And so my trip moves on to one of my more obscure and lesser known destinations - the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Known to westerners as Laos (pronounced louse) I've got used to referring to it as the locals do, which is simply Lao. It has a reputation for being unspoiled and peaceful and I'm expecting great scenery as I travel north in my 9 further days here. The mountain scenery was already spectacular as we arrived to this landlocked country yesterday from Vinh. The 2.5 hour drive to the border was largely through beautiful, twisty mountain roads, and the border crossing was set high on top of a tree covered mountain pass. We obtained our Lao visas at the border, which didn't take too long, and then transferred to a different private bus on the Laos side and met up with our local guide Sali. He will accompany us, as well as our tour guide Ae, for the first week of our Lao trip. Why we have two guides is beyond me, but I suspect its related to work permit reasons. Sali is a Laotian and so is able to explain to us all about Lao culture, even if his English is less than perfect!
The mountain scenery sadly didn't last too long into our 8 hour drive to the country's capital Vientiane. The limestone peaks soon petered out into flat and very dry fields. It is much hotter (and sunnier) here than on the northern coast of Vietnam and to look at the ground I suspect it hasn't rained here for a number of weeks. Temperatures are back into the 30s but at least it doesn't seem too humid. On route to Vientiane we made a lunch stop at a local restaurant and I decided to try the Lao national dish, which was a mistake. In Laos they eat with their hands, and the dish was made up of dry and bland beef with a side of sticky rice. The intention is that you pick up the rice with your fingers and roll it in the meat, which to me doesn't seem like the most hygeinic way to dine! Needless to say I stuck to knife and fork and the dish was so tasteless I won't be trying it again! Luckily, tastier Thai food is more widely available here than in Vietnam and Cambodia, although dining out looks as if it will be more expensive than both those countries. I am used to getting a full meal and drink for around 2-3 pound, but in Laos it looks as if I may have to pay up to a staggering 4 pound in some restaurants! The currency here is the Lao Kip and there are 13,500 to the UK pound. Last night's meal cost me upwards of 50,000 Kip!
Vientiane was designated Laos' capital by the French when they ruled Indochina. It is a relatively modern city with wide boulevards and lots of tree lined streets. The population is around 600,000, which is a sizeable percentage of Laos' total population of 6.1 million. My first impressions of the city when we arrived last night were how quiet the roads were! At 6.30pm there was very little traffic, and even less motorbikes. Whilst there are still many here the majority of people drive cars if they are lucky enough to own motorised transport. Coming from Hanoi it really makes Vientiane seem tranquil, which is pretty much how all of Laos is supposed to be. As we walked the streets to a restaurant last night we barely saw a soul, and there was not one person touting for business on a tuk-tuk! It really is a welcome change.
Today we awoke to blazing sunshine, which is another welcome change after the cloudy and damp weather we've had in the last 10 days. Our local guide took us on an orientation walk around the city, visiting first the President's house for photo's, and then entering a small Buddhist temple. He gave a talk about Buddhism in Laos, and I learned that all Lao men must go through a 3 week period as monk as a kind of national service whilst they are young. Buddhism is certainly more prominent and central here than in both Cambodia and Vietnam. There are many different types of Buddhism and here in Laos they seem to practice a form reminiscent of the type practiced in nearby Thailand (which is literally the other side of the Mekong River from Vientiane). The walk ended at Vientiane's Victory Monument, which is Laos' version of the Arc de Triomph built in commemoration of the fallen dead of the Franco-Thai War in 1941. You could climb the arch for a small fee, which obviously I did, but the view wasn't especially great as Vientiane doesn't really have much of a skyline! After the monument we took a walk down to another Buddhist temple (see blog photo) which is probably the most famous structure in Laos. It adorns some of the bank notes as well as the national beer bottles and was on the emblem for the 2009 South East Asia Games, which was held here in Vientiane. You couldn't actually go in the temple but from the outside it was impressive enough. We caught a jumbo (very similar to a tuk-tuk) back to the hotel and I have since spent all afternoon here on the Internet! Later we are going to watch the sunset over the Mekong and I might be tempted to have another massage this evening to recover from all that time on the bus!
Tomorrow we depart on a 4 hour public bus for the small town of Vang-Vieng, where we will spend 3 nights. I shall update from there. Thanks for reading.