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Lao PDR – Vientiane 21 October 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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It is hard to believe that Vientiane is a capital city, it has the feel of a large country town.

But it was an amazing and relaxing time that we had there, especially after the less than perfect time that we had in Luang Prabang. We were able to explore the city and see the sights within one day, but had trouble fitting in all the bars and restaurants that we wanted to eat and drink at during the weekend.

During one of the days, we went exploring the National Monument, which is an impressive golden stupa surrounded by beautiful temples. Gold leaf paint and splendour all around, and although Lao buddhist temples cannot outshine its Thai counterparts, we did enjoy exploring them.

Vientiane, for being such a small city, obviously does not have a huge array of restaurants, but the ones that are there are qualitatively very good. Even the interior decoration of most of these places was tasteful and cozy, which was a really nice change to Hanoi, which has an abundance of quantity, but quality is a little less.

We hardly ate any street food, due to my previous bout of food poisoning, so I readily admit that we may have limited our choices quite a lot.

Here are some recommendations;

JoMa

JoMa is A lovely little coffee shop chain with lovely biscuits (their oatmeal cookies are great! But their choc-chip ones are not bad either.) It is apparently a bit pricey for Lao, but all in all, it was a lovely ‘Western’ refuge for a seasoned expat or backpackers alike. There are rumours that they are looking to expand into Vietnam. Yes, please!

Makphet

A vocational training centre, where the staff are disadvantaged youth that receive training and education to break the poverty cycle. The food is also really good, the chicken curry and the larp are really good.

Le Silapa

French food. Need I say more? They had run out of creme brulee (and if you know me, you know this is a disaster) but their food is not half bad. Here’s what Frommer had to say:

For cozy atmosphere and authentic French cuisine, this is a find in Vientiane (if you can find it). The effusive French proprietor will make you feel welcome. There’s a great wine list to go with tasty meals like whitefish subtly garnished with capers, lemon, and parsley. The food is a lot more sophisticated than you might expect from such an unassuming storefront.

P.V.O.

Awesome Vietnamese Banh My (Baguettes). Yes, we went to Lao, and still ended up eating Vietnamese. But it was worth it.

Jazzy Brick, Martini Bar, Spirit House, Kong View

Lovely bars with a nice, relaxing feels to them.We had a few too many cocktails, but what the heck – we were on holidays!

So although a lot of tourists leave Vientiane off the list when they go to SE Asia, I would highly recommend including it if you have the time. Especially if you just need somewhere where you will not feel guilty just relaxing, because there is not that much else to do!

On the Saturday, we went on a day trip outside of the city, to one of the smaller rivers in the area. There, we had booked a boat that serves dinner on the boat while it drives you up the river. At the other end, they turn off the engines, and you float back down to the docs along the stream. It is amazingly relaxing, and with a few beer Lao under your belt, the world could not be a more pleasant place to spend the time.

Thank you, Lao, for a very interesting (although not purely relaxing) week.

Lao PDR – Luang Prabang 19 October 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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So, with minimal notice, we decided to hop on a plane and fly to Lao. Here’s the ‘adventure’.

The country Lao (also sometimes referred to as Laos) is a neighbouring country to Vietnam, and has long been on our ‘must see while in the region’ list. (There are many others still on that list, as most of our travels thus far have happened within Vietnam proper.) From Hanoi to Luang Prabang is an easy flight, and the waiting time at the Hanoi airport (where supposedly you need two hours for check in) is longer than the actual airtime.

Touching down in Luang Prabang just after dark was lovely, because from the air you could really get a sense of how small the town was. We were met at the airport by the hotel, and all seemed to go smoothly until…

Well, the hotel informs us that there has been a mistake, some ‘trainee’ had made a double booking, and we did not have a room. Rule number one in hospitality: take the blame unequivocally, and don’t blame it on some poor trainee. If that really was the case (something I doubt) it is management’s fault for not properly providing supervision and training to this person. It does not come across as very professional either way.

So, they are trying to convince us to have dinner at the hotel first, but both of us feel that having dinner was not on, we just want to get to the room, have a rest, and get started on our holidays. So we asked them to take us to another hotel straight away. We ended up staying in a little place called Phousi Guest House for 25 USD, which was basic, but nice and clean, and since it was supposed to be for one night only, it was perfectly fine.

We went to explore the night market (but with no Kip in our pockets, so ended up buying nothing at all) and basically tried to get a feel for the town. For some reason, the layout is really confusing, and it took me a long time to get my bearings on which way was up.

In the middle of the night I wake up feeling less than average. Hello food poisoning. And if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know it is less than pleasant. The worst is that I had eaten nothing that was clearly dodgy, and I suspect it was the apple I had on the plane that did it.

The next morning, when my partner wakes up nice and rested, and asks me how my sleep was, he has a real shock when he finds out that I had basically spent it in the bathroom. He instantly became super-boyfriend, and took care of everything. He called the first hotel to picks us up again (as we had promissed to stay there for the rest of our time in LP). He packed the bags, carefully lead me downstairs, carried the bags, sat with me in the car, told the hotel that they need to find a room instantly (they said our room was not ready, but having a sick lady on their hands in this day and age of swine flu put the wind up them, and they upgraded us to their best room) and lead me to the bungalow.

It was a strange room, with very little privacy. The bathroom and the shower were in the same room as the bed and the TV, with only a tiny partision. There were no chairs, and the toilet was in a separate ‘room’, but without a ceiling. Luckily, we had a balcony, where one person could retire with a book in order to give the other some privacy when they went to the toilet.

My partner made sure I was totally comfortable and had everything I might need (bananas, water, medical supplies, book, remote control for the TV) within reach, and let me sleep all day while he went and rented a motorbike to explore Lao. He even took extra many pictures for me so I could have a look at them that night. So Day 1 in Lao was a write-off for me, I slept the entire day.

But by Day 2 I felt heaps better, and we went into town. We looked at all the Wats, explored the streets and the shops, ate at a bakery and generally enjoyed ourselves. We tried some Lao food (carefully) and marvelled at the apparent quality of wares even in touristy shops compared to what is available in Vietnam. Dinner was at a tiny restaurant in the main street overlooking the quiet life that is Luang Prabang go by, and marvelling at the other Westerners who seemed to be coping less well with the heat than we were. I guess we have finally aclimatised to the weather.  

Day 3 was not so great. After a not-so-fabulous start (a fine for not wearing a helmet, even though we were only given one helmet, and all the locals seem to either wear none or one), we wanted to buy a H’mong silver necklace to add to our collection, and while in the store, the rented motorbike, which was parked outside, was stolen. I am still miffed that in a street where there are stores all along the opposite side to where we were, and where there are a lot of people at all times, no one seemed to have seen anything. We ran around a little while to see if we could spot it, in case someone just moved it. But no such luck. So we went to the police station.

There, we are met with three fold-out camping beds in the foyer, and two sleeping officers in them. A third is awake, but does not speak English. Turns out they are closed for lunch, and we should return in two hours time. We should have known better.

We decide to walk back to the hotel (which happened to be really close) to ask if they have the number plate there. They freak out, because, as it turns out, of course, they had not rented us a motorbike from the ‘only rental company in town’ as they said they had, but the thing had belonged to the hotel itself. So massive search party sent out.

The motorbike is nowhere to be seen. The police station opens again, but when my partner gets there with the hotel manager, they are sent to a separate station which is the ‘tourist police’ station. There, they are told that we are not likely to ever see this motorbike again (partly due to the two hours that have lapsed since it was stolen. Thanks). A police report is being drafted, but it is not likely that we will be able to even claim it on insurance. Turns out the hotel has not insured their vehicle either against theft.

So finally, after a lot of calling to the consular section at the Embassy in Vientiane, speaking to our insurance, and negotiating with the hotel, who have now produced a document stating that the motorbike was purchased in January 2009 for 1400 USD, we end up having to pay for the thing. We of course refuse to pay that much, since it was pretty banged up from lots of tourists driving it around, and with depreciation etc, we figured it was worth a lot less now.

That night, with nothing resolved and a whole day wasted running around trying to fix the situation, we take a Tuk-Tuk into town (the first one for this trip) to have a Lao set menu that we had booked the day before.

The Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang offers a great tasting menu that allows you to try a bit of everything in a very friendly environment. If you want to go, make sure you book ahead for this, as they need lots of time to prepare. They also offer cooking classes.

The manager of the restaurant, Caroline, is Australian, and she seemed to have all the time in the world to chat to us about the food and its flavours. Lao food is really interesting, even though I am not the biggest fan of it. It is spicier than (north) Vietnamese food, but also has more strongly flavoured herbs in it. One herb in particular that they use is a type of basil with an aniseed or fennel like flavour which is used a lot in curries and soups. I found it extremely overpowering the first time I had it, but you soon start getting used to it, and even liking it a little.

Although we ate well, the highlight was the dessert, and especially the tamarind and coconut sauce (served as a condiment next to sticky purple rice and banana), although I could not eat much of it, as I was already very full. The rest of the evening we did some shopping in the night markets and wandered around the town.

The next morning, we woke up before daybreak to see the procession of monks receiving alms in the morning. I had wanted to do this the whole time I was in Luang Prabang, but due to a combination of being ill and lazy, had not been able to get up early enough yet. As it was our last day and our last chance, I really really wanted to go. We caught another Tuk-Tuk, and reached the centre of town in time to find a good spot, and to see the entire procession pass through. It was pretty special, although someone told me afterwards that the monks don’t actually want to do this anymore, but are required to by the government for the tourists. Sort of takes the enjoyment out of it for all parties.

We walk back to the hotel, and the early morning stroll really brings back my appetite for the first time since Day 1. The hotel breakfast, though, was atrocious. The yoghurt was off, the orange juice a sugary, syrupy chemical concoction, the croissant was filled with ants, and the bread was dry as a bone. Off putting.

My partner is off again to the police station, and, he tells me later, it was still a mess, no police report has been made, the first station sends them away to a second station who in turn referres them back to the first station. Something that should have taken a very short while ends up lasting three hours, and we end up having to pay a significant sum for the lost bike. In the mean time, I pack the bags and get ready to go.

Sitting at the restaurant, ready to leave for the airport 10 minutes later, the manager comes careening onto the hotel grounds on another scooter, and is waving his hands, jumping up and down.

He’s found the motorbike!

And it was completely by chance! After having hugged my partner several times, dancing, punching the air in jubilation, shook my hand, and generally being thrilled, he calls the airport to confirm our tickets, but that we will be a little later, because he needs to return our money. While this is done, we are given the amazing story of recovery.

As the manager is on his way to the police station to get the police report (which he ended up getting), he passes a bike on the side of the road which looks familiar. Now, they have already changed a lot of things about the bike for it to look different enough for him not to be sure, but during Lao New Year, when the locals pelt each other with paint bombs, the bike had received a distinctive paint splash under its seat. This was what he had seen.

So he turns back, and confronts the person with the bike. They deny it, but cannot produce the papers for the bike. So the manager calls the police , who come straight away (huh?) and impound the bike. At the station, they check the serial numbers against the numbers on the papers belonging to the manager, and voila! It is the right bike. And thus, we received our refund. All we ended up paying was 5 USD for the police report. Which we now no longer need.

So then it was off to the airport to check in and to fly away to Vientiane.