Our next stop in Laos was Vientiane and to get there we needed to take an overnight bus from Pakse. It was our first (and only) overnight bus in Laos. This will be a short trip to Laos’ capital city
Getting an Overnight Bus to Vientiane
Overnight buses in Laos are same, same different to the ones we took in Vietnam (find out more about the buses we took in Vietnam here). The “seats” are completely different, in that you get a flat “double bed” to share. So if you’re traveling alone you might be sleeping with a stranger. Our bus was pretty empty, so a lot of folks spread out.
There’s a comfy pillow and a blanket or duvet each. It all looks pretty clean, but it might just have been dark when I looked.
The roads are of course the same. Bumpy and windy. Unlike India, there’s no excessive horn blaring and this driver seems to understand that if he eases off the accelerator the bus will slow naturally, rather than slamming between throttle and brake and so we make good time and are in Vientiane almost an hour ahead of time. We left Pakse at around 8pm and have arrived in Vientiane at 6am.
Of course we haven’t had much sleep, because the flat bed means that no matter how careful the driver is, the natural curves and bends of the road mean we have been rolling backwards and forwards all night. I’m pretty sure they call them VIP buses here, rather than sleeper buses…
Vientiane’s Bus Station. Not Central.
So we’re in Vientiane. Well, I say we’re in Vientiane. We’re in the Vientiane Southern bus station.
Which isn’t Vientiane.
Each town and city here in Laos has multiple bus stations – depending on where you’re coming from, none of it is very clear, but what is patently obvious that these bus stations are not located for the benefit of anyone traveling to them. I do believe that the town planners were in league with the tuk tuk drivers. Everywhere we’ve visited in Laos has a bus station (or multiple bus stations) up to 10km out of town for no apparent reason other than revenue maximisation.
And so while our overnight bus, that drove us nearly 700km cost us 170,000 kip. The shared tuk tuk that we take into the center costs 30,000 kip each. I’m sure we can all do the maths here.
If you want to make money in Laos. Buy a tuk tuk, not a bus.
Checking in Early
Still we get to check into our hotel, the Vientiane Star (read what we think about it here), about an hour after we arrive, and so long as we can put up with what sounds like a herd of elephants thundering across the floor above and the seriously loud bass music pounding from the breakfast area we’ll be fine.
And of course we are. Fine, I mean And Vientiane’s just another city that we walk around – from the Arc de Trumphe like Patuxai monument in the middle of a roundabout – complete with its own internal market and scenes from the Ramayana (that we recognise from India) on the ceiling to the night market and temples.
Its 5,000 kip to climb the internal staircases to the top and see a particularly gloomy view of the city.
We visit Phra That Lung – Laos most important Buddhist monument that’s desperately in need of some love and attention. Hopefully our 5,000 kip per person entrance fee will go towards a little paint…
Vientiane – the Buddha Park
Then, we take a local bus out to a somewhat bizarre tourist attraction. We catch the green and white number 14 bus from the station – well a road near the Talat Sao station near the market paying 6,000 kip each way per person and go to the Buddha Park, which is literally a park with Buddha’s and a strange demon’s mouth through which you walk into a giant pumpkin to descend to the depths of hell.
Also known as Xieng Khuang, this is a sculpture park. It was started in 1958 and contains more than 200 statues and Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.
It costs us 5,000 kip each to enter the park.
The biggest sculpture in the park looks like a giant pumpkin. There are three levels – Hell, Earth and Heaven.
We enter through the demon’s mouth. And make our way through the levels for a view of the park – in Heaven.
And then of course there’s the statues of Buddha with the strange David Beckham like faces.
Just because we screwed up and didn’t get to go to the BeerLao factory nearby, their tours ran the day before we headed to the Buddha Park, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. The bus runs straight past it!
There’s a little humour as we wander around the city. Two mating dogs are stuck. Together. In the middle of the street. It must happen all the time, no one else seems to be as amused as we are.
Vientiane – Visiting COPE
For me though, the highlight of Vientiane was COPE – a government run unexplored ordinance (UXO) rehabilitation centre.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos. That’s one bombing mission every 8 minutes. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For NINE years. Between 1964 and 1974, during the Vietnam War, more than 2 million tonnes of ordinance were dropped on Laos. 270 million these “bombies”.
There’s a small exhibition area to walk around, which provides some interesting signage and displays, including a mountain of old artificial legs, but for me the best part of visiting COPE was the small movie theatre that they have here.
We watch “Bomb Harvest”, which follows the work of the Mines Advisotry Group – MAG – and Laith Stevens, an Australian bomb disposal technician with a great gallows sense of humour. There’s a host of documentaries to watch there, where admission is by donation, which goes to support the victims of UXO injuries.
If you come to Vientiane and indeed Laos and don’t visit at least one of the UXO related centres, then I fear you’re missing much of the story of Laos.
Vientiane is preparing for their Boat Racing Festival while we’re there – so promotional stalls are going up, the already busy night market area is full of competing speakers and promoters, we’re leaving at the right time (for us) and heading to the relative peace of Vang Vieng.
Not, though, before tasting the best Banh Mi outside of Saigon. It’s called Khao Jee here in Laos. Found near the river, with a lady who doesn’t speak English, but sells the most wonderful HUGE spicy stuffed pork sandwiches for 7,000 Kip each.
So we fill up, and then get an early night for our (this time day bus) trip to the party capital of Laos, Vang Vieng, where we’re looking for peace and quiet after the noise of the city.