Setta Palace Hotel, Vientiane
Yesterday Jo, Ting Tong and I tukked over the Friendship Bridge linking Thailand and Laos and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Ever since we arrived in Thailand two weeks ago crossing into Laos has been our biggest perceived obstacle. We’d heard from a number of sources that Thai registered vehicles had been banned from crossing the Friendship Bridge and there was also uncertainty as to whether you needed a carnet de passage to bring vehicles into the country. The consensus was that a carnet was unnecessary - they are very expensive and complicated to arrange so we had long ago decided against getting one – but we had heard from a few overlanders that life would be much easier if we had one. So it was with baited breath and butterflies in our stomachs that we eased down the gears and drove up to the border yesterday afternoon.
Jo has been in charge of organizing all the paperwork for Thailand, Laos and China, so as she disappeared into the ominous sounding ‘Room 6’ at Laos customs I selected Leftfield on my ipod and nervously waited. Leftfield was shortlived, however, as a bevy of Tourist Police, customs officials and bypassers were soon crowded round Ting Tong. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘How much was your tuk tuk?’ – all the usual questions were fired at me. And then the familiar raised eyebrows and looks of ‘Are you crazy?’ upon learning of our destination. One lady spoke very good English and warned me that Rte 13 is very mountainous and that we should avoid driving at night due to the Hmong rebels in the north. All things we have been told before. More interesting was her revelation that there is only one psychiatrist in Laos and that depression doesn’t really exist here.
After about an hour Jo emerged triumphantly; we had been granted special permission to enter Laos, but had to wait till Monday in Vientiane in order to get permission to enter the other provinces. It seems that the Thai press cuttings Jo had showed the Laos immigration had worked their magic and rather than facing an unpleasant diversion all we had to do was endure a weekend of city arrest in the Laos capital. Not exactly a hardship.
We hadn’t even thought about where we were going to stay in Vientiane, so we glanced through the accommodation options in the Laos Lonely Planet where our eyes quickly fell upon the ‘Top End’ section. Overjoyed at being allowed across the border, we decided to celebrate and head straight for the best joint in town, The Setta Palace Hotel, lauded in the LP as ‘the place to stay in Vientiane’. The poolside bar and Venetian marble bathrooms sold it and off we tukked, realizing as we turned off the bridge that they drive on the wrong side of the road here. Not till England will we drive on the left again.
Crossing borders is a strange experience. How in the course of a few hundred metres everything can be so different? - language, faces, roads, food, smells. We had got used to the rampant westernization that has invaded Thailand, where the roads are nearly perfect, the cars new and shopping malls litter the roadsides. Yet the instant we crossed the mighty Mekong into Laos the cars got more battered, the tarmac more potholed and the driving more chaotic. The driving philosophy here is definitely ‘there’s room for three’. Cars, tuk tuks, jumbos -motorcycle taxis – bicycles and stray dogs all jostle for room and our 30 km tuk to Laos was not without a few squeaks from me.
So here we are at the aforementioned Setta Palace, where the pool is divine, the breakfasts delicious and the beds worthy of staying in for extended periods of time. Jo and I were also a little grubby after a week on the road so in need of hot showers and a good scrub. (Before anyone gets the wrong idea by the way, we have whipped out our own credit cards for the occasion and are not spanking our sponsors money on 5 star luxury).
A few brief notes on Laos. I can’t believe Vientiane is a capital city. Apart from jumbo drivers and the odd farang the streets are practically deserted. The pavements are lethal and too much BeerLao could result in an ignominious descent down a vast uncovered drain. The cakes are plentiful, the massages are excellent and the people are lovely.
On Monday morning we head north up the (slightly) dreaded Rte 13, stopping at Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang and Luang Nam Tha en route to the Chinese border at Boten.
One final thing. I forgot to mention the food market we stumbled upon at Phimai the other night. Amongst the gastronomic delights on offer were; crispy fried frogs on skewers, toad in a bag, still gasping fish and best of all, pigs willies. Whilst I recoiled and wretched violently at the sight of the latter, Jo whipped out her camera and zoomed in for the close up. If you’re lucky we might post the resultant picture on this blog.
Over to Jo…….
So, here we are in our luxury hotel, with the most comfortable beds outside of England. The food in Laos has been excellent so far and we had a breakfast buffet this morning. I headed straight for the pastries and took a plateful back to the table. I was just about to tuk in when I noticed that my plate was moving ever so slightly. I was sober and not high on coke (the liquid variety) at the time and the motion was caused by some Ants (not the one sitting at the table, but the small black ones with lots of legs). I went back to examine the pastry plate more carefully and found there to be quite a few Ants. I informed the staff and they quickly brought out a fresh plate. I loaded a new plate with more carb laden snacks and went back to eat them at the table. I decided to add some sugar to my cup of rather tastless Lipton Yellow Label tea and found a little critter in the sugar bowl as well. I avoided the Ant and added my sugar, before I informed the hotel staff. Is this really the sort of thing one expects from a 5 star establishment? Anyway, breakfast was quite a feast and made a pleasant change to rice or American pancakes.
I will now back track to recap on the past few days.
We left Phimai and its historical park (containing a Khymer temple that predates Angkor Wat) and headed for Khon Kaen. The drive passed without problems and we tukked up at our hotel. Ting Tong has us wrapped around her little wing mirrors and after unloading her we got her ready for bed i.e. unrolled her rain covers and put on her silver nightie (tuk tuk cover). Dad and I shared a room and left Ants in her own room. This is for a few reasons: I snore, I like to watch TV, I like to stay up and ferret around, I like to smoke in the bedroom, I like air conditioning. All of these habits are a little unsociable and I do not practice them when sharing with Ants. If I want a cigarette then I will have it in the bathroom, I will go to bed at a sensible time and not watch BBC World after lights out, the temperature of the aircon will be decided after a bout of Thai boxing, but I still snore. Our night out in Khon Kaen was a little bizarre. We went out for a meal and decided on a street stall. We were all given a plate of spicy salad which was flavoursome, but ultimately unsatisfying. We then went to a restaurant complete with a live band. Musically they were good, but they chose to sing a collection of old country and westerns, which dad found quite odd. We ordered some snacks to share and because the waitresses did not speak very good English we were presented with the wrong order. I don’t like to make a fuss and would have just eaten them, but dad asked them to change the order. I think I am paranoid about complaining about food in restaurants after seeing a programme in England where people spit in your food if you complain. The band ended and then came a couple of Thai comedians. I didn’t understand a word, but still found them funny. They called us farangs (foreigners) and said a joke that made everyone who spoke Thai laugh- I think the joke was probably on us. Then on came a dwarf, who proceeded to join together metal hoops. Then….on came another dwarf who was about half the size of the previous dwarf and a sketch started where they jumped on and off the stage, but the smaller dwarf was too small to do this. Then they started hitting the dwarves on the head with a plastic object and we all started to look a bit bemused. To make it stranger, the larger of the two dwarves wore a batman suit and had hearts painted on his face. As if things couldn’t get any stranger, a rather thin and old cross dressing man climbed on stage in a nightie. He took off his clothes and wig and was wearing the shortest skirt I have ever seen and started singing, before being hit on the head by the two original comedians. Dad and I both agreed that one of the comedians looked like one of my brother’s friends (Pony), even though he was Thai- v weird. We decided to pay up and leave.
The following morning it was time for dad to leave and head back to Bangkok. I started crying and I think I upset dad too. Ants and I both had butterflies in our stomach for the first time of the trip and we realized that we had both found that having dad around was comforting and gave us more confidence, even though we can now drive 5mph faster. Suddenly we were on our own with 11,500 miles to go until England. We tukked north towards the Thai-Laos border and were both anxious about being allowed to cross into Laos. The Asian part of the trip has been my baby and therefore I would technically be responsible if things go wrong. The Thai side was a mere formality and they let us cross the bridge, spanning the mighty Mekong. We had arrived in Laos, although I knew that we could easily be retracing our steps back to Thailand at the discretion of the Laos authorities. I went from counter to counter before being sent up to room 6, where I knew our fate lay. Room 6 is where they decide if a vehicle can enter Laos. I provided our documents and a selection of press cuttings of us and TT from the Thai press. Luckily, we were given special permission to enter, although driving a tuk tuk we should have been turned around and sent back to Thailand. I was incredibly hot and needed both a wee and a drink of water, but I felt so relieved that our first major obstacle had been accomplished. After organizing insurance (£3 for 10 days) and having more papers signed and stamped we were allowed to pass. I suddenly realized that we were meant to be driving on the other side of the road and hastily changed lanes. I have never driven on the wrong side of the road, but better get used to it as we have 11,500 miles to go before being back on the right side. Immediately in Laos one knew that we were in a different country: the people, environment, smells, cars and the roads. There were pot holes galore for me to try and navigate around and I realized that Laos would be far more challenging to drive through than Thailand. I had already read about the hotel where we are staying and it was in my fantasy list. Ants and I decided to split the cost between our personal credit cards and indulge ourselves for the weekend, as we cannot leave Vientiane until receiving permits from the authorities on Monday. After a hectic couple of weeks, including a week of successful driving and Ants still recovering her strength we felt it was both justifiable and deserved.
So, today we were up and breakfasted before an interview via Skype with Five Live in England. I did the last one and so Ants had the honour this morning. We have decided to alternate interviews and I hope that we increase awareness about the trip and raise some more money for Mind. In a rather large nutshell that is it to date. Tonight we will go out to eat and spend a relaxing evening in probably the most chilled out capital city on earth. Tomorrow I will indulge in some minor tuk tuk mechanics e.g. tightening bolts that affect our steering as our suspension continues to be worn in (for those technical geeks out there, this needs to happen when the steering bars start involuntarily having spasms i.e. moving left to right without our input) Until next time, much love from myself, Ants and our beloved TT.