Luang Prabang had marked the halfway point of our trip, and we had managed to cover a lot of ground in just under two weeks. There had been a lot of moving with trains, buses, and boats, and all of them had seemed to have taken a long time to get from one point to another. As we began our journey back to the south with a visit to the capital city of Vientiane, we were staring down an approximate 10 hour bus ride over Laos’ questionable roads.
Considering our remaining time and wanting to ensure we stayed on schedule, we opted to forgo the long bus haul and instead flew from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which took all of about 40 minutes.
Both airports were relics right out of something you might have seen behind the set of Casablanca – without changes or upgrades. Thankfully, the plane was a little more modern. Vientiane airport was especially dated with its yellow walls and luggage carousel that protruded from a hole, out in a straight line. It was the only luggage carousel in the airport (which was really just a small room,) and was just a 15 metre-long old-school conveyer belt. “I guess this airport doesn’t see a lot of action,” Maria noted. I wanted to take photos, but whipping out my camera and taking pictures in a socialist capital’s tiny airport might not get me where I was going any faster.
We’d made a reservation ahead of time, and gave the name of the hotel to the taxi desk. They wrote up a chit and like that it was done. The hotel had wanted to charge us $15 USD for pickup. The airport taxi was $7.
Not far from the airport he brought us down a potholed back alley and through the gates of the hotel villa. It was old, but with a certain Laotian charm. Checking in, we were shown to our room and found it as we had always found pre-booked hotel rooms. Acceptable, but in no way exceptional. I think the biggest factor for me was that the door didn’t quite fit the frame. Both the top and the sides were askew, and I had to stuff the gaps to keep the swarm of mosquitoes out. Once that had been done, I went to work killing at least a dozen mogies that had found their way in.
I hate mosquitoes.
It should be said that I really, really hate mosquitoes. I haven’t mentioned it until this point, but who can stand being woken up in the middle of the night by the buzzing of mosquitoes as they try to get you in your sleep? My adrenaline starts pumping and I can’t get back to sleep, then I’m not sure if I should just get up, turn the lights on and hunt it down. Plus, they carry malaria and other diseases. And then the itchy part. So I would much rather stay in a room that has at least taken some preventative measures against them – screens, mosquito net over the bed, anything that can ensure I will actually get to sleep. Many places on our trip hadn’t bother to consider these things, and just shrugged off the mosquitoes as a part of the picture.
Our savior that night was a ceiling fan at the foot of the bed, between us and the door. I left it on all night and the air current barrier it created had served as a guardian from any mosquitoes that might have been left in the room.
We had been about a 15 minute walk outside of the city centre. It didn’t take us long to find it, through a seemingly sketchy area. I don’t know enough about it and probably never found any bad neighbourhoods, but I never felt unsafe in Laos. The same was for Thailand, except for our first night in Bangkok where I felt vulnerable in the crowded streets with the balance of our bags on our backs.
We knew we had found the city centre when we saw street after street with restaurants and tourist hotels. Having a quick glance around, it was quickly decided that we would be switching hotels the next day, in order to be closer to the action.
The city definitely had a different feeling than Luang Prabang. More urban. It was hard to see much since we were on foot and many things were closed down and metal-gated, but we would have a chance to explore the next day. There was a slew of restaurants on either side of us, and we opted for a place that had a small balcony overlooking the street. It was operated by a French ex-pat (surprise! Most of the tourists we saw in Laos were French) and it wasn’t priced on the cheap side, but again we didn’t really care.
Most of touristic Laos was not very cheap at all. Sure it’s cheaper than you might find in North America, but certainly not any cheaper than Thailand (perhaps more expensive,) and definitely not cheaper than South Korea – prices we have since become accustomed to. In Laos, most supplies have to be imported, so you are going to pay for that. Don’t go to Laos or Thailand expecting to pay dirt cheap prices unless you want to literally sleep in the dirt. If you want to travel and have any kinds of standards for where you want to stay you will find things are fair (if you’re not booking online.) They’re not really expensive, but it’s not cheap. (Okay food from a street cart is still cheap.) You can certainly always pay more for fancy hotels if you like. And with online booking, it must be said again, that you are paying for the reassurance that you have somewhere to stay when you arrive. Nothing more.
After dinner we did some enquiring at a few hotels and found, for the same price, places that were extraordinarily better. First thing in the morning, we grabbed our bags and sorted out the new room. Availability was low, so we upgraded a bit to the nicest room we’d had yet. Which was to serve me well later that night.
We rented bikes and decided to explore with a city map. My bike was a real hotrod. As I began to peddle I could feel the left side sticking a bit, and assumed it was a bent pedal shaft. Maria noted shortly after that my rear tire was completely warped, wobbling all over the road as we cycled around all day.
We’d decided to take a break from temple visits. It had been all temples all the time time since we’d arrived, so at least for this stop we’d decided to give it a break. Here’s what else we found:
The museum, no photos allowed inside.
The night before, I had spotted this intriguing antique and curiosity shop with a sign that read “coffee house” on the side. As we passed it in the day and saw its doors open, I figured it was a good time to get off the bikes. What treasure we found inside.
We’d bought some melon juice in a bottle the first night we were in Luang Prabang, which had been about 3 nights before. It had not been refrigerated after the first day. I figured I might as well get rid of it since we’ve been carrying around. So I mixed into a drink, and found that there were chunks of melon in it. By the time I finished it, I had forgotten that I hadn’t mean to swallow the fruit, but it was too late. Oh well.
I woke that night at about 3am with a throbbing in my stomach. I was hoping it would pass, but knowing it had been bad enough to wake me up wasn’t a good sign. Within a few minutes I was in the bathroom enjoying all the symptoms of food poisoning. I’d had an attack at 3, and another at about 5. For good measure I threw up again around 8.
I’d hoped that would be it, and that I would be okay to travel. We had already planned to check out early and get the 9am bus to Nong Khai, Thailand, which would have meant exiting at Laos customs and re-entering Thailand. The bus ride was only about 25km, but everything in between would require a certain amount of physical strength.
There was no way I was going to make the 9am bus. There was another one at 11, and I figured as long as I had a couple of extra hours to wait out my stomach, that I could probably make the trip. I’d never had food poisoning before, and was so grateful to have had Maria there to help. If it hadn’t been for her, no doubt I would have had to stay an extra day to recover. She packed our things and all I had to do was get dressed and drag my bags to a tuk-tuk, who took us to the bus station for some price I gladly paid.
In hindsight I can’t believe I made it to Nong Khai. We filled out our paperwork and shuffled through a line to exit Laos, re-boarded the bus, drove a few meters down the road to Thai immigration, and unloaded (with our bags, for possible inspection) to do it all again. Any other day it would have been a simple ninety minutes at best, but this day it took every bit of measured strength I could muster. By the time we had arrived in Nong Khai. I was better enough to regain my stubbornness and walk out of range of the bus stop and overpriced tuk-tuks with my luggage, until we found one that took us to our hotel for a more reasonable rate. The smells of street food however, were testing my will not to vomit with every step I took.