With just over two weeks left of our trip we we’re still being dictated to by the weather which meant that most of the Island ’s off Thailand were still predicted to have rain.
So, the only way was up.
The further North we went, the better the weather prospects were.
Having discounted Myanmar because if the increased tension there between the Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslims we decided to revert to our original plan and head for Laos.
We flew from Bangkok DMK airport to Wattay International Airport in Vientiane on an Air Asia flight for 5184 Baht.
To get into Laos you need a Visa and as we hadn’t secured one in advance we had to get a ‘Visa on Arrival”.
As it turned out, this required us filling in two additional forms both of which contained identical information.
However, to make thing’s fun, they don’t give you the form’s until everyone is in the queue, then when the first person get’s to the counter and is asked for his form we all go into melt down.
There was a surge toward a little guy in a green uniforms who was wearing a big grin and clutching (very importantly) the necessary form.
Then everyone is trying to fill out the forms whilst stood up, which is impossible as you need your passport details your flight details, the address of your hotel in Vientiane and its telephone number as well as some other obscure info like ’who is your point of contact in Laos’?
There was then a mass exodus from the queue to anywhere with a flat surface. Pens became the most sought after commodity and there was a lot of confusion as many of us didn’t understand the questions on the forms and didn’t know what information was being sought.
Like most crisis, it eventually passed and we found ourselves back in the queue equipped with the correct form, the passport Photo, our passport’s and $35 US.
There is an ATM machine in the arrivals area so you can get Lak and despite what you are told before arrival, you can pay for the visa using Lak as well as Dollars.
You hand you paper work to one grumpy uniformed lady behind the counter, then shuffle along to the next window where a grumpy uniformed bloke look’s at you, then you shuffle along to a third window where you hand over your money and a third Grumpy bloke hands back your passport, hopefully with the visa fixed securely in it.
Next is Immigration where you queue up and when its your turn you step forward, hand over your passport with the new visa and then your sent away to fill in yet another form that requires the same set of information yet again.
Ever heard of computerisation?
Eventually, having used up a whole forest of paperwork and wasted at least an hour you are finally through and you can go find your baggage which by now has been circulating on a Carousel for so long all the contents have been thrown to the outside like a salad spinner.
We did contact the Hotel through bookings.com web site and ask about the Airport Shuttle bus they advertised but they never got back to us so we used an airport Taxi which was relatively cheap and easy.
There is a desk in the departure lounge with a big sign saying ‘Taxi’ and we showed the guy the address of the Hotel, paid him the agreed amount and followed our driver to his car.
There was some confusion when I gave the guy more money than he had asked for (there is always a lack of small change, small denomination notes are like gold dust so use them wisely) and got no change.
When I asked for it he initially suggested I had given him the right money, then offered 10,000 Lak refund before eventually and grudgingly, handing over the correct 30,000 lak.
We’d booked 4 nights at the Don Chan Palace Hotel for $300.
We chose this Hotel which is some way outside of Vientiane because it had a swimming pool and a Gym (more about that later) but the sensible option would have been to book one in the centre of Vientiane as getting in and out is a bit of a chore.
In fact, the sensible option, with hindsight would be to skip Vientiane altogether as its just not a tourist destination.
The Hotel has a shuttle bus, but there are some strange rules surrounding its use.
The bus only runs every two hours. 10, 12, 1400, etc.
If you want to use it you have to book seat’s (even though in most cases it is completely empty) you can’t just hop on and hop off.
If no one is booked on it, it doesn’t run, as we found out when we waited for the 1415hrs pick up from the Town centre, which obviously never came.
If you want to use it at other times (say 11am) it costs you $10 yet a Tuk-Tuk will take you in to town for 30,000 Lak. (About £3 ).
The Hotel itself is Huge. I mean Iron Curtain Huge.
It sits alone on a site in complete isolation, well, except for the Karaoke bar between it and the Mekong River. Our room looked out across the Karaoke bar to the river beyond so we were treated to some of the vocal highlights on most days.
It classes itself as Five Star and the Lobby probably is. Its the size of a football pitch (or that other measure of space) half the size of Wales.
All Marble floors, Chrystal Chandeliers and fancy seating.
Sadly the rooms (at least the one they put us in) aren’t as grand.
The room’s are big but they are Soviet in design. Heavy wood work, dark colour’s and the weirdest bed side table I’ve ever seen. It looks like a relic from the 60’s. A piece of the original Sputnik space craft with wonderful switches that control most of the room’s lighting.
Though you still have to get out of bed to switch off all the lights.
There’s a balcony but the doors don’t seem to close properly allowing the Mosquitoes unlimited access and they are single glazed which doesn’t shut out the noise.
This evening we were introduced to a new pleasure.
At 0330 hrs we were woken by a sonic boom. Well, several actually.
When we looked out the window there was a pick up truck with a full sound system mounted on the back and a light show that would grace the Pyramid stage. It had parked on the main road (Which appears to be a hang out for the Cool Kids in Vientiane) and decide to give a free concert to a dozen car’s full of local Youth’s, plus me and Jaki.
The TV set is also ancient. A big lump of a thing which show’s everything in shade’s of Pink which is quite illuminating and the shower prefers cold to lukewarm rather than the usual hot and cold.
But its big.
There are apparently five restaurants here but to date we’ve only found one and that’s where we have breakfast.
Yesterday I didn’t make breakfast as i was wrestling with the effects of the Malaria tablets that we started taking two days before entering Laos.
So this morning was my first foray and it was under whelming.
Most of the dishes are obviously targeted at Asian Customers (there are very few Westerners staying here) so there are lot’s of bowls of Noodle soup. These are served fresh and hot and there are staff there cooking and serving them at all times.
In a row down the centre of the Huge restaurant are a row of silver heated tureen’s which should, according to the label’s, contain things like, ‘Fish in Tomato sauce’ and ‘Grilled Pork and Mushrooms in Black bean sauce’.
These were obviously very popular because at 0930 they were all gone and no one was bothering to replace them. There was though, still plenty of boiled rice.
There was though plenty of fruit, some rather delicious Yoghurt, plenty of toast and no queue for the toaster. Small doughnut ring’s that were great with the yoghurt, local Jam and Honey and a Rotti stall but no one manning it.
On our last morning there was a pile of cooked Rotti’s but they were cold.
If you come to Asia one thing you wont get is a decent cup of English tea, which is why we’ve been carrying our own tea bag’s and why their loss was such a blow to team moral.
This morning, I asked for tea and got a cup of Luke warm grey liquid. There was no Milk provided, and i had to ask for a tea spoon.
They don’t seem to use tea spoons, we had to eat our Yoghurt with a soup label.
They also don’t like litter and removed my plate whilst i was still eating my toast but it was nearly 0945 after all and breakfast did finish at ten.
Stickler’s for rules.
The Hotel does say ‘English spoken’ but I suggest you take this with a pinch of Snuff.
We have found it quite difficult making ourselves understood. I know we English always expect everyone else to learn our language without ever bothering to learn their’s but here, I’m not sure we are going to get fluent in 7 days?
So making your self understood has been a challenge.
Like when I went down to the 24 hour restaurant and tried to order a Burger. I showed them the picture on the menu, I even paid them but then I stupidly asked whether I had to wait for it or would it be delivered to my room?
This caused total panic in the restaurant which spread to the kitchen like an outbreak of Zika Virus, in the turmoil they kept getting my room number wrong. As I hadn’t eaten for 24 hour I was keen that the burger arrived at my room and not next door where the Chinese couple wouldn’t welcome it as much as me.
In the end I returned to my room and waited, but it didn’t arrive. I phoned room service but the lady told me to phone reception. I phoned reception and they told me to phone room service.
At this point there was a knock on the door and my Burger arrived. Cold but looking gorgeous.
Then there was the issue with the Gym. (Told you I’d get round to this).
I went in there on the first evening, keen to maintain my new fitness regime.
There are a lot of running machines a couple of benches and some rather sorry looking loose weights plus three multi-gym’s.
I settled for a leg press machine, set the seating at the required height, put the rather disfigured pin in the rack of weights at a comfortable weight and pressed.
What happened was rather unexpected.
Instead of the base plate moving downward away from me the seat pin came adrift and I found myself hurtling backwards. The seat then can to a sudden stop, throwing my body backwards at which point my back bent in a new way and my neck twisted at a funny angle.
I had, for all intents and purposes, given myself a ‘whip lash injury’ which lasted for four day’s with a pain in my neck and shoulder and a headache for which I’ve been taking pain killers ever since.
So, i went down to reception to complain. The people in reception were very nice, smiled a lot but didn’t have a clue what i was talking about.
One didn’t know the Hotel had a Gym!
Undeterred I asked to see the Duty Manager, a rather dapper fellow in a blue suit, black shoe’s one size too big and a Filofax.
I explained the situation and referred him to the guest welcome pack that says they ‘Guarantee that guests will have an enjoyable experience in the gym’.
He smiled, made that face (the one you have on ‘ Who wants to be a Millionaire’ when Chris Tarrent ask’s you the million pound question and your mind has gone blank) then asked if they really had a Gym ?
Despite his assurances that the dangerous equipment would be removed it was still there the next day when we went for a swim.
The pool is a nice size, its very Big, clean and never very busy.
Primary because the water temperature is just above freezing.
The pool has been designed on the 3rd floor so that the sun never shines on it, protect as it is by the 4th floor, so it never gets warm.
The mastermind who designed this also installed floor tiles that are like ice when wet so movement is strictly limited.
Our stay at the Don Chang included Free Bicycles which would make getting around easier.
So we booked two bikes for 11am on the 28th November.
Excited to get out of the town we packed a bag and set out to reception where we were met by a bloke in a lovely blue suit and a smile who took us to find our trusty steeds.
The good new’s was: There were 4 bikes available.
The bad new’s: They were all defective.
One had the saddle on it’s lowest setting so my knees were up under my chin and it had rusted in place.
Two had no brakes, which seemed to surprise our Hotel Representative.
Not that it didn’t have brakes, but that we should require them.
The third he conceded readily wasn’t suitable to ride as it only had one pedal.
We abandoned the cycle ride and set out for a walk.
Now Vientiane is a nice town. If you were an ex-pat working abroad this might be a good placement. Its clean, its quiet (to the point of boredom) its relaxed, in fact there just isn’t anything happening at all.
As a tourist attraction it’s got nothing going for it. You could (jaki did) see everything worth seeing in a day.
Even the night market is quiet. Theres no atmosphere and certainly none of the razzamatazz of Thai market’s. Oh how I miss Thailand.
The people are different too. They are quieter, more reserved, less confident and as they don’t speak much in the way of English, so don’t (or can’t) engage with us at any level.
You cant have the ‘Crack’ with them to use an Irish expression.
So the morning I find myself sat in the Temporary Domestic Departure lounge at the Airport, waiting for my flight to Luang Prabang, which were hoping will be more interesting.
The Wifi doesn’t seem to be working and the staff are at best disinterested. Its all a bit strange.
There is a guying in the queue carry about 20 French sticks and a bottle of beer as carry on luggage and a groups of ladies in their best clothes who are clearly having a great time which they are recording copiously on their mobile phones.
Our flight is at 1215 so we got up early in order to catch the shuttle bus to the airport.
We decided to give the breakfast one last try.
Luckily we did cause they had ‘boiled cauliflower in black bean sauce’ on the menu. Yum Yum!
The fried eggs were still runny but that’s how they seem to like them. The Yoghurt (their best offering) had run out but there was toast and plenty of noodle soup!
They did provide a cup of boiling water (though they did have to get one of the managers before they could decipher what I was asking for) for my Tea bag and they did eventually find a Tea Spoon, so all was well.
However, I will be glad to leave Vientiane.
It did nothing for me and didn’t deliver what little it promised.
There are some nice restaurants and a few nice bar’s but mostly its dull and un-inspiring with very little to offer.
Its not even cheap. everything has to be imported as they are land locked, so this is reflected in the price’s.
If your traveling, I would suggest considering giving this a miss, there are much more inspiring places to visit, where the people are far more engaging and friendly.
This just isn’t one of them.