuk for about 100 baht into Vientene. Or a nice air conditioned minivan to anywhere in Laos – I was offered 5000 Thai baht to Vang Vieng – about $150! So I went by tuk tuk into Vientiane and to the Northern bus station to catch a bus to Vang Vieng…

20140327-071355.jpgI went straight to the bus counter to the left and purchased a ticket to Vang Vieng. A bargain at $5 and I felt a small win over the border taxi drivers. Then I saw the bus….

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My first reaction was to laugh out loud and get my camera out. I then looked over at the air conditioned mini-vans and enquired about “upgrading” – it was all of $1 extra, so hardly seemed worth it. I also considered the fact that I had never travelled in a local bus before and it would be a memorable experience if nothing else. So I boarded and waited for departure, and waited…. The bus finally left 60 minutes after I was advised, and once I was on, there was no getting off!

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The journey was certainly memorable – and not in a bad way. This mode of transport has to be done at least once in a lifetime. All the locals chatted and helped each other with their belongings as they alighted along the way. There were also a couple of comfort stops at remote villages, where two of the four other backpackers bought beer. 30 minutes later they were asking for another comfort and smoke stop. I politely tuned to them and said “I think he is stopping just to let people off”.  Although hot, the open windows not only provided a welcome breeze, but also allowed me to take some nice snaps on the way….

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This is is what a petrol/gas station looks like in Laos…

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And plenty healthy roadside fruit fresh from the fields. Watermelons were everywhere – obviously in season…

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The bus approached Vang Vieng at around 5pm, five hours after it’s scheduled departure – four hours on the road. This was rush hour as we approached…

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My hotel was only a 10 minute walk and I needed to stretch my legs after the journey. As you can see from the view from my hotel room, although a long and epic journey, it was worth it…. Vang Vieng at sunset is simply stunning…

imageMore about my time in Vang Vieng in my next post!

P.S. Struggling a bit with Internet connectivity so apologies for copy edit errors – will fix in due course.