We’re back, bitches: Following the Mekong through southern Laos

Phnom Penh is often called ‘The Pearl of Asia’. So are Saigon and Manila. Hanoi is lovingly, if rather verbosely, referred to as the ‘Little Paris of the East’. Singapore is sometimes termed ‘The Lion City’.

What I’m getting at is this: a lot of major Asian cities have nicknames. Most of them, in fact. I’m sure Bangkok would have a decent alternative moniker if “Bangkok” itself wasn’t already a nickname (as a seasoned traveller, I prefer to use its proper and far snappier title of Krung Thep Maha Nakhon).

Vientiane, capital of Laos, emphatically does not have a nickname. It is not a city that has inspired much – if anything – in the way of prose, poems or music. The most effusive praise offered by Laos’ official tourism website is thus:

“For its size, Vientiane Capital is surprisingly multicultural.”

Even more damningly, the same website constantly writes the phrase “Vientiane Capital” in Comic Sans:

Before we rocked up in this unpromising city of 820,000 people, I did not have high hopes. Caroline had passed through on her last trip and described it as both boring and weird; an unlikely combination, and not one that set my pulse racing. We’d have avoided it altogether were it not for the fact that, given Laos’ somewhat sparse road network and virtual lack of train lines, it’s basically impossible to get from the north to the south without passing through the capital:

But to paraphrase acclaimed travel documentarian Alan Partridge: Can I just shock you? I like Vientiane. Despite what I just said earlier.

Vientiane

You’re probably wondering why, 250-plus words into my latest missive, I’m yet to take you on a mundane deep-dive into how we actually got to Vientiane. “Enough with your informative yet witty introductory monologue and flowery language,” I hear you wail, clawing frantically at your fleshy faces; eyes rolling back into your skulls; flecks of saliva raining down upon your iPhone screens*. “Give me an unnecessarily granular explanation of your transport experience or GIVE ME DEATH.”


*Google Analytics informs me that Mobile is our top traffic source, beating Desktop by a ratio of 1.5:1. Even my most seemingly throwaway asides have been extensively researched and are backed up by cold, hard data.


I shall keep you waiting no longer.

Despite being part of the key artery connecting two of Laos’ most important cities, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, the road from Vang Vieng to the capital is decidedly not good. For much of the distance, it winds precariously through rutted, forested terrain. Flatbed trucks laden with vast teak tree trunks – some no doubt felled by the country’s vast illegal logging industry – careen toward us in the eerily misty conditions. Visibility is terrible. At some points, we can’t see more than a few feet through the thick blanket of fog. It doesn’t dissuade our driver, who enthusiastically throws our ageing bus around hairpin bends and slaloms us between muddy potholes.

Three hours in, we pull over at one of Southeast Asia’s characteristically weird “service stations”. From central Myanmar to southern Cambodia, these roadside stop-offs universally comprise:

  • A small shop selling eclectically flavoured crisps and dusty cans of pop; 
  • A horrifying toilet that can only be entered by paying a disinterested elderly woman or tiny child sat at a desk;
  • A diner with a menu that only says something like “egg” or “meat”.

As I chow down on my ridged, spicy chilli squid-flavoured potato chips, a small wall-mounted TV broadcasts the stark, Jeremy Renner-fronted war drama The Hurt Locker, dubbed into Lao. Renner’s character has been given a booming Southeast Asian baritone – far deeper than the voices of his fellow cast members. It brings a distracting, barbershop quartet-esque surreality to the scene in which [SPOILER ALERT] Renner’s friend is eviscerated by an explosive booby trap. I would not recommend seeking out this version of the movie.

Jeremy Renner: “ເຄື່ອງລັອກຂອງຂ້ອຍແລ່ນໄປດ້ວຍຄວາມເຈັບປວດ”

Safely out of the woods and speeding through the mercifully flat expanse of the Vientiane Plain, we reached the capital within a couple of hours. I was immediately charmed.

As we’ve discussed ad nauseam, departing a bus in an Asian city generally sees you immediately surrounded by baying tuk-tuk drivers, snatching at your backpacks and insisting they’ll take you to your hotel, even though it is invariably “very far”. There was no such gauntlet to run in Vientiane; we simply picked up our bags and walked a couple of hundred metres to our – admittedly bizarre – accommodation (more on that later).

Astonishingly, the roads of downtown Vientiane are almost entirely absent of scooters. Motorists actually stop at red lights, instead of ploughing on regardless or taking to the pavement. With Hanoi and Saigon still fresh in our minds, it felt unreal to be able to walk around a large(ish) city, free of the constant nagging feeling that a scooter driver was about to mow us down, laugh in our faces, then charge us £25 each to fix our shoes.

This makes wandering the streets of Vientiane a genuine delight, rather than a panic attack-inducing ordeal. The pleasant experience is only heightened by the city centre’s plethora of charmingly rundown French colonial buildings, tree-lined boulevards, coffee shops, and – for reasons that never became clear to us – Scandinavian bakeries.

Even its Walking Street – a feature of almost all Asian cities, where hawkers implore you to buy their knock-off sports gear, “local handicrafts”, and street food of dramatically varying quality – is bafflingly laidback. As we strolled through, our pockets bursting with literally hundreds of thousands of kip, we attracted nary a second glance, let alone an aggressive scripted sales pitch. Instead, the stall-holders sat around chatting animatedly with one another, occasionally breaking off their conversations to watch as dozens of people gathered in the adjacent park for a mass aerobics session led by a flamboyant, middle-aged televangelist-looking man wearing a white suit and a head-mounted microphone. It was one of the most confusing experiences of our trip so far.

In short, Vientiane is sedate. If Bangkok is Las Vegas on speed, Vientiane is Brussels on tramadol.

But it wasn’t quite a picture of total serenity. The one metaphorical blood-curdling scream interrupting our metaphorical mindful meditation session was our accommodation. 

Our Southeast Asian hotel experiences had, up until this point, been a mixed bag – from glorious, porch-fronted bungalows surrounded by rainforest-like undergrowth, to tiny, dank rooms with crippling beds and mildewed bathrooms. None prepared us for the sensory assault provided by our Vientiane hotel (which, because I am not a vengeful man, I shall leave nameless).

One side of what I will generously call “the lobby” was entirely lined by floor-to-ceiling translucent plastic sheets; the owners were clearly in the process of knocking through into the neighbouring property. We were not, under any circumstances, permitted to venture Beyond The Plastic. Our room was located up several flights of car park-esque stairs, which started in what was recognisably a hotel – albeit one undergoing serious renovation – but ended in a Mock Tudor-beamed corridor lined with curtained internal windows. Along the way, you could step off the staircase at each level and enter a balcony-like area that, on closer inspection, was completely walled in by other buildings. It gave the place an unmistakably Escher-like quality. Already disoriented, our nerves were further jangled upon entering our room, where the plasterboard walls were liberally covered with what looked very much like fingernail scratches. We spent as little time there as possible.

A floor plan of our hotel

However, to reiterate, Vientiane was a low-key delight. With Caroline working on an impending deadline, I set off on foot one afternoon for a spot of sightseeing. It proved to be a rewarding, if sweaty, experience.

The city’s undemonstrative nature is best highlighted by its standout tourist attractions (of which there are, admittedly, not many). Whereas bus-loads of tourists queue up to visit Bangkok’s Grand Palace and elbow each other out the way to get the best picture of Angkor Wat, Vientiane’s sights are a little more unassuming.

View this post on Instagram

Patux-slay

A post shared by Phil Norris (@philnorris1985) on

Perhaps the most famous is Patuxai, a vast, Arc de Triomphe-esque victory gate built – somewhat passive-aggressively – to celebrate the nation’s independence from French colonial rule. It looks spectacular from a distance of 100 metres or so, but as you approach, it becomes increasingly apparent that: 

  1. The monument was never fully finished; and 
  2. It was built entirely from concrete, neither the most ornate nor aspirational of construction materials.

You can climb up to the roof by scaling several flights of dimly lit concrete steps and passing through perhaps the planet’s most oddly located marketplace, on the penultimate level. Scaling the monument set me back 3,000 kip – about 28p.

I then strolled to Wat Si Saket, another of Vientiane’s big-hitting sights. A 200-year-old Buddhist temple, it’s undoubtedly pretty. If it was located in Bangkok, it’d be rammed, with queues of people backed up behind velvet ropes waiting for a glimpse. But as it’s in Vientiane, I casually wandered in through what turned out to be the back door, thus inadvertently skipping the ticket office. No one noticed, or if they did, they didn’t care. To reiterate, it was not my intention to rip off the Buddha. As religious icons go, he seems like an all-round decent guy. I tried to pay on leaving, but there was no one around, so instead I shelled out double to visit another nearby temple, Haw Phra Kaew. I was determined to leave Vientiane with my karma intact.

In all, we passed three days in this high-octane, full-throttle city, including a memorable morning spent being lectured by an elderly English man with a decidedly Ruling Classes air about the myriad virtues of Brexit and the reasons why women shouldn’t be allowed to run businesses. We spent most of our time trying to extricate ourselves from the decidedly one-way conversation – we had work to do, and were eager to avoid discussing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – but we evidently made a great impression nonetheless; he was insistent that we stay with him at his house in Thessaloniki later in our trip (another SPOILER ALERT: we didn’t).

Ready now to move on, we set about planning our next move. Four months earlier, while staying in beautiful Kep, Cambodia, I’d been leafing through our hotel’s well-thumbed, decade-old copy of Lonely Planet’s Laos travel guide. It recommended visiting Si Phan Don in Laos’ extreme south. Better known (to Westerners, at least) as 4,000 Islands, it’s basically what it sounds like; a shitload of islands in the middle of the Mekong River’s widest expanse. Some are little more than sandbanks protruding from the slow-moving waters; others are criss-crossed with roads and dotted with villages. One even contains the remnants of a rail line; all that’s left of a short-lived and ill-fated attempt by French colonisers to bolster trade in this remote corner of Southeast Asia. It’s spellbindingly beautiful and – with the exception of the so-called party island of Don Det – also soul-soothingly relaxed. With a substantial batch of work to get done, we decided it’d be a perfect place to hole up with our laptops for a few days.

The one potential spanner in the works was the matter of how to get there. As discussed briefly in the introduction, there’s no easy way to reach southern Laos. In fact, it’s far simpler to get there from neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand than from within Laos itself. We eventually bit the bullet and settled on the least dreadful-sounding option: a 12-hour night bus from Vientiane to the small city of Pakse, where we’d spend a solitary night before catching a bus to take us the final three hours to Si Phan Don.

I famously loathe night buses. I consider it one of my defining qualities. Given the perilous state of Laos’ highway infrastructure, it’s reasonable to say I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the journey. As Caroline will no doubt atest, I was in a bit of a mood about the whole thing.

However, it was hard to stay mad for long. Not because I remembered how fortunate I am to be doing this whole travel thing – as a white man, I believe it’s my birthright to go wherever I want, at any time, and to earn money while doing it – but because of the antics of one of our travel companions, an elderly Hong Kong businessman who insisted his name was Charlie Brown (“LIKE THE COMIC BOOK!”).

Charlie Brown was nothing if not excitable. In particular, he was excited by the wealth of nationalities joining him on the night bus to Pakse. So excited, in fact, that whenever we stopped to collect another group of tired-looking, backpack-laden travellers, he would demand to know where they were from, then reel off the country of origin of everyone else on the bus at increasing volume (“England; Belgium; FraNCE; AMERICA; AUSTRALIA!!!!!!”). As a final flourish, he would then launch into a giddy, one-man rendition of the seminal USA for Africa song “We Are the World”. This went on for perhaps an hour. Ordinarily, I would obviously have hated Charlie Brown. But there, on that bus, at the start of a marathon journey, he was a breath of fresh air. That said, it was a relief when he eventually fell asleep.

Pakse

And so, 12 relatively comfortable but largely sleepless hours later, we found ourselves rolling into Pakse, a city located at the confluence of the Mekong and one of its countless tributaries, the Xe Don.

I don’t want to be unkind to Pakse – or, indeed, to anywhere in Laos. It’s a magnificent, beautiful country of wonderfully warm, laidback people. But that being said, it’s worth noting that the phrase “off the beaten track” isn’t automatically a recommendation. While it’s a useful transport hub for travellers journeying between Si Phan Don and the north, as well as being a short hop from the ancient Khmer ruins of Wat Phu Champasak, it’s hard to imagine the track to Pakse becoming significantly more beaten anytime soon. 

Given that I’m writing this more than a year after our visit, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to describe Pakse. The best I can come up with is “not unpleasant”. Despite having a population of about 120,000, making it practically a metropolis by southern Laos standards, there’s not a whole lot to see here. The city centre is laid out in a very un-Southeast Asian grid-like network. The dusty streets are numbered – “No.1 Road” intersects with “No. 10 Road”, which is bisected by “No. 46 Road”. It’s as if no one could be bothered to give them names. But, on the plus side, Pakse is dirt cheap, friendly, and packed full of transport companies; every second or third shop offers sightseeing tours, bus tickets, and motorbike rental. So perhaps the best thing I can actually say about Pakse is that it’s very easy to leave.

Don Khong

Deciding that one night in Pakse was probably sufficient, we departed the next morning for 4,000 Islands. As the name suggests, there are a lot of islands to choose from, but after extensive research (by which I mean “cursorily browsing Booking.com to find the nicest-looking affordable hotel”), we settled on Don Khong. Given that we had absolutely no intention of doing anything other than sitting by the pool, writing and drinking Beerlao for several days, it proved to be one of the best decisions of our entire trip.

Don Khong is extremely sleepy. It’s the largest of Si Phan Don’s islands, at about 11 miles long and five miles across at its widest point, but save for the occasional cluster of wooden houses, a couple of corner shops, and the odd temple, there is very little there. Despite this, its infrastructure is vastly better than the average Laos city, with smooth tarmacked roads and widespread, 24/7 access to electricity. Don Khong’s Wikipedia page sardonically notes that this is perhaps because the former president, Khamtai Siphandon, has a holiday home on the island.

Our hotel, Kongmany Colonial House, was embarrassingly beautiful – so much so that I promptly apologised to the receptionist for my slightly disheveled appearance. Built almost entirely from teak, it’s perched mere metres from the Mekong’s eastern channel. Where it flows through Phnom Penh, Vientiane and even lovely, leafy Luang Prabang, the Mekong’s colour is best described as muddy brown. But as it lazily surrounds Don Khong, the river takes on a blue-green tone that positively shimmers in the sun. 

View this post on Instagram

When that night bus was just really bloody worth it

A post shared by Caroline (@carolinemarie1988) on

Save for the endless clicking of cicadas, the occasional grizzling of a long-tail boat’s outboard motor, and the sound of youngsters jubilantly kicking a ball around on the football pitch down the road, there is no noise here. Buffalos wander aimlessly down the main street, unmoved by the rare appearance of a pickup truck or motorbike. It’s so quiet – and so bereft of tourists – that hotel and restaurant staff pull simultaneous shifts in multiple establishments, zipping between their various workplaces on scooters as required. That meant we were frequently left completely alone in our huge, colonial mansion, sitting on two immense wooden rocking chairs on our supposedly shared – but almost always empty – riverfront veranda. Even though I was working non-stop on a batch of 20 or so frighteningly dull and poorly paid articles about interview etiquette, CVs and tax codes, I’d rarely felt happier on the entire trip. Unsurprisingly, we extended our initial three-night stay – first by another two nights, and then by two more. Were it not for the fact that our Laos visa was coming to an end and we had plans to rendez-vous with my parents in Bangkok, we would undoubtedly have stayed for longer.

But, because we’re committed to demonstrating the infuriating lows of travel as well as the soaring highs (or possibly just because I’m a massive edgelord), I feel duty-bound to explain that not everything about our time on Don Khong was idyllic. Given that, besides us, there were perhaps two dozen travellers staying along the mile-or-so stretch that makes up the island’s main tourist hub, the nightlife wasn’t exactly electric. Only a couple of restaurants were open, and they were – frankly – not great. I ate pad thai on all but one of the nights we spent there, despite being fantastically bored of pad thai after four months in Southeast Asia. On the one night I ordered something different, I wished I’d ordered pad thai. 

However, that’s an extremely minor gripe. The bigger issue was the matter of leaving Don Khong. One, we didn’t want to leave – it was jaw-droppingly beautiful. And two, because we’d extended our stay so many times, we’d forced ourselves into enduring a 16-hour overnight bus journey to Bangkok if we were to arrive in time to meet my parents. And by “bus”, I mean “buses”. By the time we’d made it back to Pakse – supposedly just a two-hour drive from Don Khong – we’d already been in one pickup truck, a minivan and two buses. We don’t fully understand the logistics to this day, but we somehow ended up pulling into Pakse in the same minivan we’d been booted out of earlier in the journey. And that was before we found ourselves separated from our bus-mates at the Laos-Thai border, emerging on the Thai side to a sea of unfamiliar faces and with no idea what to do or where to go next. (PLOT SPOILER: the fact that I’m writing this from the comfort of my garden in Chorlton, and not from an internet cafe in a Thai border town, demonstrates that we didn’t end up stuck there indefinitely).

Finally, I’d like to end this blog with a commitment to you, dear reader. Google Docs tells me that I started writing this entry on 25th July; I’m finally finishing it on 5th April. That’s 255 days, at a rate of just under ten words per day. But given that the coronavirus pandemic has both eroded our workload and reduced our social diary to “going for a run” and “attending / organising online pub quizzes”, I assure you that the next entry will appear markedly quicker. And there are some absolute bangers to come, because we’ve got a brief return to Thailand up next, followed by comfortably the most batshit country we visited in our 13-month grand tour – Myanmar.

If you enjoyed what you just read, why not give us a follow?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *