ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ
(Lao People’s Democratic Republic)
We left Vang Vieng on 8 December and found ourselves in Vientiane, Laos’ largest city, after a relatively painless four hours on a bus. Or rather, we found ourselves somewhere just outside it. Bus stations in Laos always seem to be inexplicably a long way from the city, fortituously guaranteeing an income for the serendipitous tuk tuk drivers about the station who kindly take you the last few kilometres for almost as much as you paid for the original ticket.
Eventually we checked into a guesthouse in the centre which was an improvement on previous lodgings, with forgotten luxuries like a balcony and cable tv. The bed, however, was once again rock hard and the toilet inside the shower, so we knew we were still in Laos.
Vientiane is pleasant enough but very calm and small for an Asian capital. We saw a couple of temples, the rather incongruous Arc de Triomphe replica, and visited the Lao National Museum to learn about how Comrade What’s-his-face of the patriotic Lao People’s Forces Bravely Overthrew The Nasty French Colonialist And Fought The US Imperialist; and here was the chair he sat in, and here the gun he held, and here the pot he drank his tea in, and here a photo of him meeting all sort of oddly-spelt foreign leaders… You get the picture.
What Vientiane does have is a number of good and reasonably priced cafés and restaurants, of which we took full advantage, though we totally missed the riverfront area for some reason.
We’d been on sleeper trains before but never a bus. Certainly not a bus like this one.
Not an experience for the claustrophobic, we got to share a barely padded bunk about the width of a single bed but shorter (so you couldn’t quite lie down and stretch your legs), which happened to be positioned just over the back wheels and in front of the engine, so we could feel the full force of every bump (and Lao roads have many). With no space to sit or stand (even in the toilet), being at the back also meant we got covered in the dust from the dirt roads, sucked in through the air vents. The two people on the bunk next to ours (a guy from New Zealand and a young woman from Italy, who didn’t know each other) were at least friendly enough.
Amazingly, we both managed some sleep, and a brisk seventeen hours after leaving our guesthouse in Vientiane we were on a little boat over to the island of Don Det.
We spent four nights on the island, surrounded by the Mekong river and possessing a wealth of flora and fauna. On the first day, whilst Xavi recovered from the sleeper bus, I borrowed a bike from the guesthouse and cycled over to the neighbouring island of Don Khon. During the colonial era, the French built a railway line across these two islands, so that traffic on the Mekong river could be taken around the waterfalls by train, allowing the river to be used for transport between Laos and Cambodia for the first time. The railway is long gone and about the only decent infrastructure on the islands is the bridge that carried it between the two. Unfortunately the chain on my bike came off at the furthest possible point. I managed to fix it but then it happened again, and again, and again, until finally it jammed and could not be fixed. So I had to drag the bike, rear wheel locked, the final three kilometres back, in baking heat, covered in oil and dust. Not an auspicious start to my stay in the islands.
Next day, having slept off the bus journey, we hired some slightly less ropey bikes (for 80p each) and went back, seeing the impressive Li Phi waterfalls and stopping for a Beerlao at a chilled cafe by the beach.
In the evening, we bumped into Sam and Harry, a cool couple we had met in Vang Vieng, and joined them and their small group of friends at one of the local backpacker bars where, several beers later, we somehow agreed to go out kayaking with them the next day.
And kayaking we went. As it turned out, the guys were rather fitter and more experienced at this than we were, and so it was quite a struggle to keep up from the start. In order to keep the group going, Xavi had to share the two-man kayak with one of our guides, and I had to share my kayak with the other guide. Shouts of “Come on! Come on!” could be heard at regular intervals from the guy paddling with Xavi, much to the amusement of everyone else. We got to see some more waterfalls, swim in the river, and after waiting on a rock for some time, catch a fleeting and distant glimpse of the rare and shy Irrawaddy river dolphins (though in the distance it was rather hard to distinguish a dolphin from a wave.) Lunch was provided at a very local off-the-road “cafe” – which was probably a bad idea given how violently sick I got later on that night. Some more vigorous kayaking, a brief pause to watch the sunset, and we were back in Don Det just before it got too dark to be on the water.
That evening we had dinner with our kayaking group, followed by drinks, Jenga, more drinks, a bonfire on the beach, more drinks…
They say “Been there, Don Det“. We certainly have.
Our next stop: Cambodia’s Phnom Penh.
Watch this space.
All media in this blog © Xavier González | Simon Smith unless otherwise credited. All maps from Google Maps, also unless otherwise credited. Please note videos may play at low res depending on the settings on your device; you can easily solve that.