When the Thai Government opened their new Immigration Office on Chang Wattana Road, life became an awful lot easier for me. Efficient, organised, air conditioned and just a stone’s throw away from my apartment. No more travelling across town to wait in a disorganised queue in order to extend my tourist visa. Then, along came the Anti-Government protest and all access to the new and improved Immigration Office was blocked. That for me was a personal inconvenience, but rightly or wrongly, the protesters were seeking to shape the democratic future of a nation, 65 million people, so I thought it best to keep everything in perspective. So, once again, in order to remain in Thailand, I first had to leave.
When I travel to Laos, I usually take the overnight bus from Bangkok to Nong Khai - VIP Service, twelve hours onboard for around 650 Thai Baht. However, perhaps as a result of the political crisis, Air Asia were offering some amazing deals and if I could travel with just hand luggage, the one hour flight would cost just 800 Thai Baht - $27. There was really no contest, so I hopped onto a taxi-bike and headed to Don Meuang Airport for the one hour flight north to Udon Thani.
(Laos Kip ... feeling rich)
After landing at Udon Thani, a minivan whisked me directly to the border crossing – Thai Friendship Bridge - and an hour later I was enjoying my first Beer Lao at the Chokdee Cafe overlooking the Mekong River in Vientiane. The sun was shining, the beer was cold, and having changed $200 into the local currency, I had 1,650,000 Lao Kip in my pocket. I really do enjoy spending time in Vientiane before heading north into the country. For a capital city, Vientiane has a homely village feel ling about it and relaxation comes easy. It’s a city that’s changing, rapidly, with money flowing into infrastructure projects, many that possibly threaten the atmosphere of the city, but I guess that change is inevitable and I’ll enjoy the ambience while it lasts.
On previous visits to Laos, I’ve rented a scooter in Vientiane and then headed north. However, if you wish to take your rented scooter beyond the city limits then you’ll be charged double the daily rental price. That price is still reasonable, but it’s much easier to take the bus to Vang Vieng and rent a local scooter when you arrive.
Vang Vieng is 150km north of Vientiane, about four hours on the bus and $2 in expense. Most tourists seem to bypass Vang Vieng in favour of Luang Prabang a further 150km to the north. That might not be good news for the local economy in Vang Vieng, but it works for me. Rooms, food and beer are plentiful and cheap, and the views of the phallic mountains are breathtaking.
(Early morning balloon over Vang Vieng)
(Amazing sunsets at Vang Vieng)
In order to explore independently, a scooter is really the best option. Larger bikes are available, but to be honest, the Chinese copies of the 110cc Honda Wave’s are all you’ll really need. They’re easy to ride, indestructible, will go absolutely anywhere and cost around $4 per day. Mornings and evenings are cooler, and probably the best time to explore. You could use a map, and head for highlighted attractions – swimming holes, caves, mountain lookouts etc – but I prefer to go freestyle. I just head off around the paddy, across the rivers, and see where random tracks will take me. Whichever direction you take, you’ll meet people, structures and geographical anomalies that constantly draw you in and plant questions in your mind.
(Local kids doing what what local kids do)
(Random caves to explore, alone of with guides, according to your level of bravery)
All in all, I spent 10 relaxing days in Laos, mostly in and around Vang Vieng. I ate well, stayed in decent rooms with en suite bathrooms, rented scooters and drank beer to capacity. The VIP bus service back to Vientiane wasn’t all that I’d hoped for, but as I’d spent less than $200 on the entire holiday, I’m not going to complain.
(VIP Bus Service?)