Monday, January 4, 2010

Vientiane, Family, and backtracking

Vientiane and Vang Vieng, Dec 18 to 23 (by Swiss)

Ok, I admit it, I'm behind on blog entries. In fact, Jason has already completed his blog entry following the one you're currently reading. And I've been struggling to get my new blogging software to work, so uploading has taken an additonal delay. Sorry about that. So here we go.

We hit up our favorite Vang Vieng internet spot early Friday (Dec 18) morning prior to boarding our bus for a four hour ride from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Vientiane is the capital of Laos, and we were to arrive during the tail end of the 25th Southeastasia games, or SEA Games for short. Plans were to find lodging, spend a day or two exploring the city, meet my brother arriving from Switzerland, head back to Vang Vieng for tubing session #2, before once again heading back to Vientiane to celebrate Christmas. Yes, a lot of traveling around.

The quest for lodging
We arrived in Vientiane in the early evening, only to find out that lodging a) was quite a bit more pricey than what we were accustomed to and b) somewhat scarce due to the SEA games being hosted there. A tuk tuk from the bus station dropped us off in the center of town, where we also met Nihle, an Irish guy who was looking for a ticket to Bangkok but ultimately split a room with us for one night as travel agencies were closed at that hour. After a fruitless 45 minute search (with backpacks), we eventually found a reasonably priced room that was, um, interesting. Ok, it was disgusting. But it was a roof over our head, and plans were to seek better lodging the following day, while Nihle would head off to bigger and better things.

It was outside the Lao Sakonh guesthouse, just after checking in, where we met a very nice bay area woman who looked at us in disbelief that we actually booked that room (she had looked at it earlier.) Her name is Kyung Ae, but in the usual tradition of our trip and blog, she has since been nicknamed Team Oakland. We chatted with her for a bit and then headed out for some grub down by the river. There are numerous restaurants set up on the river bank offering a variety of cheap food, including the somewhat controversial practice of throwing live fish and other species (frogs, for one) on hot char grills for consumption by hungry diners. The dining environment was very nice, where guests sat on plastic chairs overlooking the river and neighboring Thailand. I had some curry, a mistake, as it was re-united with the outside environment later that night. We were tired, so no party, just sleep and motivation to find better lodging options the next day.

Snow in London?
We awoke at a reasonably early hour motivated to grab some breakfast, a quick wifi hit, and culminate the morning with finding a nice place to stay. Items one and two were crossed off the list by visiting a breakfast/wifi place (Vista Wifi cafe) just across our current pad, that had decent wifi but terribly crummy food. Nihle had managed to book his Bangkok tickets, but he did decide to join us in exploring the town for guesthouses, as his bus didn't leave until the later parts of the afternoon. We figured it would take us about an hour to find a good alternative, especially since we had already checked out a bunch of places the prior night and were not weighed down by our bags this time around. We were wrong.

Three hours later, we were basically back at square one, when we once again ran into team Oakland. She had booked a three person room at the Youth Inn with two ladies from Switzerland the prior night, but apparently the chemistry wasn't there (one of the Swiss ladies had issues with stuff being plugged in near her due to a presumed fear of electromagnetic fields...some stuff you just can't make up.)

So team Oakland was looking for new roomies for the night, and we needed a three person room for the next night (Chris, my brother, was due to arrive the following day.) Ergo, in the grand tradition of having everything work out just fine, Team Oakland joined us to form Team Bay Area for the night at the Youth Inn. The room was 10,000 kip more, but the difference between the new room and the old digs were night and day.

Caroline and Sally would arrive later in the afternoon when our old travel group was re-united. Caroline had come down with some kind of stomach bug (a seemingly common occurrence in Laos - I think the food standards are not quite up to snuff with the remainder of SE Asia), so she stayed in while Jason, Sally, and I explored town for a bit.

The food choices in Vientiane are actually quite diverse, ranging from traditional Lao to Korean to Japanese to Western. French places seem to be everywhere, a likely result of the French colonization back in the day. Alas, Pizza was had at the Swedish bakery (LP recommendation) and dinner was consumed at an Okonomiyaki place. Both were solid.

It was sometime in the middle of the night, while we were sound asleep, when I got a phone call (well, Jason did, as he actually had a working phone) from Chris. His flight out of Zürich was delayed by multiple hours due to bad weather in London, and he was likely to miss the connecting flight at Heathrow. Those fears were later confirmed, and his arrival in warm and sunny Laos was substituted with wintery overnight stay in London.

Day of options: Flights, Hotels, and Food
Instead of prepping for Chris' arrival on Sunday, we spent the morning enjoying absolutely excellent coffee at Joma bakery and figuring out what kind of alternative flight options Chris might have given the mess in London. There were a few options, but flights were starting to get full. It was also at this time that I noticed some issues with my firefox web browser, which prompted a desire to upgrade it to 3.5. I run a version of Linux, and to make a long story short, I managed to partially break my operating system in the process. If you count the middle of the night phone call from Chris, this day was shaping up to be a great one. But the coffee and pastries were absolutely delicious.

Lunch was consumed at a Korean place that also had wifi, which is where we took the opportunity to Skype Chris and inform him of some of his flight options as well as travelers rights. Not to get too far ahead, but he did manage to get on a very nice Thai airways flight, delaying his arrival by only just under 24 hours. Of course, this all played out throughout the day, and we didn't find out until early evening that he was one of the lucky few who managed to get on the flight with a standby ticket. Better yet, Team Oakland was to stay one more night anyway, and given our now open bed, she helped split the cost of the room once more.

As for the remainder of the day, it was spent planning for Christmas, which was coming up in three days. The girls and Lawton wanted to splurge on a hotel, and we were all about finding a nice place for Christmas dinner and making reservations. We visited multiple hotels, and ended up settling on Chanthapanya, where regular rooms ran at $45 per night and suites with bath tubs (a must for the girls) ran in the mid-60's. The hotel offered free breakfast, wifi, along with standard amenities like TV, hot shower, and fridge. It looked very nice. Rooms were booked (the girls went for the suite/bathtub), and we learned about a variety of Christmas prix fixe menus, although reservations were to be made later. Once all that was settled, we decided to reward ourselves by visiting a wine shop run by a French-Lao gentleman and ordering a nice bottle of Bordeaux. Said bottle was split between the four of us, and it was also the time we received an SMS from Chris that he managed to get on the Thai airways flight eluded to earlier. Things were beginning to shape up.

An uninspiring dinner with the girls was had at a Lao restaurant called Full Moon, after which we retired to our respective rooms.

We spent the night chatting with our roommate, as she was leaving early the next morning to go on to Thailand. Her plans were to visit a some vegan/Buddhist community (If I recall correctly) that does a version of these new age cleanses. I figure you SF hippie readers probably all know what I'm talking about, for the rest of you, click here. This was also why she had spent the last two days pigging out on meat, culminating that evening at a very authentic (read: no whities) Lao BBQ place that she highly recommended.

Kyung Ae was actually doing the cleanse as part of a volunteer project, where she would be documenting the cleanse in the English language for the community to use for future visitors. We haven't heard from her, but I'm going to assume it went well :)

Welcome to Vientiane
So Monday was to be the big day. Kyung Ae stepped out of the room before dawn to start her adventure to Thailand, we got up at a later hour and were off to rent a scooter. Tuk Tuks to the airport run 50,000 kips each way and scooters could be rented for 60,000 kips, so we figured it was a better deal to have the scooter for some exploring and later using it to pick up Chris at the airport. Breakfast was once again had at Joma, before we headed to the famous Vientiane Stupa for some sight seeing and picture taking. Pictures below.

Now, I'm not sure if a stupa should be considered a phallic symbol, but Lawton and I both chuckled when we discovered this little box on one of the cross beams inside the stupa complex:

Subsequent quests to discover Cialis boxes (Jason used to work for Eli Lily) were fruitless.

Finally, 1pm came about, which was the time to pick up Chris from the Airport. Lo and behold, he managed to get there on time:

Now, I was very excited to see my brother. This was for multiple reasons. Yes, he's my brother, so that's obviously a big deal. But also very importantly he came bearing gifts: 1) A bottle of a shampoo/bodywash combo, which we had run out of the day before and is notoriously hard to find in these parts of the world, and 2) my new debit card allowing me to withdraw money from ATMs again. Since the time my old card had stopped working back in Thailand, I managed to accumulate a debt of 1.8 million kip to Mr. Lawton. He ain't no Godfather, but it was nice to have to ability to pay him back without needing to fear the wrath of the Lawton.

Since Chris had basically lost one day due to the weather in London, we quickly had to decide whether a trip to Vang Vieng would be feasible and desirable. The answer to these questions, after discussing it with Chris, turned out to be yes, and after he managed to consume his first Beerlao (a big deal, folks)...

...we booked our tickets to and from Vang Vieng. The tickets in Vientiane ran 40,000 kip, so booking the return ticket in the city saved us 25,000 kip each, as the morning bus in Vang Vieng costs 65,000 kip if you book it there. It was one of the advantages of having done the trip once before.

For dinner, we decided to check out the Lao BBQ place that Team Oakland had recommended. The girls were up for joining us, as was Anna, who we first had met in Luang Prabang and randomly ran into by the river earlier in the day. So off it was to find this elusive little place that was litterally at the end of a dark alley in the middle of town. The restaurant was set up in a giant garden with tables sprinkled throughout the property. The food was excellent (and at 45,000 kip incl drinks, quite cheap), the atmosphere was very nice, and I'm pretty sure we were the only westerners there.

Vang Vieng, again
We awoke early the next day to prep for our very uneventful trip to Vang Vieng. A quick coffee was had at, you guessed it, Joma, and a short time later we were on the bus to head north.

I will spare you with all the details of Vang Vieng, as we already kind of covered it. Chris got to experience his first Family guy restaurant, where we had some food and drinks while Chris was working on his jet lag. Tubing would be the activity for the following day, before we headed back to Vientiane. As before, it was quite the party atmosphere, and we once again only made it about 250m down river over the course of 5 hours. We managed to achieve this generally unscathed, save Chris promptly losing his sun glasses in the river and later pulling a Houdini on his remaining money while somehow retaining the rubber band serving as his "wallet."

The lost money was less than $10, so no big deal. Below are some select pictures from VV, tubing, rope swinging, and partying.

Sunset in Vang Vieng:

Tubing day:

Chris and yours truly working on body wreckage (we survived):

Team Holland, who we flirted with a good chunk of the day. This was the day before Christmas, hence the hats:

Christmas hat purchase for the gang and Merry X-mas in shorts on the 24th:

So that's that.  Jason's post will likely be up shortly.


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