Tuesday, September 9, 2008

From Vientiane to Savannakhet – Encounter with Laos' Arctic Zone

Vientiane's only shopping mall - Talat Sao Mall along Lane Xang.

The decision to cross the Thai city of Mukdahan from Savannakhet’s Friendship Bridge 2 is a brave whim. I was already in Vientiane, Laos’ capital, where a convenient border crossing to Thailand’s Udon Thani is just a bus ride away. Most backpackers take this route. The Friendship Bridge 1 is a road well taken. But I wanted to check out the city of Savannakhet which is located some 450 kilometers south of Vientiane. 

There are few literatures on this city, even from Lonely Planet. Most of which misleadingly refer to it as the financial capital of Laos, much like the Philippines’ Makati City. From the get-go, such pronouncements would conjure a cityscape fraught with high rises and skyscrapers that reach the heavens, but of course, I am aware that Laos isn’t known for such. And comparison with Makati is, at best, a pipedream. No, sir. Not even in the capital, where the tallest edifice I’ve seen is the Talat Sao Mall – a shopping complex reminiscent of Ali Mall in Cubao sans the movie houses. It’s probably closest to Manuela (now refurbished with a swankier name – Star Mall). The mall’s glass covered facade directly faces Lane Xang, perfectly situated at the hustle and bustle of the morning market (talat sao) located just behind it. The bus depot (where tickets to the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge 1 could be purchased) is also situated nearby.

Upon my return from the Buddha Park, I decided to check out the mall and buy some vcds on lao tourism, as well as some local cds for posterity. Then I decided to go back to the Lao National Museum. This time around, it was already open, thank goodness. I paid for the entrance fee (10,000 kip or $1.25) and left my backpack at the counter (cameras and bags aren’t allowed inside, like most national museums). I was fixated on seeing a Jar sample; straight from the enigmatic Plain of Jars up north which I wasn’t able to visit (just didn’t have enough time). I thought a real “jar” at the museum would suffice – for now.


For the unfamiliar, the Plain of Jars is a large area extending around Phonsavan where huge jars of unknown origin – or purpose – are scattered about in over a dozen groupings. All jars have been fashioned from solid stone, carved from solid borders of different sizes and shapes. Out of the 20 known sites, five major sites have been properly sealed, and most tourists are allowed to see 3 of these sites. In reality though, a tourist would be lucky to visit more than 2. Individual visits are not allowed. A backpacker has to book with a local tour group. The reason behind this is to assure the safety of the guests. This site is one of the most bombed areas during World War 2 and many unexploded bombs are still believed to dormantly sleep in these fields, waiting for innocent detonators. Historically, Laos is the singular most bombed site during the said war, receiving about 2 million tons of bombs from American fighter planes. This fact makes the Plain of Jars a big hindrance in their getting a seal from UNESCO as a world heritage site. Safety of tourists is, after all, of primary concern. Despite such hindrances, tour groups continue to flock to the mysterious plains with each tourist concluding their own theories on the existence of these Jars, the way people have been fascinated with the Stonehenge of south England or similar structures in Easter Island. Probably Agent Fox Mulder can shed a light on this one?

Talat Sao Mall

The ticket counter at the Talat Sao Bus Terminal in Vientiane where you can purchase your ticket for border-crossing buses.

The Lao National Museum isn’t among the my most compelling museum visits. Most relics and displays pertain to the emergence of the Pathet Lao, Vietnam-based group that brought communism to Laos. Though it has a limited collection of historical and revolutionary exhibits, viewing those mundane collections of artifacts, rice baskets, spoons, industrial items will transport you back to the era of Kaysone Phomvihane, the founding father of communist Laos. I would have to apologize myself for taking out my camphone and snapping photos of their Jar display. Tao lang po! (Am only human!) Hehe. Of course I had to carefully look around for a CCTV cameras or fellow tourists before I was able to steal photos of the jar. I touched its surface and it felt really solid. There were coins inside. Hope springs eternal for those who dream. But personally, I won’t leave mine on dried up jars, thank you.

Lao National Museum, built in the 1920's. It used to be the Police Commissioner's Building.

A jar from the Lao National Museum - straight from the mysterious Plain of Jars. Had to take these photos using my camphone since they don't allow cameras inside the museum. Notice the coins inside the jar (below) from very hopeful well wishers. LOL


I went back to my hotel for a relaxing shower. Once all packed up, I bid sayonara to my room. With luggage at my back, I checked out and waited for my pick up at the hotel lobby. They were supposed to pick me up at 5PM. I was ahead of time. I should have just waited in my room but I was afraid I might fall into a very comfortable nap. It was a good hour of waiting. 

By the time a cramped van pulled up in front of my hotel, I was starting to get worried. “How do I fit in there?” I asked. There was hardly space at the back. Foreigners of different makes, smells and persuasions were pasted uncomfortably against each other; I had to laugh in spite of myself. Their last pick up was the most special, of course – me! Haha. And the comfy, spacious seat beside the driver was reserved for me. Mr. Vieng, the pick up officer, was a friendly chap. He handed me my ticket and took my backpack. Except for an asian lady I spotted at the back, this was mostly a Caucasian community of backpackers. And there was hardly any chance for conversation with any of them. I was all charmed out – after a long wait at the lobby. Our destination: the South Bus Station.

Once we reached the station, I retrieved my backpack and we all went our way. I spotted the Taiwanese lady who got off the same van. She was an adorable girl with an earnest smile. She was a sophisticate – a traveler who regaled me with some of her trips. Such is a common topic of conversation from wandering strangers. She was on her way to Luang Prabang. We tried finding our respective buses. Mine has a reclining seat, hers was a bed bus aka sleeper bus (a bus with beds instead of chairs). A yellow bus had Savannakhet marked on its window, so I handed my backpack to the conductor so he can stow it at the compartment.

Becoming fast friends, we took a seat at the terminal foyer where we chatted about our experiences. I got her name – Honey Chang, which prompted me to sing a few lines from Mariah Carey’s upbeat hit. She laughed and said, “Oh you know!” Much later, she asked for my ticket. She had a hunch something was wrong. True enough, our pick-up officer carelessley interchanged our tickets (we couldn’t understand much of what was written coz they were in Lao characters). The yellow bus - which had my backpack - was bound for Luang Prabang. My god! If Honey didn’t check, I would have travelled back to Luang Prabang! In 15 minutes, my bus finally arrived. It was a red double decker bus with a plate – U6666. We exchanged email addresses and said our goodbyes. At 8:30PM, my bus departed from the garage. It was supposed to arrive at 4AM – a 450 kilometer travel running for 7-8 hours! Having experienced the Hanoi-Laos border crossing, this will be a breeze. I was praying that their aircon would work full time!


But as the saying goes, “Be careful with what you wish for?” That’s what exactly happened! The airconditioning worked full time! I must have been dazed and confused that I didn’t notice all the blankets in each seat. Mine was the first seat at the upper deck. I was happy with that. There was a lot of legroom – my legs were stretched out during the whole ride - and I had the full view of what was ahead of us. However, 3 hours into the ride, it was starting to get uncomfortably cold! It was freezing. My limbs were numb and I was shivering inside. I had 3 layers of shirts and a jacket, yet I was frozen stiff! I slept through it but when you are shivering like that, there’s hardly any comfortable sleep to be had. 

A 3AM stopover was a welcome respite. It was a Bus Terminal surrounded by a market. This must be Tha Kaek, a common hub for border-crossing travelers to and from the Vietnamese city of Hue. Very early in the morning, the lights illuminated the market although there was hardly much business going on, for obvious reasons. It was like walking into some distant town of the living dead. Shivers! I took a walk around, shook my limbs and summoned some internal heat to get me through the rest of the ride. 

At 4:30AM, we finally reached the eerie Savannakhet Bus Terminal. The lights were dim and some benches were occupied by waiting commuters. We were shrouded by thick shadows. I refused to leave the place until 6AM. I decided to wait there. I was afraid I’d find nobody at any of the guesthouses I was planning to check out. Some of the commuters were sleeping. I couldn’t. I was just recovering from my dance with hypothermia. I just roamed around the dim corners of the terminal. Somehow, at the back of my head, there was a buzz telling me that I was riding an anticlimactic wave of my journey. Will see.

A Bed Bus aka sleeper bus. From the outside, it was disconcerting to see couples with window beds in various states of intimacies. Mga puti talaga - minsan hindi namimili ng lugar! I am not a prude, but there is proper decorum when you are very much visible in public!

My VIP Bus - U6666 - a double decker worth $19 and includes onboard toilet, a noticeably well-regulated showing of Lao music videos and videoke programs, a bottle of mineral water and a blanket!

Seats at my VIP bus to Savannakhet. This is the upper deck seats. Notice the blankets? Good for you. I didn't... until much much later!

My own little corner in the arctic zone - this side of the world. For a change, a Lao bus' airconditioning actually worked. And it worked so well - oh so well! LOL

Tha Kaek bus station and market at 3 AM.

Fast Facts:

VIP Buses from Vientiane to Savannakhet departs the
South Bus Station (very far from the city center) at 8 to 8:30PM. It will travel 450 kilometers, will have one 15-minute stopover in Tha Kaek, then arrive at Savannakhet between 4-4:30AM.

Random Expenditure:

Lao National Museum entrance – $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP58.75
VIP bus ticket from Vientiane to Savannakhet – $19 or 160,000 kip or PhP893 (this includes use of toilet on board, a blanket, and a bottle of water)

Savannakhet Bus Station at 4:30AM - eerie!


Twin said...

your "hypothermia" experience reminded me of my trip to amsterdam. it was my first time to experience "fall/winter" in another country. it was a long, tiring trip, and i didnt get to sleep on the plane bec of a foul smelling burly seatmate, so the first thing i did when i got to my hotel was to take a nap since i had some free hours before my event. i even texted my family i am OK with the weather, parang refrigerator lang, yakang yaka. lo and behold, i suddenly woke up chilling (todo nginig ang buong katawan!) and was freezing to death! i didnt know what to do since we dont have zero degree weather in manila. good thing i called up the reception and asked for help on how to maximize the heater in my room! what a relief for me! after that experience, had two more winters in two different countries and expert na ko sa below zero weather. i love it na!
love the way you stole the jar pics...hehe, naisahan mo sila :)

eye in the sky said...

i just hate it when the weather slowly creeps up on you, like last march when hanoi suddenly went 6 degrees. more so, when things like these are man-made. bus drivers are supposed to be conscious of the needs of his customers.

my other bouts with hypothermia was a visit in luxembourg when, upon alighting from the train from paris, there was a weird mix of a very thick fog, snowing, and raining. i never thought rain and snow could go together.

as for the museums, they should allow cameras coz we paid to get in, why not allow us to take photos? would it really hurt them if we take some photos? mabuti sana kung meron silang coffee table books or manuals na ibinebenta sa labas (like buckingham palace, or paris' louvre).

jepayuki said...

this travel blog of yours has prompted me to include it in my favorite links. i love this post! jars made it interesting, but honey chang supposedly made my day haha! stories told and mention of manila counterparts at its finest. it makes for a good read while am drinking coffee and starting the day right! cheers =)

Oman said...

this has gotta be one of the most extensive travel trip of any place i have ever seen. great job.

thanks for the birthday greetings too. i appreciate it. linked your blog and i will definitely go back here. take care.

escape said...

wow! i think i'll enjoy riding that bus. hehehe...

Geraldo Maia said...

I can not find words to express my enchantment with these beutiful photos.
Thank for the comments on my blog.
Best wishes from Brazil:

eye in the sky said...

hey jepay. thanks for the kindest words always. honey chang was MY savior that day - or i would have travelled back to luang prabang - back to the heavens, on a 12 hour ride! haha. to think i was hesitant to give her my ticket. who would give his ticket to a total stranger he only met 10 minutes ago? just crazy me!

but sometimes, you have to trust your intuition - and it's not such a bad thing to rely on the kindness of strangers. :->

yeah, honey was a cool gal.

eye in the sky said...

hey LS, hope you had a great birthday - with your camera too.

it was a pretty extensive itinerary that really tested my patience, my nerves (some legs were a bit scary, border crossings especially, which i am never fond of), endurance and planning acumen.

this blog is a "project" to actually document the whole travel (june to july '08) - so that i'll be able to remember every detail and how it really went. it gets tedious, the writing especially, and i feel i'm getting so impatient that it's taking me forever to finish - as i am just half way through.

thanks for taking your time to drop by though. i'm sure you don't have a lot of idle time yourself. :->

eye in the sky said...

dong! i am sure you'll have a grand time in the bus! haha! to some people, its like one of those mileages that have to be experienced - much like those high-altitude rendezvous - becoming a member of the "mile-high club", and so on.

imagine, while i was sitting on a bench, waiting for my bus to arrive, and that yellow bed bus was parked right across me, there were already "actions" from the window views - and i could see some laos smirking. just didn't seem right.

and their trip hasn't even started yet. when the bus gets midway into their ride, and the aircon's blowing a frenzy, and the sheets have turned glacial, IT WILL TURN INTO a bumpier ride! ;->

eye in the sky said...

hi geraldo,

thank you very much. it was a pleasure to discover your site too. i came by sarah's blog and found your comments interesting, thus i bloghopped.

now i miss a friend who lives in sao paulo. haven't heard from her in a while.

thanks for dropping by.

Hanna said...

Hello! Thanks for visiting my blog. I sent the adress of your blog to a workmate who is (again) heading Asia i January.

eye in the sky said...

hi hanna. thats the joy of reading comments and bloghopping from them sometimes, one finds sites that are a joy to read. keep it up.

a safe and enjoyable trip to your friend's new journeys. thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

nice travelling you have here, but isnt it a litte danger between two border nowadays ?

eye in the sky said...

hey mahendra. during my recent trip, i crossed the hanoi-laos border, the savannakhet-mukdahan thailand border, flew to phnom penh, then crossed again the bavet cambodia-mocbai vietnam border.

i hate every single border-crossing coz they scare me bad - always - but all my crossing went smoothly. they were uneventful. in fact i could say, they were relatively easy. i guess most asian countries have graciously learned how to rightfully deal with border-crossing tourists.

thanks for the visit.