South East Asian Safari in Monsoon – Part II

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Continued from http://hafeezsoutheastasia.wordpress.com/

Vientiane, the 23rd June, 2013

hafeez imageWhen I came out of the Immigration Hall, I faced a bunch of cabbies offering taxi ride for $10 to the main city, about 25 km away. (In term of local currency KIP, it was an enormous amount like 80,000). Experience has taught me not to rush out but to relax for 30 minutes in the terminal or some safe place. Sipping coffee would certainly provide much needed rest to the weary bones. I did accordingly and by paying 13,000 kip I got “coffee and chips”. There I got a useful tip i.e. to go by local bus to Talat Sao. The bus stand was just behind the café and friendly staff helped me board a bus for the down-town for Kip 6,000. Once there, it did not take me long to find out a hotel at a walking distance for $17. If my memories are intact, its name was Phtmanixay Hotel.

June-July was a wet season but rain was always a blessing as it reduced the heat. After the rain a fragrance permeated in the air creating a pleasant aroma. Moreover, the rain did not disturb any of my programs. An old umbrella came to my rescue whenever there was a downpour.

After sleeping for about two hours, I felt fully recharged. I came out of my room and asked the hotel manager to write in English as well as in Laotian two words: “Joma Bakery”. (Ever since a bad incident when I was bundled off to a bus going North to “Oonia” rather than Southern City of “Konia”, I made it a point to ask someone to write the destination’s name on a chit, in the local language.) By simply showing this chit to a passerby, I get directions.

street sceneFor Joma Bakery, I had only to take one turn to follow  Samsenthai Road. The bakery was 3 km away on the same road. While walking, I observed that the city had broad boulevards and old colonial mansions. Many modern shopping malls had cropped up or were under construction. Besides, there were a large number of restaurants and cafes. Lao was rapidly developing and foreign investment was pouring in as manifested by elegant plazas, bank buildings and high-end hotels. Also, I passed by or saw a glimpse of temples and monasteries known as “Wat” Also, one can see monks with shaved heads and orange robes moving in a line.

Joma Bakery - courtesy archophkai.wordpress.com

Joma Bakery – courtesy archophkai.wordpress.com

It took me some time to reach Joma Bakery. Old age is affecting my efficiency through muscle pain, confused brain, creaking bones and overall weakness. At long last, I reached the bakery which looked like an American Cafe. I ordered cheese sandwich and Coke and enjoyed it. The place was almost full with customers mostly foreign tourists , some having their haversacks entangled to their knees.

I consulted a city map and came to know that Mekong River was not far but just two blocks away. Vientiane is probably the smallest capital city in the world and could be easily covered by walking. It has a population of 210,000 (3.2% of total 6.5 million). While heading for riverside, I came across a sprawling and elegant mansion with colonnaded balconies. This was Royal Palace in the past but now reserved for government ceremony and functions.

mekong riverSoon I was on a raised pavement overlooking the Mekong River which seemed dried. There was a lot of settlement on its other side which I learned later belonged to Thailand as the river formed a natural boundary between the two countries. I was in luck as I enjoyed a magnificent view of the sunset. Despite light drizzle, there was a lot of activity on the riverfront like cycling, skate boarding, dog training and even kite flying. I returned by 8 pm.

While moving around, I noticed a good hostel and shifted next morning to it. It name was a little awkward i.e. Douang Deuane Hotel but was lot better than the previous one. First, it provided free breakfast, second it had an elevator and third, its rooms were spacious & wood-floored and finally, it had a balcony where one can sit for hours and view the Mekong River. (Last evening, I did not see water but from 5th floor, the water was seen glittering like gold). Despite all these plus points, the room rent was only $20.

The hotel was located on Nokeo Koummane Rd which resembled Khao San Road of Bangkok packed with shops and offices to take care of the tourists needs like accommodation, airlines booking, money changing and transport arrangements. It had all the gradients a Western tourist looks for such as pubs, bars, cafes, massage parlors and souvenir shops. ”We have all what you are looking for” was written on almost every shop or business place in one form or the other.

Here I met a young man who looked different from the crowd – tall with broad face. When he told me that he was from Iran, I just embraced him – no formalities. He liked and told me his name as Esfandiar, hailing from Chahar Dangeh, a city near Tehran. We talked for a long time. I revived my old memories of covering Iran from one end to another in 1976 when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled the country.

It was really a pleasure to stroll in the city in its safe and sound environment. I saw most of the monuments while walking around except Pha That Luang which was 4 km away. I decided to take tuk-tuk and struck a bargain of Kip 30,000 with one Arc de triomphedriver. Since this temple was located in the old part the city, it took time to reach it due to traffic problem. However it gave me an opportunity to see Patouaxai, Victory Gate as it commemorates those who lost their lives in the war against the French. It resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Regarded as national symbol, Pha That Luang is Buddhist stupa (A dome-shaped structure) covered with sleeping budha vienchiengold. It is three-layered and has been ransacked and renovated many a times.Inside, there are amazing hand paintings. Outside the temple, there is large area containing statues of Buddha and other deities. On my way back, I had a brief visit of Black Stupa, the mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane.

On my last day in Vientiane, I went to Buddha Park. It involved a combination of religious harmoneybus and van. It is about 15 km away but half the road is dirt which becomes worst in rainy season with lot of pot-holes. The park contained Buddhist and Hindu sculptures dating back to 500 years.

Next day, I packed up my gear and boarded a luxury bus to Vang Vieng, about190 km away.

Vang Vieng, the 26th June, 2013

I left Vientiane by a luxury coach paying Kip 40,000.   The sky was cloudy.  The drive was pleasant. It became interesting as it followed the Valley of Nam Ngum and then climbed steeply onto a plateau. It involved many sharp turns.  Fortunately, I was sitting right behind the driver and impact of sudden turns was lesser. On the way, one could see caves, waterfalls and crystal water pools. 

Vang Vieng was nestled in a valley by the bank of River Nam Song snaking in the dense jungle.  With the presence of so many rivers, the country is an ideal place for hydro-electric projects.  In fact it produces electricity far more than its demand and  exports the surplus  to Thailand and China. The other exports are textiles, garments, timber, wood products, coffee, and tin.

vip busThe bus stopped near of a 3-star hotel, Silver Naga.  I got down and went to the reception.  The lady in-charge quoted the room rent as KIP 220,000 ($ 25 Equiv).  This did not appeal to me. While other visitors headed for town center, I dragged my carry-on and started checking.  By sheer luck, I found a newly built Hotel Vinutda which was almost empty. I liked it as it had spacious room at KIP 80,000 per night.  I asked the manager to reduce it and she said,”OK, no  air-condition at KIP60,000”.  This was acceptable to me and I occupied a room.  I was abundantly awarded for my choice as  the room had  a wide private balcony overlooking  River Nam Song  below and Mountain  Pha Tang above.

Laotion babyThe owner had a cute baby named as Keosaychay Sayasone.  But when I asked what her name was, she replied “Sonia”.  Having short and crispy nick-name in English is everywhere even in China.

In the evening, I went for a stroll. I was surprised as there was a never-ending stretch of  guesthouses, food stalls, curio shops and restaurants. Here the cafes was peculiar.  No table or chairs but comfortable mattresses and pillows where one can dine in a semi lying position and at the same time watch TV or enjoy videos or look at the  river water passing by.

I decided to have dinner and ordered for the  most famous Lao dish  “Laap”, a spicy mixture of fish with a variable combination of herbs for a reasonable price of $3 or Kip 24,000

vang vien foodsNext day, I explored the town.  There were no old temples or mansions and no parks. It was merely scenic landscape formed by lime-stone cliffs, flowing rivers and rice-fields. It was a dull seasons and there were hardly any customers for hiring mountain bikes, dirt bikes or All Terrain Vehicle (3-wheelers or 4). The shops were almost deserted as hardly anyone was interested to go in a rainy season for caving, trekking, river tubing, kayaking and  rock climbing.  It was like Jackson Hole of USA.

Also, there were lot many massage parlors drifting  aromas of lemongrass , camphor, and eucalyptus . An hour massage costing Kip 40,000 can sooth aching muscles.  Here also such shops were waiting for turn of season when the business would pick up briskly.

Luang Prabang. The 29th of June, 2013

mapEarly in the morning, I got into a VIP bus (Kip 95,000) and braced myself for 185 km long journey towards north of Laos. If I continue I will hit Golden Triangle where mountains of four-countries overlap i.e. Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. This is an area where poppy is grown and processed for making opium. Naturally, it would be very dangerous to go there and return in one piece.  In fact, I am chicken at heart who goes only to safe places, moves in daytime and consults hotel staff or shopkeepers even when crossing a street.

The road to Luang Prabang was very windy and mountainous making me feel sick. But I had with me vomiting bags and motion sickness tablets. So there was nothing to worry about. I tried to concentrate on the outside scenes – whole villages planting rice, baby tied on mother’s back, water buffalo on the loose and the kids playing a game of soccer on the road. .

On reaching Luang Prabang, I hailed a tuk-tuk and reached Phasith Guest House recommended by a fellow passenger, an Australian moving in this region for the past many years. Since I was tired, I went to sleep.  Later, I came out of the guesthouse and strolled in the nearby area. Like other Lao cities, there were small shops, old temples and houses. Occasionally, I came across a spectacular golden wat flanked by cafes and restaurants. Mostly timber was used in construction. The city was declared World Heritage site in 1995 by UNESCO.

templeNext day, I explored the city further. It seemed that there were only about a dozen streets that make up the town. This was a walking town – with everything in about a 20 minute walk.

I saw an elegant mansion.  On inquiring from a passersby, I was told that it was the royal palace now converted into a museum. I purchased a ticket paying Kip 10,000 and went inside. Near the entrance sits a three-headed elephant, symbolizing the three kingdoms of Laos, There was a lot of collection of art painting, sculpture in gold, silver and bronze alloy. In particular, I was fascinated by a statue of Buddha, about 85 cm tall.

In the evening, I took a walk along the Mekong River and enjoyed the sun sinking into the horizon. I returned to my guest house at about 8 pm and had a chat with the manager.  He told me that there was an alms giving ceremony everyday in the early morning.  I asked him to give me a walk call at about 5:30 am and went to sleep.

Laos--Monks3_0Next day, someone knocked at my door and said, “time for seeing monks”. I got up, washed my face and headed towards a nearby street to watch the ceremony. People, mostly tourists, had lined up and were offering alms of cooked rice to score of monks shining in their rich color saffron robes. I overheard a guide telling his group that there were about 200 Buddhist monks descending from the 33 local temples to collect the daily alms. 

morning-market-1-37deeIn about 30 minutes, all was over and the street became empty.  Instead of going back, I headed towards Morning Market which was filling with people to buy fruits and vegetable, meats and spices. A few venders used tables to offer their goods but a majority of them used bamboo mats on the side-walks. Apart from fresh items, there were many dried things like buffalo skin, chili peppers, traditional sarongs and handicrafts. By midday, the market vanishes leaving some traces like a few pieces of tomatoes and eggplants  

My next destination was deep in south known as Champasak near Cambodian border.  There was no direct bus and I would have to travel back to Vientiane and from there to take a night bus.  I hate back tracking and decided to go by air directly to Siam Reap in Cambodia

Continued..  PART III

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