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.
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).
Well, maybe not infuriate them exactly, but they sure got a little bent out of shape when they had to give up to their seats to us on the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
The morning Aon and I left Luang Prabang we got to the Nanluang Bus Terminal early to check in and get our tickets and food coupons for our bus ride back to Vientiane. Now, when you book a bus ticket through a travel agency, the travel agent makes a phone call to the bus terminal to reserve how many seats you need and then gives you a voucher for each seat which you then exchange for the bus ticket when you check in at the bus station.
That’s what happened when Aon and I booked our tickets at the travel agency in Vientiane. We had no problems checking in at the bus station in Vientiane the other day. We showed up, exchanged our vouchers and got our tickets. Seemed easy and efficient enough.
Now I am not too sure how efficient this system is because it is all done over the telephone. Maybe mistakes could be made like the one when Aon and I got on the bus the morning we left Luang Prabang.
When we went to the travel agency yesterday to reconfirm our bus tickets back to Vientiane, the travel agent made a quick phone call and then issued us our vouchers with our seat numbers 9 & 10 that we would exchange the next morning at the bus terminal. We weren’t given seat assignments when we bought our tickets in Vientiane; maybe they are only given out the day before you leave (Aon and I had bought our tickets to Luang Prabang five days before we left).
Anyway, we were the first ones to check in at the bus station the morning we left. While Aon waited in the bus (it was really chilly out) I waited at the window where you checked in. I didn’t have to wait too long. I handed the clerk our vouchers and he gave me our blue tickets. We were good to go. However, when I got on the bus, Aon told me that was two people sitting in our seats. Turns out the Swiss couple also had seat assignments for 9 & 10, but all they had were vouchers.
I tried to explain to them that they had to check in to get their blue tickets but the woman refused to give up her seat.
“These are our seats,” she said. “We have a reservation.”
“We did too, but you have to check in first,” I explained, “then you are given your seat assignment.”
“But we have a reservation for these seats,” she said and not too happily.
Hopefully her husband would be the voice of reason and he went to the window to check in. Now, I would have gladly given up our seats in exchange for the seats (7 & 8) that the Swiss couple would eventually get, but they were so rude to On and myself like we were the ones who caused the problem/mix-up in the first place.
Thinking that I might be of some help in clearing up this seat snafu, I went back to the window where I had gotten our tickets. The Swiss man got really angry with the ticket agent on the other side telling arguing that they had reservations for seats 9 & 10. The agent tried to explain that the travel agency that had promised the Swiss couple seats 9 & 10 was wrong and that they would be given other seats. Well, the Swiss tourist did not like this answer and told that agent that when people hear about this back home they are not going to want to come to Laos and so on and so on.
Like I said, I would have been more than willing to exchange our seats, but after the Swiss tourist started wigging out I decided not to and went back to the bus. Aon wanted to know what was happening and I told her to wait that everything was going to be okay; at least for us.
Eventually the Swiss couple moved after the husband had come back to the bus with their tickets, but they were still not too happy about it. They started talking to some other tourists about how messed up the system was and complained about how Laos used to be much better in the past. Maybe if they would have known that Aon was Laotian they might not have been so vocal about with their disdain.
As it turned out a few other tourists had the same problem; however, they had not been told to check in once they arrived. I don’t think it was that much of problem, but it is something that needs to be straightened out between some of the travel agencies at the bus terminal. Maybe once everything gets computerized it won’t be so much of a problem.
The Swiss couple was still fuming hours later and a few times, they shot us some cold icy glances as if it was all our fault for sitting in their seats.
If you do go to Luang Prabang and take a bus back to Vientiane (especially the VIP bus) buy your tickets early and get to the bus terminal early on the day you leave to check in. You should at least buy your tickets a few days in advance if possible.
Of all the Buddhist temples and historical sites in Laos—from Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaeo in Vientiane to Wat Phou in Pakse and Wat Xiang Thong in Luang Prabang—if there were one temple or place that would best highlight Lao’s Buddhist and historical heritage it would most certainly be Wat Xiang Thong.
To be sure, next to That Luang in Vientiane, Wat Xiang Thong is perhaps one of the best-known images of Laos as well as the most historic and enchanting Buddhist temple in the entire country.
Also known as the Golden Monastery, Wat Xiang Thong is located at the northernmost tip of the peninsula of “old Luang Prabang city.” You can enter the temple grounds from three entrances—one from Manthatoulat Road (it runs along the Mekong River and was the entrance that On and I took) another from Xiang Thong Road (the main thoroughfare which eventually becomes Sisavang Vong) or an entrance from a side street that can be reached from either Manthatoulat or Xiang Thong.
Near the northern part of Xiang Thong, the main temple or sim, which was built in 1560, dominates the rest of the monastery. To really appreciate this wonderfully gracefully building, you need to stand at a distance to get a view of the roof, the temple’s most outstanding feature and one that you will not find on any other temple in Luang Prabang, or for that matter all of Southeast Asia. Imagine if you will a bird with out-stretched wings (local legends say the roof resembles a mother hen sheltering her brood) and you get an idea of what this elegant roof looks like with its sweeping, curving lines.
Sadly, the weather was not cooperating today to guarantee any decent photos of the main temple. Although the gray skies made for a nice color contrast with the gold and dark wood of the structure, a deep blue sky with some bulbous white clouds would have been the perfect complement. It is hit or miss when the weather is concerned and having those great photos (I lucked out for example, when On and I went to That Luang in December or when we went to Wat Phou last July and the photos that I was able to take).
Aside from a large gorgeous Buddhist statute inside and other smaller statues, there’s this long wooden aqueduct or trough in the shape of a mythical serpent, Naga. During the Lao New Year water is poured into a receptacle in the serpent’s tale and spouts from its mouth. In addition you also should check out the motifs on the walls that depict a variety of tales including the Laos version of the Ramayana.
The other really cool, not to mention colorful aspect of the main temple is the exterior back wall which is covered with a mosaic depicting a legendary flame tree that stood on the site when the city was founded.
To the left of the sim is a small brick-and-stucco shrine (which is embellished with intricate purple and gold mirrored mosaics) containing a small standing Buddha—supposedly made of gold. Although the door was padlocked shut, someone had drilled a hole in the door so you could look inside.
Next to this small shrine, is a much larger shrine known as the Red Chapel. Although the mosaics covering this shrine might appear too modern to some, what really counts is what is enshrined here: a bronze reclining Buddha. Considered by many to be one of Laos’s greatest sculptures in bronze, the reclining Buddha image is thought to date from the sixteenth century.
There is one more important structure to check out before leaving Wat Xiang Thong (if you haven’t already after seeing the main monastery) and that is the golden Funerary Carriage Hall or haw latsalot. This modern religious structure, built in 1962, never fails to impress visitors (like On and myself) with its wide teakwood panels carved with depictions of Rama, Sita, Ravana, and Hanuman—all characters from Pha Lak Pha Lam, the Laos version of the Ramayana. Inside, the main article on display is the latsalot, the royal funerary carriage which was used to transport the remains of King Sisavang Vong to cremation along with other Buddhist statuary.
After having already been to the Royal Palace Museum, two smaller temples, and a walk along Manthatoulat Road, our visit to Wat Xiang Thong was the capstone to the first part of our walking tour of Old Luang Prabang. Give yourself at least an hour or ninety minutes when you visit here to have time to appreciate the beauty and charm of this magnificent temple.
That is what I thought last summer when I noticed the Hangul lettering cha-dong–mun or main entrance written on the door of the bus that On and I took from Savannakhet to Mukdahan, Thailand.
The only thing that I could think of at the time is that some bus company sold these buses to a bus company in Laos.
It’s the only thing that makes sense with the Korean lettering still visible on the bus door.
Well, I noticed the same Korean lettering for “main entrance” on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong this time. Obviously some company in Korea sold a lot of used buses to a bus company in Laos.
And then, I noticed more Korean lettering on the bus we took from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane as well as other buses at the Nanluang Bus Terminal (in fact, one bus still had the name of the bus company in Hangul written on the outside of the bus).
I am surprised that a lot of the Korean lettering and signs have not been removed inside of the buses or for the lettering on the sides of the buses painted over.