Wow. Looking back it all feels so long ago, but I remember it all so vividly: packing my 50L backpack with just the bare essentials, ready to embark on a 4+ month solo journey of Asia, eagerly waiting for my turn to venture through the International Departure doors of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. I was slightly nervous, but oh so excited! 😝
Eventually, it was time to take the big step- say goodbye to my parents and scuttle through the doors of no return (for a while at least). As I walked through into immigration a tear came to my eyes; I was scared, excited, nervous, it was absolutely exhilarating finally saying yes to a completely unknown adventure that I had worked so hard to make possible.
I had one night’s accomodation booked in Bangkok while I waited-out a 12 hour layover to get into Vientiane and one night booked in the Laos capital. I was so excited to get on the ground, to not understand the language or the exchange rate, to meet fellow travellers, and to try all the obscure foods before me.
There was a lot of ground I wanted to cover in Laos in the mere ~10 days I had before flying off to Vietnam to meet a friend from home. And boy did I hit the ground running. As it was my first city on a long list, when I arrived in the morning at Wattay International Airport, I opted for an airport taxi– at a flat rate of $US6 it wasn’t going to break the bank. I had my accomodation booked already so showed the counter the address and off I was whisked away by a taxi driver into his beaten up old vehicle. His English was negligible so I did what I could and then spent most of the journey taking in all the unfamiliar sites out the window. I was slightly surprised when I arrived at the doorstep of Dream Home Hostel 2 all in one piece, but excited nonetheless! I was here, I was in Vientiane, I had satisfactory accomodation and could do whatever I wanted in a world I knew close to nothing about!
I set my stuff down in my room, overly cautious about dorm rooms and locking everything away – really who wants to steal a backpack full of clothes and waterproof bags? I now know that most travellers are around to have fun and explore, and not steal every item of clothing you brought with you. Nonetheless, for now, I locked everything away except my phone (with the Google Map loaded of course!), camera and money pouch (yes I was one of those to begin with- don’t worry I did definitely relax, maybe even too much!), and off I went to explore.
I grabbed a map off the Hostel manager and set off with some of the sights of Vientiane highlighted. It was incredible. I just walked aimlessly around, taking in my surroundings, taking photos of all the things that were new and exciting.
I came across the Laos National Museum and did a few laps of the main streets in search of some lunch and a refreshing cold drink in the sweltering humid October weather. Some of my favourites came to be the Scandinavian Bakery with free wifi and $1 croissants as well as Noy’s Fruit Heaven – absolutely delicious, went back twice for their magnificent Watermelon, Lemon + Mint concoction! I also sampled a selection of street food including some fruits and a baguette with a few mystery ingredients and I did manage to try some delicious fish cakes and other Lao specialties at Lao Kitchen– slightly pricey but worth a delicious dinner before a 12 hour night bus journey.
Also during my time in Vientiane I went in search of Buddha Park (Wat Xiang Khuan) – a huge collection of over 200 20th century religious Buddhist and Hindu statues. After a tiring traipse around the capital I was determined to locate a local bus to get to the park. Hostels do offer private tourist tours for around $US20 (25km out of town), but after a bit of research I had found that you can get there reasonably easily on a single Route 14 local bus for 6,000kip (<$US1). Now the bus stop itself is not the easiest to locate once you get to the Central Bus Station, but persevere and you should find the Green and White painted Route 14. Try and tell the bus driver when you get on that you want to go to Buddha Park, but they should know exactly where you’re going anyway! When you’re on the bus, the driver’s helper will come around and get your 6,000kip fare off you and the last bus comes back around 5:30pm- if you wait opposite the park the bus will stop for you- try not to miss this or you’ll be in trouble….
I did make it to the night market by the river on the evening I arrived, and it was your usual tourist/you can buy anything you have ever dreamed of kind of market. It was overwhelming for my first night of Asia and didn’t end up buying a thing, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.
I only had a day more in Vientiane before my night bus to Phonsavan, so I was very keen to tick off a few of the main “tourist sites”. First of all, however, I was off to the Vietnamese Embassy to try and get a visa for one week’s time. I decided to rent a bicycle to get myself around the capital..interesting experience. The traffic was not as bad as I had expected and apart from riding on the right side of the road instead of the left here is Aus, it didn’t feel too different, except of course, when I got lost. Now that’s a story for another time, all you need to know is that you can’t get a Vietnamese visa in 24 hours. You need at least two days and there is no amount of persuasion that will change this, thus, with my tail between my legs, I admitted defeat and opted for the Visa on Arrival. (Which actually, was relatively smooth and a much cheaper option somehow….!)
Anyway, after bidding farewell to the idea of having my Vietnamese Visa sorted before I entered the country, I went on my way to explore the capital for one last day. That morning I made it to Wat Si Saket and Pha That Luang stopping to grab a shot of the golden reclining Buddha between the two, and stopping on the way back to snap Patuxai because it was much more easily accessible going around the roundabout on the way home!
Before I left I was determined to visit the COPE Visitor Centre and try out the famous PVO Vietnamese Pho restaurant around the corner (Simeaung Road, Block 4). I’ll admit I struggled for about 25 minutes on my bicycle and then on foot to find these two, but both were definitely worth it when I finally stumbled on them by chance. The COPE Visitor Centre outlines the atrocities that occurred as a result of America bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran predominantly through the eastern part of Laos against the Vietnamese border. 2 million tonnes of ordinances were dropped on Laos by the American troops and over 1/3 of these remained as UXO (unexploded ordinances) for years. This resulted in thousands of Laos civilians being killed or disabled by these land mines and the proceeds from the centre assists by manufacturing artificial limbs and removing the UXOs.
The COPE centre was much further than Google Maps was telling me and I still have no idea why I thought PVO was so difficult to find…Regardless an afternoon well spent before I returned to the hostel to pack up my things and go for one final walk around the main town centre, grabbing a couple of snacks from my favourite bakery and Noy’s before my overnight train.