(Written by Dave)
Today’s goal was to cover the Lonely Planet Vientiane bicycle tour route. We made it about half way through before we fell to the heat and called it a day. They said that it would take 4 hours but we were either too slow or we took too many photos. Admittedly, we got off route a few times when we spotted something interesting.
The first stop on the tour was easy for us as the noted route started at our already favourite French bakery. I’m not sure what our daily croissant budget is but at least while we are in a bigger city, we’ll indulge. For those not familiar with Laos (which included us a day ago), Vientiane is the biggest city and national capitol. We are not sure what the croissant situation will be in the smaller towns so we feel we should make sure we get as many as we can while we are here.
We hired bikes for $1 USD per day. We were going to take out bikes but they have a much higher theft risk than the clunker one speeds. My hire bike had a very out-of-true front wheel and I couldn’t care less as it wasn’t my problem to fix. Anyway, back to the tour – we rode past the Royal Palace (not visible due to construction fences), then we swung by Wat Ho Phakeo (surrounded by a massive wall and the gate was closed). We were starting to think that the tour was a dud when we stumbled on a giant statue of an old king sitting right on the Mekong river. For some reason, this statue was not noted in the tour.
Next stop was the tourist information centre. They had some maps but all of them were larger scale than that we already have. They had some good information about the history of Laos though. I was not aware that Laos and Vietnam were both targets of the western anti-communist efforts as early as 1962. At least according to the material we saw, the US bombed 85% of the villages in northern Laos and many people there lived for in caves for up to 10 years. As you would expect, Vietnam and Laos are pretty close allies today.
From the tourist centre we headed for the Patuxai. This giant arch at the head of Lan Kang street is modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and from a distance it does look similar. The view from the top is quite nice and we were glad we decided to pay the small fee and climb to the top, other than the part where I whacked my head on the concrete circular staircase. I’m ok, no medivac required yet. The building is made of concrete (it is quite firm, as I noted previously, tested by my head), supposedly concrete donated by the US before the war that was targeted towards an airport runway. It looks and functions nothing like a runway – guess that’s what happens sometimes with foreign aide.
At this point, we were wearing down on being tourist but just down the street was an ANZ bank branch (that’s Australia New Zealand Bank, our home bank back in Australia). What luck we thought, we’ll withdraw money here without paying fees. Not so fast, they could not access our account at the teller window and we had to use the ATM and pay the fee anyway. Not sure what the point of having a branch here is but from our perspective it might as well have been any other bank. I can report however that we were successful topping up our funds. Nancy is charge of money and it is quite fun to watch her count these giant piles of money. Laos money is hard to manage. It comes in denominations of 500 to 50,000 but every note also has what looks like 6000 written on it. It is very hard to figure out which notes to use to pay for things. So far, we’ve not seen any Laos coins so at least the wallet will be lighter.
We stopped at the That Dam – a formerly gold covered stupa in the centre of town. It is a bit tired now, the gold is gone but it still holds some mystic. There is supposed to be a giant dragon lurking just below the surface but we managed to ride past without issue.
On the way to lunch at Via Via (pizza) we stopped at the Scandinavian bakery. You may at this point start to wonder if we are actually in Laos. We were warned that it is hard to get authentic Laos food here in Vientiane and this is proving the case. It does exist, but all we’ve missed all of these other tastes as we’ve travelled through Asia. Last night we even had a piece of pumpkin pie at another bakery – really, who can resist a piece of pumpkin pie so close to Thanksgiving? It was good pie too and I guess will have to do us for our Thanksgiving this year. At the Scandinavian bakery we picked a collection of Swedish cookies – Nancy getting a nice reminder of her grandmother’s treats.
We got “stuck” at Via Via again for the afternoon. Before long Mike and Ciska showed up, followed later by Sammy and Jesse. Then later in the afternoon, Dave the Brit rode past and I ran half way round the block to flag him down. The seven of us spent the afternoon exchanging more stories and just hanging out. Mike and Ciska are pretty amazing. Best I can tell, they been at this world touring gig for more than 20 years and the kids have travelled for much of their lives. It’s hard to name a place where they have not been. We particularly enjoy Sammy recounting his worst ever hotel rooms. Nancy is now thinking that we perhaps have not yet seen our worst – great, more joy to come! We are hoping that maybe all seven of us can meet up again for dinner tomorrow night. It looks like we’ll may split up on Thursday, with at least us planning on making tracks.
For dinner we are now looking for a quiet Lao meal. Not completely sure what this means but we hope to get something tasty, while equally important, looking to get the better dishes written in Lao language. The later being important for our time away from the city where English will be much less common.
Tomorrow we are planing, drinking coffee and eating croissants – wagers are still being taken on the croissant count.