Laos Sleeper buses, Sunsets and Stupidity!..

Laos Sleeper buses, Sunsets and Stupidity!..

We arrived at Pakse’s South Bus terminal at around 7.45pm ready for our first Laos ‘sleeper bus’ experience. We call it a ‘sleeper’ bus in inverted commas as previous trips have proved that sleeping on these things is near impossible – but ever the optimists we hoped that the Laos bus would be different.

All started off okay as we hopped up onto our double ‘bed’ and were handed a snack pack of biscuits, water and a strawberry yoghurt drink. We were the only foreigners on board the Kingkham bus and the locals seemed very amused at our excitement and photo-taking. Our mood soon deflated however as the driver took off at 100mph across bumpy roads causing our spines to crack and our heads to bang against the headboard everytime we flew over a pothole! I slept on the outside of the bed, against the tiny safety bar, petrified that I’d fall out and I think we both got around two to two and a half hours sleep during the entire 10 hour journey. It wasn’t helped by the fact that the driver stopped half way for a break and turned on the inside lights, waking us up from any rest we may have been getting, before rejuvenating himself and speeding off  again at 120mph!

Pakse to Vientiane Sleeper Box

He drove so fast that we arrived two hours early. We got off, slightly dishevelled and very tired and waited for a ‘regular’ bus that apparently existed to take people to the Central Bus Station in the city centre, 9 kms away. After about half an hour of hanging around outside we didn’t see anything resembling a bus – just an oversized tuk tuk / van with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English so couldn’t understand where we wanted to go. Eventually we gave up and just started walking! A tuk tuk driver soon drove past and after negotiating him down to half the price he originally asked for, we got on and headed towards the city centre.

The driver dropped us off in a random side street so we spent the next 45 minutes trying to find our way to the riverside where we wanted to stay, asking people for directions on the way. Eventually we wandered into the ‘backpackers area’ and found one of the guesthouses that we’d looked up on the internet. It looked like an absolute hole and quoted us 3$ more than their website price so we decided to give it a miss and look around for some of the other ones we’d heard of. Half of them were full and we couldn’t find the rest  – we were so tired and irritable that we finally decided to give ourselves a break and check into the nearest, decent hotel, no matter what the cost!

Luckily we found the Best Western in amongst all the bars and cafes of the backpacker area and breathed a sigh of relief. It was 74$ a night – around 7 times more expensive than any of the hostels we’d stayed in throughout the whole of our trip, but today was the day that we decided we really needed a taste of ‘home’. We walked up to the hotel reception, complete with dirty backpacks and bleary eyes and asked them if they had a room. They did, but asked us to pay upfront rather than when we checked out – obviously didn’t trust these two dishevelled travellers wandering in off the streets!

Anyway we got up to our double room, instantly knowing we’d made the right decision when we saw the big, fluffy bed, plasma tv, lounge chair, tea and coffee maker and big, sparking bathroom – with tub! One of the first things we did was run a hot bubble bath, before getting into bed, TV on, and relaxing for most of the day! We did drag ourselves out of the room around sunset to walk round to the riverfront and watch the sun go down.

Despite the extensive construction work going on down there with diggers and steamrollers driving up and down, the sunset was spectacular. The sky was completely unobstructed by buildings or trees and we watched the colours change from bright yellow, to orange, bright red, purple and blue. Well worth dragging ourselves out of bed for!

Digger rolling in front of Vientiane sunset

Amazing Mekong sunset in Vientiane

When we got back to the hotel, we decided that we may as well take a dip in the Best Western swimming pool. It was really cold but we had it all to ourselves which was great!

Swimming Pool Best Western Vientiane

Our day of rest was well worth splashing out on and we had a fantastic nights sleep in our comfy bed, waking up the next morning refreshed and ready to fight another day! We went downstairs to indulge in our free breakfast of omelette, bacon, toast, hot chocolate, fresh juice, watermelon and pineapple, before hitting the on-site gym for a couple of hours. It was so good to take a step back from the non-stop traveller world for a bit and feel like ‘us’ again. After a second hot bubble bath we checked out and checked in to a (much cheaper!) guesthouse down the road.

We had a cafe lunch before heading off to the nearby Laos National Museum to learn a bit more about the history of Laos. The museum is housed in a decrepit old building which stands in direct contrast opposite the big, shiny Cultural Hall donated to Laos by the Chinese. The country can’t afford to put on any shows in the hall so it just stands there empty – but they would be much better off just moving the museum over there for now!

Outside Laos National MuseumWe paid our 10,000 kip entrance fee and realised that we were the only visitors in the entire building. We didn’t see another soul during the two hours we were in there! The museum charts the history of Laos from ancient times (with a display of dinosaur fossells, pottery and other artefacts), right through to the Thai invasion, French Occupation and US ‘secret war’. It’s all very interesting but we found ourselves having a lot more questions about Laos than we had when we first went in! Many of the signs are still only in Lao so we vowed to get onto Google as soon as we could to fill in the gaps.

Inside Laos museum

Later that day, we went in search of an ATM that didn’t charge. We had read on Travelfish that there was a bank called the Joint Development Bank which was free and were told by staff in a local hotel that it was on the main road into town – Lane Xang Avenue – near to where the Patuxai (Laos answer to the Arc de Triomphe) stands. Sure enough, there it was and we took out all our cash, no sign of any fee! We later found out however that it did charge us – 15,000 Kip. Still, this is the cheapest we’ve found in Laos, followed by BCEL which charges 20,000 Kip. It’s amazing how quickly all the ATM fees add up and we really begrudge having to pay to take out our own money. It’s worth spending some time doing research into the right banks to use, especially if on a tight budget, as sometimes you can find a freebie one. We were lucky enough to find the Canadia bank in Cambodia too – the only one there that doesn’t charge 4$ per withdrawal!

Next we thought that we may as well watch another sunset over the Mekong so went and bought a couple of Beer Laos, sat on the prom and watched as the skies spectacularly changed colours once again.

Spectacular sunset and boat

That evening we wandered the back streets of Vientiane – it’s a tiny city and you can reach pretty much anywhere by foot in less than a couple of hours. There are lots of back streets packed with French cafes, restaurants and bakeries, which are all quite spread out around the city. The place doesn’t seem as ‘contrived’ as Siem Reap, despite the abundance of Westerners and there was no sign of a ‘pub street’ encouraging late night partying, giving the whole place a more authentic feeling.

We had dinner in a local fast food shop selling hot dogs and chips with a drink for just 20,000 kip. It was called Fish Tango (although they didn’t seem to sell much fish) and the chips were awesome! Once we’d eaten we tried to find a bar with a bit more atmosphere than a lot of the ones we had come across so far, but everywhere seemed half empty and soo quiet. There wasn’t even any music coming from any of the bars we walked past. Eventually we called it a night and headed back to our guesthouse.

The next day we thought that we’d better just double check the Thai visa situation as we’ll be heading over there in less than two weeks. We’d always presumed that we would just get our visa on arrival but had vaguely heard that UK passports holders (and most others) could only get 15 days entry when using a land crossing. We sought out the Thai embassy to get some more up to date info and found out that if we applied there, we could get 60 days for free! The Thai government have extended a promotion designed at encouraging Westerners back into the country after all the problems of the Bangkok protests, but it only applies if you get your visa at an embassy! If we didn’t do this, we’d have to extend our 15 days border visa while in Thailand at a cost of 1900 Baht. We’d need at least another week there which would cost 35 quid each.  Alternatively, if we just went with our 15 day visa and overstayed, that would cost us 140 quid in fines (500 Baht a day, each)!

All of this is more expensive than paying to stay in Vientiane a few more days so we quickly concluded that this is what we needed to do. We would apply for our visa at the embassy and just move on once we’d got it. However, this major visa oversight only dawned on us during a Friday afternoon, meaning that we had missed the boat for applications that day so would have to wait until Monday to hand in our forms! The visas can be ready the next day, so we’ll be able to pick them up on Tuesday afternoon and depart for Vang Vieng, our next stop, the next morning! Now, getting stranded in Laos for a few days isn’t the worst thing in the world, but Vientiane isn’t the most buzzing of cities so it’s just a shame that we’re stuck here instead of somewhere like Don Khon!

Kicking ourselves for our stupidity, we went back to the guesthouse to re-hash our increasingly tight itinerary before heading out to make the most of our predicament with a few Beer Laos at the Red Mekong bar!…

 

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