Sarah and I had planned to continue east from Sam Neua to cross into Vietnam, but began having second thoughts about skipping the city of Vientiane. It seemed a shame to have seen so much of the Laos without seeing its capital, although for us to do so required a day backtracking through Phonsavan and Vang Vieng on a local bus.
We have ridden quite a few long distance buses over the past five months, but our experiences in Laos had been the worst. Not a single bus left within two hours of its departure time, with two not leaving at all. Once it had rained heavily and we were only able to cross a muddy pass after several local villagers pushed us through. Rest stops were at the side of the road for everyone to duck into the bushes. But worst of all, every journey had half the passengers throwing up into small plastic bags before tossing them out the window. I think that Laos now has more bags of vomit lying around than unexploded ordinances.
But I digress…
We went to Sam Neua’s airstrip to investigate rumors of a flight to Vientiane. There was indeed a flight leaving in a few hours on an eleven seat plane but it was full. The woman behind the counter first offered to put us on the twice-weekly flight leaving in three days but after rustling a few papers on her desk said that was full too. She apologized and tried to cheer us up with news that they were getting a bigger plane next year.
Accepting our fate, we trudged out dejected, hitched a ride back to town on the bed of a passing pick up truck, walked up the hill to the bus station, and bought our tickets to Vientiane for 1 PM, four hours later.
No, the bus didn’t leave on time, but that was hardly expected. We arrived at our destination 19 hours after it eventually left, the longest either of us had ever been on a bus.
The journey was definitely worth it as Vientiane was the most laid back capital in South East Asia. Traffic was orderly, touts were not aggressive, and locals were out getting in shape rather than hawking their goods.
The food in town was amazing, with French culinary influences remaining long after they had granted Laos independence.
We rented bicycles to make our way around the city, something we would not have even imagined in chaos of Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. We first visited the Pha That Luang, a Buddhist shrine and the most important monument in Laos.
Then headed to the Patuaxi, a structure resembling the French Arc de Triomphe and made from gifted American concrete.
We had the fortune of running into our friends Dominick, Julia, and Robert from the slow boat cruise. They were traveling through Laos via a slightly different route than us but also ending in Vientiane. It was great to see them again – they were among the few people our age on the boat, and we had all spent some time together in Luang Prabang.
Our first night we caught up and swapped Laos stories. The following day we rented a taxi to visit the bizarre Buddha Park, featuring stone statues of Hindu and Buddhist gods. The park was created in 1958 but designed to look far older so that tourists would visit. One of the statues had a large open mouth we crawled into before climbing up for a panoramic view.
We returned to Vientiane and spent the rest of the evening socializing on Robert and crew’s deck. They had lucked out in securing the penthouse after being mistakenly double booked. We sat around talking while the sun set over the Mekong, before parting ways and to head off to different countries the following day.