Sunday, April 27, 2014

Laos: Vientiane and Vang Vieng

Nikunj and I went to Laos over Khmer New Year. Many countries in Southeast Asia celebrate New Year’s during this period including Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. We took advantage of our three day vacation by adding two more days and exploring a new country before we leave Cambodia in May.

During this annual three day event, Laotians celebrate the last day of the year on the first day, a neutral day on the second day where no one is believe to age, and the first day of the new year on the third day. The celebrations were not slated to start until Monday but the public started celebrating as soon as the weekend started. In case you were wondering, they were welcoming the year 2557.

Sleepy Laos is north of Cambodia and does not get as many tourists as Thailand or Vietnam but is still considered to be a part of the Southeast Asia travel circuit. The country’s natural beauty is what attracts visitors. It is best enjoyed without an agenda. Everyone has their own impression of each city and some just visit Luang Prabang. I would recommend going with an open mind and forming your own opinion because we ended up loving every city for its own uniqueness and for the first time in a while, I felt like I did not give a country enough time.  Our stops for the week were Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

Busy with deadlines, we both pushed our luck during Friday evening rush hour traffic and cut it a little too close but luckily our flight was delayed by 45 minutes so everything worked out in the end. We arrived in Vientiane around 8pm and were picked up by our hotel’s shuttle. We decided to stay at Aroon Residence because it provided free shuttles to and from the airport, free breakfast and was centrally located from everything. We were able to walk to the river, the sights and to the restaurants.

On our first night, we explored the main strip and decided to grab dinner at Khop Chai Deu, which literally means thank you very much. This corner restaurant was bustling with energy, live music and was filled with expats and locals. It was the perfect way to immerse ourselves into the local scene.

We spent the next day getting know Vientiane. Our day started at Patuxai, the victory monument. This is a smaller replica of the Arc de Triomphe and is surrounded by a nice park, a fountain and for $.50 you can even go to the top for views of the city. It was too hot to enjoy the grounds but we did climb to the top.

Our next destination was Pha That Luang, a gold covered stupa considered to be most important monument of Laos.  It is also considered to be the center of the city. We did not walk around three times to stay in Buddha’s good graces again because it was too hot. But we did admire its gold from every corner and explored the temples around it.

On our walk back to the hotel, we experienced our first bout of Pi Mai celebrations. Pi Mai is the local name for the three day New Year celebration in Laos. While we were walking, we saw kids attacking each other with water guns and buckets of water and thought it was cute. Well two minutes later two of these kids ran after us and managed to drench our backs with water. This playful incident prepared us for what the next five days would be like.

After a quick escape from the heat, we headed back out. Our first stop was Wat Sisaket, considered the oldest temple in Vientiane because it survived the Thai invasion. The best part about this temple was walking the cloisters around it. They hold thousands of miniature Buddha statues and each hallway was unique in its own way. This is where I realized that Buddha has a variety of hand gestures and each means a different thing.

By the time we finished, we were starving and decided to head to Kung’s CafĂ© for lunch. The restaurant is in the outdoor garden of a family’s home. It took us a few minutes to find it because it is tucked away in a small alley. The wife and mother serve as hostess and cook. The meal was super cheap and very delicious.  It provided a nice escape from the main streets of Vientiane. Rumor has it the restaurant will be moving soon because the neighborhood will be demolished to make way for a new high rise.

Our next stop was Haw Pha Kaew. It was built to serve as the official temple for the Royal Family but was destroyed by the Thais. Its name pays homage to the Emerald Buddha which was stolen and now sits in the Grand Palace of Bangkok. This temple is actually diagonally across from Wat Sisaket but we were too hungry to visit them back to back. 

We tried to visit  the local Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE). Between 1964 and 1973 the United States dropped over two million bombs in Laos, making it one of the most heavily bombed countries in history. A third of these bombs did not detonate and have since been causing casualties across the country. Unfortunately for us, we arrived and found it closed for the New Year.

Exhausted from walking all day, we decided it was best to relax by the river and catch the sunset. We got a tuk tuk, negotiated a price and even managed to get a cheaper price than the one we were quoted for our excursion to Buddha Park the next day. We exchanged numbers and  felt very accomplished to have secured a great deal.                                                          

The riverside area looks pretty similar to the one in Phnom Penh, just smaller. We sat along the edge of the riverwalk to people watch and stare at Thailand across the river. We started to hear music from a nearby restaurant and decided to check it out. We loved that this busy spot was filled with locals and that the band was playing covers of old American songs.  We got a seat on the terrace and had the river and the setting sun as our view. It was a perfect place to unwind after a long day. We noticed everyone getting one particular appetizer and decided to ask the people next to us about it. They said it was a delicious chicken dish and so we got a plate. After about 30 mins, I finally decided to state the obvious. This was not chicken. It didn’t taste bad but it wasn’t chicken. Nikunj and I started laughing and settled on the fact that we just had some sweet and sour fried frogs and were tricked by our neighbors.

The night market takes place every night along the river and luckily, it was right below us. The art was beautiful, the people were kind and the prices were fair. I ended up buying two woodblock prints and a dress for a total of $15. I loved that it wasn’t just for tourists. It was nice to keep seeing the locals and the expats frequent the same places in Vientiane.

After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and asked the concierge to call our tuk tuk driver to confirm our 8am pick up for tomorrow. He said yes, yes and we went to bed. Well the next morning, 8 am came and went and there was no tuk tuk driver. We followed up with the morning receptionist and when he called the tuk tuk driver it turned out last night’s receptionist had cancelled our trip. Lesson learned and we already knew this but this served as a good reminder- yes, yes in Asia never means yes. It usually means they have no idea what you are talking about.

In the end, it ended up working out for us because for an additional $5 we were able to get an air conditioned van instead of a hot tuk tuk. Buddha Park was a strange place. It houses a weird collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures but most don’t actually make any sense. And the park provides no context for why things are the way they are so we left very confused.

Vang Vieng
The journey to Vang Vieng was pretty painless and took about three hours. Upon arrival, we were trying to find our hotel and mistakenly asked a local tuk tuk driver for help. He drove us around in a square and we ended up right where we started. He collected $2 for the trip as soon as we sat in his tuk tuk because he knew he was scamming us. Well the hotel was three doors down. We yelled at him and sent a lot of bad karma his way and felt stupid and then let it go because it was only $2.

Our hotel was amazing. We booked a room at Inthira because it was in a great location and looked very cozy. We decided to have dinner at Sanaxay restaurant. We chose it because it was packed with people and everyone looked like they were having a good time.  We ordered Chicken Laap with sticky rice and Tom Yum Soup. Laap is a Laotian staple and I highly recommend it but everything we had was delicious! The group at the table next to us were  visiting from China and invited us to join their party as we were leaving. Nobody spoke English. Their party of 12 kept taking turns to get a picture with us. After a few minutes of laughing and enjoying the randomness of this experience, we decided to say goodbye.

We were only in Vang Vieng until 3pm the next day because everyone had described it as a party town. In hindsight, I would have ignored these comments and given myself at least two nights in Vang Vieng because it is absolutely beautiful. Yes, there is tubing on the river. But it is so much more than that. There are amazing caves and great hikes and lots of local villages.  

View from the toll bridge
The next morning was the first day of the New Year and the city had transformed over night! Everyone was on the streets dancing and throwing water at anything that moved. Young, old, foreign and local, it didn’t matter. We strategically walked through the town in hopes of avoiding the water attacks. When we crossed the toll bridge, people in pick up trucks and bikes were getting drenched with buckets of water. Luckily, they spared us because we were on foot. We finally crossed the river and had no idea where we were going but knew we wanted to hike up a mountain. A young boy noticed us and was sweet enough to take us to a path we would have never found on our own. He told us we would reach the top of the mountain within thirty minutes.

I had not been on a hike since I left America and man was I out of shape. But the fact that there was no marked trail (or so we thought) made it worse. We were jumping and climbing up things we probably should not have been and were about to give up when Nikunj spotted a plastic bag on a tree and figured it was the trail. Luckily it was! Our trail markers consisted of plastic bags and really thin strips of orange fabric. We made it to the top one hour and twenty minutes later. If you look at the picture above, we climbed up the mountain on the far left. The view was totally worth the trouble. We could see the surrounding mountains and all of Vang Vieng. It was a little uncomfortable to sit and enjoy the view because of the sharp limestone rocks. We did the best we could to take pictures but left with blisters and bruises.

The hike back down was much easier and we managed to reach the base in a little under forty minutes. It was amazing to have seen a different side of Vang Vieng. We were drenched in sweat and to cope we were requesting kids to throw water at us! During our walk, we discovered a small lunch spot overlooking the river. We grabbed a table and ordered Chicken Laap and enjoyed our remaining hour staring at Vang Vieng's beautiful landscape while watching locals sing and dance to their heart's content. It was absolutely perfect. 

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