Leaving the 4000 Islands, we prayed for better buses north to the capital of Laos, Vientiane. Unfortunately, we were initally not allowed that luxury. A mini bus awaited us on the mainland, where upon they played the game of lets see how many people we can fit into a tiny space with all their luggage! The minivan was full, children were sat on adults laps, the luggage was balanced precariously on the top and the air conditioning- well, what difference could it make with so many bodies!
Luckily the journey was not that long, only an hour or two before we joyfully pulled into Pakse where we had a 5 hour wait before changing to go onto Vientiane. Much of that time was trying to find Paddy an ATM that would accept Mastercard. Word of warning Laos does not like Mastercard, only Visa! It was therefore with some trepidation that we went to meet our sleeper bus. The fear was not necessary. For the first time in a long time, the sleeper bus was actually a bus for sleeping in and had a space where you could lie down fully and stretch out. No reclining chairs. Such joy! There was even a pillow and blanket. A hostess brought round food and water plus a wet towel. Definite luxury!
A good night's sleep later we awoke at daft o'clock to find ourselves entering the capital. This was like no other capital I have seen. Some roads were not paved, there were no high rise buildings and it was quiet. No hustle or bustle. It was more like a large town than a capital. We set about trying to find a hostel, which was a mission impossible. They all seemed to be booked up or ridicously expensive. Several hours later we finally succeeded, dumped our bags and went off to explore the city.
It is possible to easily walk around Vientiane and we spent the next three days doing just that. We wandered round the morning market which is a mass market selling everything you could imagine from souveniors to clothing to electronics. I was able to replace my lost camera and phone at a reasonable price. We wandered past sights such as the Patuxai, reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe and wandered up to the Pha That Luang. This impressive sight is a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. Its full official name, Pha Chedi Lokajulamani, means World-Precious Sacred Stupa, and an image of the main stupa appears on the national seal and in countless other places. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a thâat or reliquary stupa here to enclose a piece of the Buddha's breastbone as early as the 3rd century BC (not that it has been found). Dominating the skyline the gold of the Stupa was very impressive.
I also visited the Wat Si Saket which is one of the oldest remaining Wats, after the Siamese invasion, in Vientiane. A beautiful old building that does inspire reverence. Warm brown bricks and intricate design. Outside the main building were several graves with stunning markers of majestic design. One even had it's own live beehive attached to the top! Whilst travelling around these countries it has been interesting to observe how the dead are buried and remembered. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos all have colourful grave makers made to celebrate the dead rather than the drier more morbid marble of England. From an academic point of view it has to be seen.
Much of my time was taken up at the Thai embassy. They have just changed their immigration laws, reducing the visa from 30 days to 15 days if you come in overland. However, to appease the tourists they were giving out 2 months visas for free before 4th June. As I was going to be in Thailand for longer than 15 days it made more sense to get this and be able to save money for a change. I dutifully got up early to head to the embassy before 9 hoping to beat the crowds. I had not reckoned on 170 other people having the same ideas. Several hours later I was able to hand in my forms and was told to queue again. Hoping that this meant I would be able to get the visa back the same day I patiently waited another hour, only to be given a receipt. This meant coming back the next day to get the visa and repeat the pandemonium!
As mentioned earlier, Vientiane is unlike any other capital city I have been in. Everything shuts by 11.30pm. In order to find some night life we headed down darkened and quiet streets to the bowling alley which we had been told often had a lock in after 12 and was where all the action happened! Besides a few die-hard bowling addicts, we were the only people in there wanting to drink. It was all a bit of anti-climax!
Vientiane is a lovely city and very different to what you would expect. For a capital it is very quiet and laid back. Very different to Vang Vieng the next stop....