Vientiane, capital of Laos, is a bustling backwater that has a lot of the French Colonial charm while slowly moving forward into the modern era. Sitting next to the bend in the Mekong River, with Thailand on the other side, it’s the biggest city in Laos, but that does not mean it’s big at all.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon with no reservations, and were turned away from three places, till we discovered an unmarked hotel, across from a Buddhist temple. The place was very clean and the staff helpful, little did we know that our corner at night became a very busy drop-off and pick-up for prostitutes, but all in all I would stay there again.
We had very important business here; we needed our visas for China and Myanmar. We bumped in to our Swiss friends from Kong Lor cave, Mathias and Stanija, and they had a similar mission. Only problem was we all arrived on Friday, too late to process visas, all government offices were closed for weekend. We would all have to wait till Monday to begin the process. Yvonne and I opted to just relax and discover what we could of Vientiane, with no pressures. We wandered the streets, rented bikes, checked out various temples, restaurants, and pubs. All with no plan. That’s what is so great here, there is no pressure. Everything moves at a very laid back pace.
This gave me a chance to do little odd things that I had not done for a long time, like scanning all my drawings in for the blog. I was half way through my first thirty day sketch challenge. I found a printer shop that allowed me to use their machines to do it. Normal things like the smell of copy paper and working on adobe were actually very satisfying to me. Weird, I know. Here I have been living on some of the most glorious beaches, seeing amazing things, and I take enjoyment from being in the Laotian Kinkos.
Every day I would wander to a different part of the city and sketch. This would give me a great chance to talk to locals, from all walks of life. Sitting in a Buddhist temple, a young novice approached me and started to ask me some questions about life. We had a long conversation on what it meant to be a monk, why he chose to do it, the precepts that as a novice he had to follow. A novice monk has 17 precepts to follow, while a monk has to follow 140. Precepts are rules. He then went on to complain like all teenage boys would at his age how he was not even allowed to touch a girl, in any way. If they handed him things, they would have to put it down on the street, then he could pick it up. This was very frustrating to him, clearly. So he felt like he was going to finish his studies, but not continue on as a monk.
A few nights later I went and sketched the girls working on our street corner. I saw them every night so why not. They were transvestite prostitutes, very nice, and happy to pose for my sketches. They let out a lot of giggles after my first drawing. I asked them all kinds of questions for my blog post on Lady boys, but they seemed more interested in servicing me as a customer. Even though Yvonne had just left, and our room was only two stories above them, she was convinced she could get me to go off with her. Well, clearly this was going nowhere so I went upstairs to Yvonne who was having a good laugh at my attempts to befriend the locals.
Some highlights in the city were the gateway in Patuxai which was styled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. We climbed up to the top of it with great views of the city, and shopping at every level we climbed.
Then there was the large gold shrine, Pha That Luang, a Buddhist stupa. Old ladies were carrying dozens of small birdcages around, with small songbirds inside. You could buy the bird, and let him free for luck. The birds would fly home, just to be returned the next day in another cage. I could not help but feel bad for these little guys, in the 100-degree heat in the middle of the day.
Shopping was really nice here, with handmade silks and clothes at very fair prices. We stopped by the morning market, Talat Sao, numerous times to shop. I totally regret not buying more handmade skirts for my family. They were gorgeous and all the Laotian girls wore them. We did find some good deals though, gorgeous tapestries.
There was nice riverfront, with a running trail, parks, and playgrounds along it. Clearly a new development, it was great to wake up really early before the heat, and take a run. The Mekong here is so wide, but it’s mostly dried out, so the water is actually 100 yards from the walk way. But in the wet season, it would all be water. The center of the walkway is a huge statue of Fa Ngum, the founder of Laos, holding his hand out. To learn more about this historic figure in Laotian history check out this article. http://www.luangprabang-laos.com/Fa-Ngum-the-legend
There are a ton of NGO’s out here, so the food was culturally mixed and good to cater to their needs. With only 750,000 people living here, the food is amazingly good. There are a few restaurants where they train locals on restaurant jobs for the burgeoning tourist trade. The food is usually excellent at these places, so we made sure to hit a few. The best part of this town though by far was the choices in beer. It had been so long since I had an IPA or craft beer. The most popular and best place in town was Chokdee Café, a Belgian beer bar, that was filled with statues and murals of the cartoon character Tintin. He is madly popular out here because on his journeys he travelled all over Asia. The food here was as good as you would get in a Gastro pub in Philly.
Monday came around, and we grabbed a tuk tuk to go to the Chinese embassy. Mathias and Stanija arrived minutes after us on their own tuk tuk. On arrival we were sent away with the knowledge that we needed our airline ticket to process our visa. So back on the tuk tuk, to the nearest Internet café to buy tickets. Quite often the best deals are scams, and I found a price that was too good. I did a google on the company and everything screamed scam, so I cancelled that flight. Booked another one, including the Myanmar leg of the journey. It always helps to make multiple bookings at once, usually the fare is cheaper than normal. So just like that, the end of our trip was laid out. No more the aimless wandering of nomads, the end was in sight. Normally I would ponder this, but the embassy closed at 1, and we had to dash.
Back at the Chinese embassy minutes before they closed, we filed out paperwork. The charge was 180 dollars, which made my jaw drop to the ground. I asked why Yvonne,s was only $40, but mine was $140. The agent explained to me that is how much Chinese pay to get in the states. Snap! I illustrated the story here Chinese Visa. Worse yet, they took our passport, so we were stuck for four days while it processed, and we could not start our Myanmar Visa till we had our passports. Looks like we were going to be staying here some more. On Thursday we got our passports and paid to have our Myanmar Passport expedited, which got it to us on Monday. At least for this visa we did not have to go to the embassy, just paid a tourist agent to take care of it for us. But again, we were with out passports for four additional days. Turned out we stayed ten days in Vientiane, but every moment of it was enjoyable.