We had heard about a direct 25 seater bus that would take us from Phonsavan to Vientiane more quickly than the tourist buses that go via Vang Vieng. It seemed like a good, authentic experience, so Georgina and I decided to give it a shot. We ended up on what a friend calls a “chicken bus” (due to the likelihood of locals with livestock). We were the only westerners on the bus, which sported a motorcycle amongst the other baggage on the roof. (And yes, Georgina spotted a crate of chickens, though luckily they didn’t share the interior with us!)
Sadly, we were practically the last people to arrive for the bus, so we had to sit on fold-down bucket seats for the eight to ten hour ride. It was somewhat bouncy, but chalk one up to experience, right?
The roads weren’t too bad before our lunch rest stop – in fact, they were fairly similar to our trip from Luang Prabang. Lots of interesting villages and winding roads to see. When we stopped for lunch, we even saw a crate of what looked like guinea pigs on steroids (they were HUGE) that I think went into the limited space of the trunk.
Then came the more interesting part of the trip. I swear we took a road that was labeled “dry season only” on my Lonely Planet map, as it was dirt mountain roads for a large part of the journey. At one point, a couple of guys had to get off and wedge rocks under the tires when we stalled on a hill. At another point, we passed a military checkpoint and a young soldier with a gun got on and slowly looked over the bus passengers. I was terrified! I was the only white person on the bus and stuck out like a sore thumb, and I was so worried that he would decide to use me to make an example – of what, I don’t know, since the guidebooks and Embassy website didn’t mention military checkpoints at all and I had no idea what he was looking for. What can I say, the military and police in non-democratic countries make me extremely nervous.
We made it through just fine, of course, not even succumbing to the motion sickness that plagued many of our fellow bus travellers. (It was bad enough that I played with calling this post “The Vomitous Road to Vientiane”.)
I had heard someone describe Vientiane as a city without a soul, and while that may be a little harsh, I can’t say I particularly liked it. It doesn’t really seem to have much of a character, and the air pollution is pretty incredible.
We tried to find a market for souvenirs like we’d seen in other cities, but all we could find was a huge market/carnival that seemed to be in place because of the upcoming End of Wet Season celebrations. Stalls blared music or ads for their wares more loudly than a club, and the electronics, cheap toys, and cheap clothes stalls went on for blocks. To be fair, there was also some amazing street food that made up our dinner one night: pork balls with chili sauce, grilled meat, bao, and our absolute favorite that we spent an hour trying to track down again on our last night, rice fried in egg and pepper on a stick.
What is there to do in Vientiane? Well, admittedly we had been so busy in the prior week or two that we spent a lot of time sipping cool drinks in coffee shops and cafes. But we did also see some sights.
One of the most interesting – and dare I say bizarre? – sights is located outside of the city center. It’s called the Buddha Park, and is a collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues collected by one man. It includes an extremely large reclining Buddha and a big apple-shaped, three story building supposed to represent Heaven, Earth, and Hell.
I have to say that I found the park a little bit creepy. With many of the statutes showing an underlying violence, I would hate to be there after dark!
The apple building is a bit eery as well. You can enter in the mouth of Hell and the center of each floor is a room filled with sculptures.
To add to the atmosphere, going to and from the park by tuk tuk is partly on a dirt road riddled with potholes. I’ve decided that riding on a tuk tuk in such circumstances should be a carnival ride. I’ve certainly almost bounced into a somersault at times!
We also visited Patuxai Arch, Vientiane’s “Arc de Triomphe”. A sign there proclaims it “a monster of concrete”, which is a tad harsh!
We duly visited a couple of wats, Sisaket Temple and Ho Pra Keo. Vientiane seems to have a number more that were no doubt also worth seeing, but it’s certainly difficult not to get overwhelmed by beautiful wats in Southeast Asia! (That means that at this point, we were “watted out”.)