Sunday, August 8, 2010

Vientiane - City of Sandalwood. Should be renamed to city of bakeries, bowling alleys and rip-off tuk-tuk drivers

We only had two nights in Vientiane (actually pronounced wiang-jun but thanks to the terrible French adaptation nobody gets it right), since we heard that there is not that much to see. We also had most of the first day, since our bus was arriving in the early afternoon from Vang Vieng, or so we thought! We did not account for the Lao Please Don't Rush mentality, which added a couple of extra hours onto the trip.

We had to do 'the rock-up' again, since we weren't able to book anything decent on-line. Luckily, our first choice from the Lonely Planet paid off and we were given a nice, though quite small, room at the Mali Namphu Guesthouse. It was fairly expensive, however that is typical for Vientiane and after all it did include a lovely breakfast (waffles with fruit salad on the first day and banana crepe on the second day)

Thanks to our bus being late, we lost most of the day and decided to save the sightseeing for the next day. We hit the Scandinavian Bakery for a delicious late lunch (best croissants ever!) before relaxing in the beautiful courtyard at Mali Namphu. 

That evening we tried to find the local bowling alley, just for something different. It took a while (the sign can only be seen if you approach it from a certain direction), but we got there in the end. It was exactly the same as any other bowling alley; daggy clown shoes, computer screens from the 1800s to enter in your names and bowling lanes which definitely slope to the left. It was great fun, although Michael beat my score by about 100 points, thanks to a handful of strikes which he totally fluked. Unfortunately I couldn't find a good ball since all the light ones had tiny finger holes so I couldn't hold onto them properly (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it!).

Dinner was a late affair at an outside pub-restaurant on the main street. We got the Lao specialty of grilled meat with sticky rice. Michael and I have become a huge fan of sticky rice (keeps you full for longer and you can eat it with your hands, what's not to love?!) so we wanted to make the most of it on our second last night in Laos, since we weren't sure whether or not they did sticky rice in Malaysia.

The next morning we were determined to make the most of our one day in Vientiane, so we started fairly early. We kicked off with Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane. It is actually not that old, only built in 1818, however the city was razed to the ground by the Siamese (Thailand) in 1827 and Wat Si Saket was the only temple left standing. The fascinating thing about this temple is the fact that the inside of the temple and the cloister wall are covered with little niches, each filled with a little Buddha statue (over 2,000 statues in total!). We also made a little friend, a cute little cat that came up to us for a pat and then proceeded to follow us all around the cloister wall, crying when we left.

From there we visited the Talat Sao market. It's called a morning market but is actually open until late afternoon. We were expecting to see a typical SE Asian market full stalls selling souvenirs and handicrafts. Instead we found a shopping centre! It was pretty dingy inside but it was nice to be in the air-conditioning. Luckily I happened to peak outside and caught a glimpse of dodgy-looking stalls. Apparently they are trying to replace the old markets with the shopping centre but it doesn't appear to have worked, since people still flock to the old markets, which are much more atmospheric and probably cheaper too!

Then it was over to Lao National Museum. It was housed in a colonial house which is in a terrible state, which is a stark contrast to the spectacular Cultural Hall across the street. The bottom floor had good displays with descriptions, most with English translations. We even got to see some dinosaur fossils from the dinosaur sites down south, as well as information on the plain of jars, with one jar on display. However, upstairs was full of propaganda relating to the Pathet Lao's struggle for independence from the horrible French 'Imperialists'. Most of the descriptions here did not have any English translations, plus it was very hot with no air conditioning so we came back down pretty quickly.

They had a comments book and one guy said that the only way that the museum could be any worse would be if there was a dead baby on the floor. I thought that this was a bit harsh, there were heaps of interesting displays, although I do admit that it certainly didn't stand up to the museums in Siem Reap, Shanghai, Tokyo, Macau, Hanoi, Saigon, Malacca, Perth, Rottnest Island... actually I guess it wasn't that great but it was interesting enough to keep us occupied for an hour or so and it was right across the road from the ice-cream parlour!

Swenson's was our next stop. After an hour in a very hot museum, Michael couldn't possibly have expected me to just walk past all that ice-cream in its air-conditioned goodness, could he?! When we placed our order (one banana sundae for me and a chocolate sundae for Michael, the guy gave us a funny look and said "so you want two sundaes?". We soon found out why, when our ENORMOUS sundaes came out, mine substantially larger than Michael's! I made a valiant effort but was finally defeated by the Hot Fudge Bonanza Split.

The next day we chilled at the Scandinavian Bakery before heading off to the airport. We tried to get a tuk-tuk, but the driver handed us a laminated list of vastly inflated tourist prices. He started to discount the fare but we turned away in disgust and got the hotel to call us a taxi. It cost a bit more but that wasn't the point, it's the principle of the thing. Anyway, if I'm going to have to pay more than I expected at least I can be comfortable in an air-conditioned car rather than cramped up in a dirty tuk-tuk.

It was a good thing we had the car too, because I had forgotten some paintings which I bought back in Luang Prabang as a souvenir. The guy in the hotel rang the driver to let us know. The driver said no problem and took us back. But when we got to airport he sprung and extra charge for the detour, something he failed to mention when we were deciding whether or not to go back! Fuming, Michael reluctantly offered him half of what he asked. The guy started to argue so Michael put it to him that he either take what he offered or walked away with nothing, so he took the money. Cheeky bastard. Even though Laos was our favourite South-East Asian country, it is experiences and people like this that give you a bad taste in your mouth and a deep distrust for the locals, as nine times out of ten they are only after your money. That aside, Vientiane was very pleasant although one day is plenty to see everything there is to see. 

We were flying Air Asia which was definitely a new experience for me. The check-in counter was extremely slow and it took us about 40 minutes to get to the counter! However, when we were at the counter it only took 30 seconds, whereas everyone else seemed to take about 10 minutes each. We have found this problem all throughout Asia on our trip. At airports and train stations, everyone seems to take forever to get their tickets, but when we get to the front of the line it only takes a few seconds... what is the problem with these people?!? We saw lots of people complaining and moving stuff between bags. This could be because it is a cheapie airline, so you have to pay extra to take on checked baggage and they are very strict with weights and carry-on baggage. You also have to pre-book seats and meals. Michael and I think that lots of people just book the tickets and either don't look into the extras and fine-print, or think that maybe it won't apply to them.

Anyway, we finally got our tickets. Fortunately we were lucky and got assigned emergency exit seats for no extra charge (usually you have to pay extra if you request seats with extra room, they are called "hot seats"). These are the low-cost airline's version of business class. You get to board first and get heaps more room. The inside of the plane was very swish, much nicer than QANTAS, although that's not very difficult. The meal, Michael and I agreed, was the best in-flight meal that we've ever had. When we went online and checked QANTAS ticket prices, we both actually laughed out loud, because the difference between the two is completely ludicrous, even taking into account the extras that you have to pay on top of the Air Asia ticket price (extras such as pillows, food, check-in baggage and the highly suspicious 'Convenience Charge'). At least when you go with an expensive airline such as British Airways you get great service and awesome in-flight entertainment. With QANTAS you pay extra for rudeness and a crappy rom-com with Jennifer Aniston that you can't watch anyway because it's on a rubbish screen at the front of the cabin and you've got the tallest people in the plane sitting in front of you. I don't think I'll ever use my 70,000 frequent flyer points because I don't want to have to go on another QANTAS flight! 

Anyway, the next stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I am currently writing this post. Mainland South-East Asia was definitely an amazing experience, but I found that the third-world aspect got progressively harder to deal with, rather than becoming accustomed to it, and I found myself longing for something familiar, like driving on the left side of the road and being able to brush my teeth with tap water. On the plane all that I could think about was being able to go straight to a huge, air-conditioned shopping centre and ordering a cheeseburger, since unfortunately we have come to associate McDonalds with civilisation and we had not seen the golden arches since Hong Kong nearly three months ago. Stay tuned for McDonalds... oops I mean Malaysia!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jenni, Was the "m" for Malaysia or McDonalds? And was it worth 3 months wait when you finally got there?
    Love Yvonne