23.1.17 leaving Vientiane on an overnight bus

We lie in as you always do on an overnight transport day. Checkout time etched into your memory as the farewell date to your ensuite. 

We wander down our restaurant heavy road and stop at a tiny door front with a sign saying “beef noodle soup”. A restaurant that only serves one dish is always worth trying, as repetition creates perfection. We enter and the Lady shouts “Pho” at us, the Vietnamese national dish. A reminder of the proximity of the neighbour, the porous nature of borders and the fact we’re in a capital city with cosmopolitan options.

The twist in Laos though is that you flavour it yourself. The stock is meaty and simple but the table has fish sauce, vinegar, soy seasoning, fish paste, pepper, salt, chilli flakes which you add to your own taste. You are also given fresh mint, holy basil, lime, watercress, peanut sauce and chilli sauce to add.

Breakfast over, we head to Les Trios coffee shop for more delicious Laos coffee. The coffee here is the most intense I’ve tasted anywhere so if you like your coffee dark and rich I’d urge you to seek out some Laos coffee. We sit and blog and just watch time go by.

We stroll along leafy, dusty streets and we spot a delicatessen which we are always curious to explore. It has jars of capers, French sticks and real Camembert wheels, a reminder that Laos was a French colony.

Vientiane is the most laid back capital city I’ve visited. Its hot, dusty streets have a relaxed charm that defy the normal hustle and bustle you encounter in a nations centre. There isn’t a huge amount of sights to see, but sitting on a sweeping bend of the majestic Mekong it is a wonderful place to explore for a few days. I really like it.

We wait outside the hostel. The sun goes down and mosquitoes appear. We spray our uncovered skin. Around 6pm a songthaew appears for us and as I pickup my rucksack a cloud of about 20 mossies fly off it. Time to go.

We cruise the streets stopping at hostels and hotels to pickup tourists. It’s always fun to gauge how successful your choice of accommodation was. Thirty minutes after we were picked up, we drive past our hostel again. After about an hour we drive out of the centre and eventually come to a bus station which we see is the northern station for buses headed north to the north of Laos. We are going south. A bloke in a pink coat appears and hands a bundle of cash to our driver, who then asks us who is going north. Those that are get off. The driver hands the cash to someone else and then we’re off again, back into the centre of town. We drive for a long time. We pull up alongside a closed shop and wait. We are wondering what we’re doing when pink coat bloke appears on a scooter and another bundle of cash is handed to our driver. At 8.10pm we arrive at the southern bus terminal where our tickets are taken and new ones issued and we find our mobile overnight accommodation. We are very pleased to find we have been allocated a bed and even happier to find it empty. It may be small but we can both fit in snuggly.

Lights out and we’re off. It is soon apparent that we won’t get much sleep due to the uneven Laos road surfaces but you have to be careful what you wish for, as after an hour of a unique type of Laos massage, getting pummelled and thrown around, a problem with the gearbox means our journey is over for now while the driver and his mate perform roadside repairs. I use the opportunity of the breakdown to finally sleep.

21.1.17 Vientiane

Not much happened today, maybe due to the Black Horse whisky?

We had an iced coffee at True Coffee, this took us about 10 mins to decide which one to have……..

We then went to Fruit Heaven for reviving smoothies and larb for Guy.

Chinese for tea, we were missing that firey spice so had 2 sichuen noodle dishes along with some dumplings…….of course!

Back to room for premiership football  (Guy) dozing (me). 

Saturday night with a Chinese and football,  just like home, but so different in Laos.

20.1.17 Vientiane, a trip down memory lane

Today we strolled around some of the sights we saw in 1999 but started the day in a coffee shop, something new. I can’t remember where backpackers and westerners would spend their time when we were last here, probably hostel bars, but they certainly would not be drinking machiatos while using free WiFi on their smartphones in stylish coffee shops. In the dark recesses of the past, I remember people would read books and chat to each other swapping travel stories. Its much easier to be introverted and aloof nowadays.

Anyway, I enjoy my machiato and sit staring into the middle distance, appearing aloof without using my smartphone. You can’t sit around stylish coffee shops all day though, especially if you’re married to Alison, who soon demands we actually do some tourism.

We walked past the Presidential palace and down the main road to the Patouxay monument, built from US cement intended for a new airport in 1969. We selfie, then are asked to be in a photo, then are asked to take photos. Its a snap happy time.

After a plate of holy basil fried chicken in a workers cafe, we walk to Pha That Luang, the most important national symbol in Laos. Eighteen years ago I took a picture of a monk sat mediating on its wall which I love enough to hang in my hall at home and I want to revisit the scene. Unfortunately, its currently covered in scaffolding so my hopes are dashed on the rocks of reality. 

We walk into a temple next door and sit quietly at the back while a ceremony unfolds under the Buddhist images. We start to feel a bit self conscious as it appears to be a monks initiation with his family attending, but as is often the case in south east Asia, an unexpected welcome gesture happens as a bloke brings us a bottle of ice cold water each. We thank him. 

We walk back into town on an unconventional route, looking at a bit of light industry as we go. It may not be top of the tourist sites but we like to see all of a country, not just the shiny bits. Learning about a foreign country isn’t just monuments, waterfalls and statues, back street life and food is also interesting to us.

We near the hostel and have another memory to revisit, a whisky related one. We previously had tried Black Horse Laos Whisky, my Dad used to work for Lloyd’s bank whose logo is a black horse, so it seemed appropriate! We found a shop which sold it for 12,000 kip or £1.20 a bottle so bought one. After a sundowner beerlao or two it was opened and swigged. The soundtrack to this whisky in 1999 was U2’s Rattle and Hum so the headphones come out and we indulge in Laos whisky and Irish blues rock. Its an understatement to say we have a good time.

OK Edge, play the blues……..

19.1.2017 Vang Vieng to Vientiane (and 21 years of happiness…..)

Another day, another bus! A later start allowed us to have breakfast of fried pancake with banana and nutella for Guy and the slightly more heart stopping nutella and peanut butter for me. We were slightly regretting not having listened to our Geordie mate and put ice in our beer last night…….but the pancakes helped!

Although we had paid for a minivan to Vientiane we were all bundled into an ancient ‘VIP’ (in name only) bus on which no seats worked, some reclined of their own accord, some were bolt upright, refusing to budge. Ours were the freely reclining variety which was unfortunate for the couple behind. There was very little complaining though. We also noticed that we were some of the youngest on the bus, the GreyPacker has really taken off here, with loads of middle aged (to clarify that is 45-65 age bracket now) backpackers spending their kids inheritance, seemingly doing it themselves.

The views out the bus window were still of a poverty stricken country but with kids laughing, smiling and having an afternoon wash in the Mekong. The roads are being created as as we trundle slowly along in our ancient, old bus avoiding the piles of aggregate and freshly smeared tarmac which would complete the road, in Laos time.

Entering Vientiane, it seemed very different to last time, there is more development and less dust, which is not surprising.  It still is very provincial looking though, not a fast food chain in sight or even a 7/11. (Although we saw an advert for Hard Rock Cafe a few days later…..not sure if it was a fake).

We are dropped off on a street about 5 min walk from our hostel, we checked in and we were delighted to see a fridge and a balcony available to us. Sunsets will be fun!

The beauty of being in a former french colony is the legacy of bakeries they left behind, this seemed a naturally sugar laden way of celebrating our 21 years of happiness together. One massive cinnamon roll, a mango crumble and 2 hot chocolates later (my request for iced chocolate falling on deaf ears) we crawled out Joma bakery and continued on our wander around this shabby, half built but wonderfully laid back city. 

A sign promising white wine for 20,000 kip (£2) drew us in, and being sensible we ordered food as well, the heart shaped falafel were delicious! 

We needed to stock up our fridge, so went to the shop for beers, laughing cow cheese and pepper salami. Oooooohhhhhhh la la! Sunset was taking place so we showed off our synchronised drinking skills and relaxed with a view over the local bank.

A walk down the Mekong was quite different, a road has been put in (although only in 2012) for traffic to cruise down the riverside, the level of the river is less (due to Chinese dams upriver) and a massive night market was in progress. Ignoring all that we went straight to food, following our noses to the smell of grilled mests, we had chicken, Laos sausages but the Som Tam we ordered never appeared, so it was a protein heavy meal, accompanied by Beerlao, obviously.  Leftovers went to a feral dog who woo’ed us with his big brown eyes.