First I asked, “What’s a Korean bus doing in Savannakhet?”
Then, I asked, “What’s up with more Korean buses in Laos?”
Now, I want to know what’s an AK-47 doing on the VIP bus On and I took from Luang Prabang to Vientiane?
I didn’t notice at first when On and I got on the bus, but later, when the bus stopped for everyone to get something to eat, that is when I noticed it.
From what I have read and heard from some people, some robbers have held up some buses from the Hmong hill tribes that you pass along the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And in the past, there have also been a few murders.
That’s probably why there was an AK-47 behind the bus driver’s seat.
When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus. If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai).
On the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong.
On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane though a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue.
The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai.
Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.
One thing that there’s definitely no shortage of in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are tuk-tuks plying the streets. You can’t walk down the street (at least in Vientiane) without a tuk-tuk driver inquiring where you are going and if you want a tuk-tuk.
If you have already been to Thailand you know all about tuk-tuks (called tuk-tuks because of the sound they make, or so I have been told) and that they are a cheap form of transportation for short distances, not to mention a practical mode of transportation for weaving in and out of Bangkok’s notorious traffic gridlock.
In Laos, it’s a different story though when it comes to taking a tuk-tuk. First of all, unless you have to go somewhere far—like the bus station or airport—in Vientiane or Luang Prabang you don’t really need to take a tuk-tuk and you are better off walking or renting a bicycle (or motorcycle). Most places in Vientiane (and to a lesser degree Luang Prabang) can easily be reached on foot.
Lao tuk-tuks are generally of the Phnom Penh style (I had no idea that tuk-tuks had different styles). They come as tuk-tuks or Jumbo tuk-tuks. Jumbos have a larger 3 or 4 cylinder 4 stroke engine, many are powered by Daihatsu engines. While the smaller tuk-tuks carry similar loads to Cambodian tuk-tuks, and are geared similarly. The Jumbos’ larger engine and cabin size allow for greater loads (up to 12 seated people at a squeeze) and higher top speeds. Jumbos are almost without exception only found in Vientiane. A few Thai tuk-tuks (fully enclosed cabin) have also made their way to Vientiane.
(Phnom Penh tuk-tuks are one piece—the front end of a motorcycle comprising of steering, tank and engine/gearbox with a covered tray mounted at the back. The power is transferred by chain to an axle mounted to the modified rear fork which drives the two rear wheels. Suspended upon the rear fork is an open cabin with an in-line seat on each side. This arrangement can carry 6 people at ease, with their luggage in the leg space.)
Most of the tuk-tuks you see on the streets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the smaller ones; the larger ones are found around markets and the bus stations.
If you are not in the mood for a lot of walking you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day (the drivers have a price list for the fares to all the major attractions in Vientiane.) The fares are a little pricey, though. For example, the fare from Patouxai to That Louang was 100 Baht. Unless you really want to be taxied around Vientiane be ready to shell out a few hundred Baht.
If you are lucky though, you might come across a tuk-tuk driver who will give you a good rate for a few hours. On and I found such a driver who only charged us 500 Baht to go to Buddha Park (23 kilometers outside of Vientiane) and would have taken us all around Vientiane to all the major sites for the same price. It pays (pun intended) to shop around when it comes to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day.
However, for those farther distances you have to rely on a tuk-tuk to get them. And when it comes time to take a tuk-tuk you have to be careful with how much the driver tries to charge you. For example, when On and I wanted to go the bus station from the Inter City Hotel, the tuk-tuk driver said it would cost 200 Baht when it normally costs 150 Baht. Also, if you are in Vientiane, the tuk-tuk drivers that ply Fa Ngum Road (the road that runs parallel to the Mekong River) tend to ask for more than if you catch a tuk-tuk on a side street.
Now, I know what you are thinking—what’s a few hundred Baht for a tuk-tuk especially when you have just traveled halfway around the world and spent a thousand or more dollars to get to Laos, right? After all, that few hundred Baht you shell out for a tuk-tuk is probably not going to make too much of a dent in your budget but it could make a big difference for the driver.
On the other hand, I think some tuk-tuk drivers start off quoting a higher fare to see what you will do, if you are in the mood for a little haggling or if you simply don’t mind paying a little extra. They are not out to rip you off or anything. It’s all part of the travel experience and if you do pay a little more the next time you might get a better deal.
Still there are some tuk-tuk drivers who give the whole tuk-tuk driving business a bad name and those that you have to watch out for—like the one who took On and I back to the Inter City Hotel in a jumbo tuk-tuk after we had come back from Luang Prabang. This tuk-tuk driver was definitely a hustler and almost got into a fight with another tuk-tuk driver over some passengers.
We had just gotten off the bus and were looking for a smaller tuk-tuk when this driver came up to us, grabbed my suitcase and asked where we were going. On had no sooner answered Inter City Hotel when the driver tossed my suitcase into the back of the jumbo tuk-tuk and went to round up some other unsuspecting passengers. Within a few minutes the tuk-tuk was full (including the Swiss couple who didn’t want to give up their seats on the bus) but the driver wanted a few more fares and tried to steal a “fare” from a rival tuk-tuk driver.
At this point we hadn’t even talked about the fare. On and I were thinking that it would be 150 Baht. At least that is what we thought. Fortunately the driver got our destination right and we were the first passengers to be dropped off and it turned out that the fare—40,000 Kip—was about right; however, the tuk-tuk driver said he had no change and made another 10,000 Kip because On only had a 50,000 Kip bill to pay him.
If you do want to take a tuk-tuk when you are in Vientiane or Luang Prabang be prepared to haggle a little. If you do end up paying a little more when you think you should have paid less, just think of it as part of the travel adventure you are on in Laos.
One of the more interesting and perhaps one of the oddest things you will come across while you are visiting Luang Prabang is an anti-aircraft gun on top of Phu Si.
Located on a crest on the southeastern side of the summit, this Russian anti-aircraft gun was most likely lugged up Phu Si during the Second Indochina War; either that or it was brought in by helicopter.
It is definitely worth checking out either on your way up to the summit or on you way back down. You can get on it and give it a spin for a makeshift merry-go-round ride.
The Royal Palace Museum, also known as Haw Kham or the “golden hall” is located pretty much in the center of town and a good starting point for your exploration of old Luang Prabang. Built by King Sisavang Vong as his official residence between 1904 and 1909, after the previous palace was destroyed in 1887 by invaders, the Royal Palace is an aesthetic fusion of Lao and French styles.
You don’t have to be an architecture aficionado to appreciate the beauty and the layout of this building (a cruciform on a multi-tiered platform)—its aestheticism is in the blend of traditional Lao motifs and French beaux-arts styles. As you walk up the Italian marble steps look above at the entrance (if you haven’t done so already) to get a glimpse of a three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol, the symbol of the Lao monarchy.
Upon entering the palace (after having first paid the entrance fee, taken off your shoes, and stowed your bags and cameras in lockers in a small room on the left side of the building) the first room you are in is a large entry hall that has a number of royal religious objects. From there visitors are directed to the king’s reception room which among other artifacts on display includes Gauguinesque paintings depicting what appears to be daily life in Old Luang Prabang.
After leaving the king’s reception room you enter the Throne Room noted for its high walls spangled with intricate multi-colored mosaics (it’s too bad photography is not allowed inside because these mosaics which were created in the 1950’s to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s passing into nirvana are quite awesome).
In contrast, as you move to the rear of the palace, the banquet hall and Royal bedrooms are simply decorated in white with teak wood furnishings.
In addition to a collection of rare Buddha images made from crystal and gold in glass cases, there are plenty of royal treasures to admire. The collection of royal regalia includes swords with hilts and scabbards of hammered silver and gold as well as the king’s own elephant saddle.
The most important item at the Royal Palace Museum is the Pha Bang Buddha image. This is the Buddha statue that gave its name to Luang Prabang. This statue is only 83 cm high, but is made from almost pure gold weighing between 43 to 54 kg of gold. According to legend, the statue was made in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD, and was presented to the Khmers of Angkor. The King of Angkor, Jayavarman Paramesvara, gave it to his son-in-law, the great warrior Chao Fa Ngum, who founded the first Laotian Kingdom of Lan Xang. The Pha Bang Buddha was housed at Wat Wisunalat between 1513 to 1707, when King Phothisalat moved the capital to Vientiane.
On your way out of the museum you pass through a reception room that contains gifts from nations including—perhaps one of the more interesting gifts presented by then U.S. President Richard Nixon—some pieces of moon rocks from the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Also worth noting the gifts from grouped by “socialist” and “capitalist” countries.
Before leaving the Royal Palace Museum most everyone stops at Haw Pha Bang, the Royal Palace Chapel that is supposed to house the Pha Bang Buddha one day. Construction of this chapel had started in 1963, but due to numerous upheavals, it was just completed two years ago in 2006.
It features a spectacular red and gold-mirrored interior; with some Khmer influence in the windows, doors and figures. The focal point is an immense altar with gilded eagles and a pair of Nagas facing the door. The wood doors were pivoted at two points top and bottom with the central panel bearing a close similarity to the ones seen in stone on many of the temples in Cambodia.
Despite the chapel’s modern appearance it reflects the Khmer influence in Laos’s art and architecture (Laos was part of The Khmer Empire from the 10th to 14th centuries).
And miles to go before I sleep.
Sitting here in the CIP Lounge—the same one I sat in 11 days ago—having something to eat and drink for the next two hours. Then I will be asked to leave and I will have to find another place to hang out for the next five hours before my flight to Incheon departs.
And of course, I am missing On very, very much.
As soon as she saw me off at Wattay International Airport a few hours ago there was already that sinking feeling in my chest; my heart already weighing heavily feeling the sadness of having to be away from On again. And this time the waiting is going to be longer—four maybe five months before I am back here again. Don’t even want to think about that now. Just going to have to take one day at a time again and hope the days and nights pass by quickly.
Have a lot to write about this trip to Laos, especially the three-day trip On and I took to Luang Prabang, which ended up being only one day for us to explore the city, but that’s okay. We’ll be back there again soon.
Now I have to get myself psyched up for teaching. I’ll get into Incheon tomorrow morning at 6:00 and then catch a bus to Daejeon. Be back in the classroom teaching again at 5:00pm.
In the meantime, it’s going to be a very long night with miles and miles to go before I sleep.
After just a few hours of sleep at a small guest house near the southern bus terminal in Vientiane, On and I were back on the road to Luang Prabang at 8:00am.
We’re on one of these so-called VIP buses which means we’ll be riding in a little more comfort than the bus we were on last night with half of the windshield gone and freezing all the way from north of Savannakhet. There are the complimentary bottles of water, snacks, and moist towelette to freshen up as well as lunch at a roadside restaurant four hours into the journey. There’s a television at the front of the bus, but it’s more Thai karaoke favorites. That’s okay. I’d rather be looking out the window at the countryside.
And what countryside it is.
The fertile rice paddies and small farms outside of Vientiane soon give way to gently rolling hills and then, as if some powerful forces of nature uprooted the terrain these rolling hills and foothills metamorphose into jagged towers of limestone. Vegetation clings to these rocky, craggy edifices. Clouds skirting across the tops of some of the taller ones create an ethereal misty visage.
I snap a few photos as the bus snakes its way up one of mountains hoping that at least one will turn out decent. One does.
Beautiful country. Too bad the bus doesn’t have time to stop for a few minutes for us to take some better photos. I envy the bicyclists and motorcyclists we pass along the way who can stop whenever they want to and enjoy the breathtaking views.
Along the way there are many small thatched-roof huts and similar structures hugging the side of the cliffs—no doubt the dwellings of the Hmong and other hill tribe people living up here. Small children, seemingly oblivious to the deep valleys below run between some of the dwellings laughing and yelling. A mother, with one breast bared nurses her child. A group of men come down from one of the mountain tops carrying stacks of wood on their backs. One child, standing along side of the road stares at our bus as it passes. What does this child think we he sees all the foreigners inside staring out?
The bus winds up another peak and down another. The bus trip is supposed to take eight hours. Maybe nine.
It’s probably better to fly up here for 60.00 plus dollars if you are short on time but the bus ride is definitely worth the chance to see all this natural beauty.
Our driver seems pretty skillful the way he handles some of the sharper curves. He takes them quite well and the ride is quite smooth for us.
It gets a little foggy at one point which reminds me of the Great Smoky Mountains.
That’s how long it took On and I to get from Vientiane to her village—Paksong—about two hours south of Savannakhet.
We left Vientiane at 12:30 on the Vientiane-Pakse bound bus and didn’t get to Paksong until after midnight. It only cost On and I 80,000 Kip each for our tickets (about 300 Baht or $10.00), which is pretty darn cheap when you consider that it cost us 150 Baht for the tuk-tuk to the bus station.
It was a long, slow journey with the bus stopping many times to pick up or let off passengers. At one point, the bus stopped for passengers to take a pee break along side of the road. Along the way the bus also stopped periodically for passengers to get something to eat from roadside stands selling the usual road food fare, including, but not limited to a quarter grilled chicken on a stick, green mangoes, sticky rice, roasted sweet corn, and for the first two food pit stops, loaves of French baguettes (only 4,000 Kip, about 50 cents).
Usually for a long bus journey a video or two are shown on the bus’s TV, but on this journey there would be no movie or video. However, when the bus stopped at the Tha Khaek bus terminal, one of the bus attendants (these two guys that help with the luggage and sell tickets) popped in this karaoke video of Thai pop favorites. Fair enough, but perhaps a little risqué for the majority of the passengers because this video featured scantily-clad and big-bosomed Thai ladies in some very provocative poses in sports cars, on horses, and what cracked me up riding an ultra-light kind of aircraft (minus the wings) with her breasts bouncing up and down. I guess a few other passengers on the bus caught the humor of it all and also started to laugh.
On said that it should take around 10 hours to get to Paksong, but not this trip. We didn’t get to Savannakhet until after 10:30 and then we had to change buses. On told me that when a bus is not full, the bus company sometimes has the passengers get off and get on another half-full bus to save money. Unfortunately for us, we would be the ones getting off the bus and getting another bus: there was another Vientiane-Pakse bound bus waiting for us when the bus we were on arrived in Savannakhet. Kind of a drag having to get on another bus.