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Sam Neua to Hanoi!

(hopefully)

overcast 17 °C

After several more circles of the town centre, we eventually moved up the hill to the first bus station. There John was taken off the bus by the driver and escorted to the front of the ticket queue. Tickets to Hanoi were put in his hand at the price we had been quoted the day before, 300,000k each. Perfect! In a while the bus left and headed east. One the way at Vieng Xai we picked up two Swedish girls who wanted to go to Thanh Hoa, town in Vietnam which is on the route (but not the direct direction) from Laos to Vietnam. As they got on they were told the bus would go there and indeed the name was written on the front in big letters. Simple enough they thought. About an hour into the journey, the man who had assured them the bus would go there told them it now wouldn’t because no one on the bus wanted to go. He demanded more money and told them they had to go to Hanoi. He also very conveniently forgot he spoke English, despite responding to the question “do you speak English?” with “no I do not....” dubious! Anyway, they refused to pay and standoff ensued for the next 8 hours.
Meanwhile we were passing through some rather staggering and beautiful scenery. We had read that the border crossing was the least used and most arduous to approach but apparently this just means the route is even more beautiful (and of course bumpier) than usual!

After 4 hours or so we reached the border, which was really rather grand, with multi-storey buildings on both sides, as tall as any we’d seen in Laos. We didn’t even have to pay the customary $1 bribe to get our visas stamped. Both borders passed easily enough but the guards did insist on going through our dirty laundry, though not through any of the side pockets or other dubious boxes which had been loaded onto our bus, a smugglers dream!
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Once we’d passed the check point we stopped in the border town for lunch for an hour and then headed off into Vietnam!

After another 8-9 hours we arrived in...Thanh Hoa. So much for not stopping there, and fortunately the girls still hadn’t paid. A potential scam to look out for! The whole scam was made all the more obvious and ridiculous because we were taken off the Lao bus in Thanh Hoa and would have to change buses, so we were always going to have to stop there. Grrr. Once we were off the bus we had some time to wait for the next one. Obviously at the moment the bus arrived John chose to go to the toilet. The bus didn’t seem very keen to wait for anyone and Susie was very worried he’d be left behind as we were all bundled onto the bus, which was already moving as John stepped onto it. We’d heard the Vietnamese were efficient but this was ridiculous! Later on the bus would pull away after dropping locals off before the conductor had even got back on, he had to run and prise the door open with his fingers to avoid being left behind! This journey, to put it in one word, was INSANE. Apparently in Vietnam every road (even those with one lane) has an invisible third lane, which you gain access to by flashing your lights and beeping your horn, regardless of the space on either side, oncoming traffic, self preservation or consideration for the sanctity of life.... Noone could sleep on journey where you spend as much time headed wildly towards the lorries in front of you as you do undertaking and cutting up everything in sight. All in a bus: clearly the most nimble of modes of transport!

Ah, well we survived and after another 4 hours we were yelled at. HANOI! We were then bundled off the bus (which was of course already moving away), presented with our bags (which had been dumped by the side of the road) and left to it. No map. No idea where in Hanoi we were (a city of 3.2 million people, whereas Vientiane, the capital of Laos only has 200,000!), very little Vietnamese money, and on the back of a 14 hour bus ride. The rest of the evening could prove to be an interesting night indeed!

Posted by John_713 06:56 Archived in Laos Tagged vietnam laos border_crossing hanoi border sam_neua nameo nam_xoi Comments (0)

Vientiane

semi-overcast 25 °C

As it turned out the early bus wasn’t a big problem, since we fell asleep at a ridiculously early 6:30, so we woke up at about 6 the next morning! We certainly had deserved that 11 hours in bed!! After showering, we went to the bus station, via the morning market, where we bought chicken on a stick, sticky rice and doughnuts for breakfast.
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It was very tasty, and we felt very local, munching on our chicken and waiting for our bus! The 7:30 bus eventually came at 8:15 – we’re so used to Laos/Cambodian time now that it didn’t even really phase us – and we (just) managed to find two seats together. The bus rapidly filled up, with lots of plastic stools down the aisle and quite a few people standing too. But it’s OK, it was a VIP bus, so we’d paid 60,000kip (only £5, but far more than other buses) to be in luxury...oh wait, the air con was broken. Plus, there were no windows because of the “air-con” which meant it was hot, stuffy and smelly, and they played loud Lao ballads on the television the whole way there, which were all awful and all the same (although some of the video storylines were fairly amusing). Needless to say, that’s the last time we’re getting a VIP bus, and we were very happy when, 6 hours later, we arrived in Vientiane.

Once we arrived, we were helpfully bundled into a shared jumbo (big tuk-tuk) which took us into the city centre. We walked to the guesthouse we’d picked out from our Lonely Planet, which in the 3 years since our guidebook was written has gotten rather more swish, and we ended up in their new extension, Mixay Paradise. Our room was 80,000kip a night (a whole $10, £7), but we were placated by the free breakfast, free wifi, nice downstairs seating area, and hot power shower in the (shared) bathroom. Mmmmm! Definitely worth the extra! They even ha a lift and everything. Wow!!
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We went out for a walk, and were shocked by how modern and western Vientiane feels. We were expecting another Siem Reap, but it’s much more built up, and so much more shiny, from the carefully maintained gardens, to the modern eateries everywhere, to the promenade that they’re just doing up, it felt like there was a lot more money around than anywhere we’ve been for a while.
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We went and got lunch at a restaurant called Lao Kitchen, which was a little overpriced, but fairly tasty. We had one coconutty curry type thing that was very tasty, and one tasty but stressful soup thing, that had these weird peas, buffalo skin, etc in it. We were unsure about that one!! We went back to the hotel and chilled for a couple of hours, then in the evening went for another walk around Vientiane. We went for curry for dinner, and then went to sleep at about 8:30pm, despite promising ourselves earlier that we’d make the most of being somewhere with lights in the evening! We’re hopeless!
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The next day, we woke up at 7am, far too early for tourist land, and so went for a wander around several of the nearby Wats (temples).
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Then we went back for breakfast at our hotel,
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and then went out to Patuxai, a large monument that’s Laos’s answer to the Arc D’Triumph, and was built out of a load of concrete that the Americans gave Laos to build a aeroplane runway! The views from the top were lovely, and then we wandered down back to the centre along a road that, as the guidebook puts it, “is sometimes (very) generously described at the Champs Elysees of the East”!
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We also went to Talat Sao, the morning market, a few more Wats, past the presidential palace, and to some random monument they’re building on the river (don’t know what it’s for – like I said, our guidebook is old – but all the locals seemed to love it, with lots of flowers and bowing going on!).

For lunch, we treated ourselves to a rather expensive all you can eat meal...but it was SUSHI. Yum, yum, yum! And 85,000 kip ($10, £7) isn’t that much really!! Plus, we certainly did justice to it. Mmmmmm!
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Just some of our sushi!

In the afternoon, we chilled out to allow our (very full) stomachs to recover. We watched television, read, went on the internet and skyped our parents (once Susie’s mum finally bothered to come online. Humph). Very lazy we’re sure, but we think we’ve deserved it after all our long journeys and our time at Ban Khoun Kham! In the evening, we wanted a small meal, so we ended up sharing a curry again. Teehee! Very tasty, but we got cross at the sneaky way the man there tricked us into paying lots for water, grrr, so we’re now eschewing all Nazim Indian restaurants. A shame because there’s one everywhere and they’re tasty, but we’ll find better ones!

We also realised that evening that we’d made a bit of a woops....in the morning we’d handed in our passports to the hotel to sort our Vietnam visas (you can’t get them at any overland borders) which we were getting back at 4:30pm the next day. No problem, until we decided in the afternoon we’d leave on the afternoon bus the next day, bought our tickets, and then suddenly realised that leaving 3 hours before our passports arrived wasn’t the brightest idea ever. The hotel staff were really nice about it, and helpfully offered to send them on the bus the day after, which we (slightly worriedly) agreed to. Let’s just hope the system works!!

On our final morning in Vientiane, we went on a long, 5km each way, walk to Pha That Luang, Laos’s most famous and important monument. All well and good, but it wasn’t that interesting – just a pointy gold blob – and women had to pay 10000kip to rent a Lao style skirt to go in. Boo, like we were going for that sexist trap (it made Susie very cross). As we were leaving, we bumped into Jenny, the lady we were volunteering with at Grace House, and who is travelling Laos the opposite way to us! Was nice to see her, but she’s on a tour, so had to head off after a quick catch up chat. Very random to see her out off everyone in Laos!!
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We then walked back to the centre, via a locals market (where Susie got even more disgruntled because she needs new flip flops, but no nice ones fit her because Lao women have little feet), and past the gardens near the Patuxai monument (where Susie was dehydrated, so even even more cross. Not a good morning!). We bumped into Jenny again at the monument, and then went back to the hotel, where we packed up (everything except our passports....), went and got lunch (we really branched out, and got....curry! From a cheaper, and just as nice place, so we felt vindicated against the nasty water). Then we sat and waited for our bus for Vang Vieng!

Posted by Susiep539 17:58 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane patuxai vientiene mixay_paradise nazim_indian Comments (0)

Cambodia to Laos...to Cambodia...to Laos....ARGH!

Never trust border guards.

overcast 27 °C

When we arrived in Kratie we booked seats on a bus from there to Nakasang in Laos. The bus was meant to leave at 12 the next day, great we thought, its 4 hours and we’ll be on Don Det for sunset. The next day came and the bus didn’t. In fact it didn’t come for two hours! When a bus did arrive, it wasn’t the one we’d been booked on, but another which was headed all the way to Vientiane. Fortunately this did mean it went past where we wanted to go so we got on board and headed to our.....beds! A sleeper bus in Cambodia, well there’s a first time for everything, though it would be a long way to fall from the top bunk!
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The main worry over the bus being late was whether we would be able to get a visa at the Laos border. We’d read a few blogs which had hinted the visa on arrival service only ran normal office hours (and god knows what they’d be in sleepy Laos!) so at the very latest we’d want to arrive at the border was 5pm. We’d opted to get a visa on the border rather than in advance because it was $55 from Siem Reap or anywhere from $20 to $35 on the day. A gamble, but a worthy one, we hoped.

So we set off in that hope but weren’t too impressed when the bus we’d literally just got on, stopped so that some people could use and ATM, and we were even less impressed when it stopped 5 minutes outside Kratie so the drivers could eat their lunch! Anyway, we were now 2 ½ hours late and 5pm didn’’t seem so far away. After a few hours of napping we woke up to find the bus had dropped even further behind schedule for some reason making our hopes seem desperate. At 5:30pm the bus slowed, and slowed and stopped in the middle of nowhere next to a field. People got off for the usual fag break but the truth seemed to come out when a random moto drew up with a big barrel of something golden. We’d run out of petrol! Once that was filled lo and behold the bus wouldn’t start which meant the people outside had to push the double decker down the road to jump start it! With a big cheer it appeared to have worked but it was now nearly 6 and was getting darker by the minute.

10kms and half an hour later we arrived at the Cambodian border to find.....noone there! We all stood around clueless until from the distance a few motos and a suitcase carrying man in uniform arrived. We handed them our passports and the customary $1 for the Laos immigration retirement fund and headed down the dark road to the Laos side of the border. By this point we were pretty convinced it was going to cost an arm and a leg to get across, with some people banding about figures of $70 or more! Amazingly when we got there a very friendly border guard greeted us and quoted “just” $36! PHEW! All our fears of having to spend the night on the road were gone. We handed him our visa papers and passports and went to wait at the next window......

“John?!” came the call from the window.
“Yes?”
“No stamp.”
“Sorry?”
“No Cambodia stamp”
“You what?”
“No Cambodia exit stamp, go back and get one and we give you Laos entry stamp.”
“Errrrrrrrrrrrrr”
So John ran back down the road, where he couldn’t see his feet for the darkness, to the Cambodian border, where of course they’d all gone home. He then ran back panicked and spoke to the bus drivers who didn’t speak the best of English. They told him they didn’t have their number to call. Panic x 10. The drivers then spoke to Laos immigration who suggested he leave his passport there, go to nagasang for the night and come and get it in the morning. Well Nagasang was only 40 minutes away but that didn’t seem like the best idea. The discussions continued.....
Then a moto appeared and John was told to get on board. He did and headed off into the night back towards Cambodia......
The driver of the moto was one of the staff from the bus, but even in the dark he drove like he was in the motogp. Not the most reassuring position to be in for only my fourth moto ride! We stopped at the first house on the nearly deserted road and the driver explained the situation. Of course the locals didn’t have a clue but motioned us towards a bungalow a way down the road. Reluctantly the driver got me back onboard and we headed off into the night. Next stop was a military barracks where a rather rotuned and cantankerous officer was summoned from his bed (without a shirt on I might add.) (Moobs I might further add.) He seemed fairly miffed but sent us even further down the road. As we walked back to the moto I realised the driver had been keeping my passport in the basket on the front of the moto, marginally less safe than my pocket, so I rescused it. As I got onto the moto the other officer turned off the generator for their house and we were plunged into almost complete darkeness and then the moto wouldn’t start.....
Here we go I thought! Middle of nowhere, soldiers, half a Laos visa, half left Cambodia, eugh, stressful. Fortunately it turned out the driver had just forgotten to turn the key on the moto, maybe I wasn’t the only stressed one. Next stop was a house. With dogs. Who barked. Alot. This was a mistake and actually we wanted the building across the street. Thankfully the dogs didn’t bite! This building was the immigration office and more semi uniformed men emerged to fix my exit stamp. In the end it was so simple to fix. A simple stamp and date. And this time it didn’t even cost me a dollar! How nice of them.....
Back onto the moto to head back to the bus which was hopefully still waiting for us. The driver seemed to go even quicker this time and I really thought we were going to fall off. As you’re reading this now you can see that I didn’t and the bus was indeed waiting. Hurrah! All it took was another $2 to pay for the moto (which incidently belonged to a random Laos 12 yr old who had happened to be passing) and I was able to reboard the bus, visa in hand, legally exited Cambodia, relieved and ready to be on an island somewhere peaceful.

So the bus set off again (hopefully for the last time!) and it wasn’t long before we were told to get off because we’d finally arrived at Nakasang, where a boat would take us to Don Det. Noone really explained how this would all work though so we were pretty much dumped by the side of the road, all 20 of us, in the dark. Nice. Before too long a man appeared from somewhere and told us to get into his truck for a ride to the water. It would cost $3 rather than $2, due to the late hour (7:30pm), but would include our boat to the island. Now the truck did have seats but after perhaps 5 of us had got on with our bags we soon realised all 20 of us were not going to fit....comfortably. With 5 on the roof and a big squash we did all fit and in 15 minutes we were at the jetty. A similar situation transpired with the boat (though no one on the roof this time) and I have no idea how we all managed to fit in the end! Once again we set off into the night, on water this time, and headed for the dim lights in the distance which we hoped were Don Det. We landed on the shore happy to have arrived. We weren’t picky about where we stayed for the night and found the first place we could which didn’t have a queue. 30,000Kip a night did us just fine, even if it did mean cold showers, no sink and a squat toilet, but we were here! 4 hours later than we should have been but legal and a little wiser!

Posted by Susiep539 19:15 Archived in Cambodia Tagged laos cambodia_laos_border laos_visa don_det Comments (0)

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