Monday, April 13, 2009

Laos 4 : A town called Phonsavanh

Monks filing pass in their vermilion robes to collect alms for the day and cute little kids clutching their books and lunch tiffins scampering to school makes up the morning scene.

It’s seven in the morning and the air was still crisp with a slight chill. The mists was clearing and the sun was making its way up, saturating the sky with an orange hue, lending an ethereal feel to a town that is otherwise stark and dusty.

There is nothing elegant, no saving beauty to the town, just plain ugly brick buildings and wooden shacks sandwiched in between them. The buildings are plastered with sign –boards, advertisements for guesthouses and local tours. Every time a vehicle passed by, a cloud of choking dust swirls up.

Phonsavanh was built in the 1970s to replace the old capital of Xieng Khouang province which was destroyed during the civil war. It has the feel of a Western frontier town, except the setting is in South East Asia and fast forward the time period to 1970s. Replace the clapboard buildings with brick buildings, horse carts with tuk tuks and prospecting for gold with luring tourists’ dollars and there you have it, an Asian frontier town.

Phonsavanh is way out east from the popular tourist trail of Vientiane – Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang. The main reason why tourists would hit this town is because it is a gateway to the Plain of Jars.(more on that later) To get to the Plain of Jars sites, you will have to book with a local tour agent. The tuks tuks are not allowed to bring tourists to the Jar sites.

If you haven’t arranged for a tour out of town for the day, you’ll probably find yourself twiddling thumbs. There isn’t a whole lot to do in the town itself. So, you should not miss a trip to the local market. They sell every kind of food from dry groceries and cooked food to fresh vegetables and fruits. Also on sale are things you’d probably rather not view as food – like rats, bats and other creatures best left unknown.

There are lots of guesthouses located on the main road in town. If you hit the town early enough, you could easily snag a room. I stayed at Kong Keo Guesthouse, which is located on what was previously an airstrip. The establishment is owned by Kong, a cocky young guy and a very shrewd business man. Kong speaks fluent English, liberally punctuated with cuss words and has his mainly Caucasian audience enthralled by his cock and bull stories. He successfully captured media attention by his flamboyant persona. The place comes highly recommended on the Travelfish site. Some write-ups went as far as to describe him as hotelier extraordinaire. Clever self branding or genuine, I let you be judge of it.


  • Do note that the prices on the Travelfish site is outdated. Best call the guesthouses directly to get latest price.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Laos 3 : The Long Road to Xieng Khuoang

"Are we there yet?”

That must the thousandth time I've asked that question.

We’ve bumped along in the bus for more then 10 hours since leaving Vientiane. The bus had broken down a total of five times. Each time the driver and the conductor had managed to cobble something together and coaxed the old beast to move a few more kilometers before it protested with a cough and splutter, spewing evil smoke plumes in its wake.

The passengers were remarkably tolerant and patient, perhaps resigned even. Bus breakdowns were a common occurrence in Laos. Not surprising as most of the local buses looked as though they were held together by little more than rubber band and glue. Hardly able to withstand the rigours of travelling on the mountain roads.

The fifth breakdown was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Mr Bus Driver gave up trying to fix it. By then, dusk was upon us and darkness was beginning to shroud the countryside. No knights in shining armour charged to the rescue but the bus driver from the bus that was trailing behind offered a ride. That will do! Thank you God! I don’t relish squatting by the lonely country road for hours waiting for help to arrive.

“Xieng Khouang?” I asked the Laotian girl sitting next to me. The last thing I’d want was to get into a bus heading towards the wrong town! Vigorous nods assured me. Before long I felt a nudge at my side, ‘lift up your hands’ she indicated. I obediently raised my hand. The conductor was counting the number of passengers headed for Xieng Khouang, the province where Phonsavanh is located.

The bus we boarded plies the Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang route, and Xieng Khouang wasn’t exactly ‘on the way’. I had no idea how long a detour that would entail for the Luang Prabang bound passengers, was just grateful they consented to pick us up.

There was no moon that night, the darkness was engulfing, cut only by the beam of the headlights. For the next 3 hours, I held on tight as the bus zig zigged around the hairpin curves of the narrow mountain road, trying to make up for lost time. It was a stomach clenching, gut roiling kind of ride, one misjudgment and down the ravine we all tumble! Oh joy.

At last! At about 8pm, the bus swung into the bus terminal for the Xieng Khouang province. My relief was palpable when I stumbled out of the bus. We had travel for thirteen hours from Vientiane. My longest bus journey to date and I don’t care to beat that record anytime in the near future.

Next up, Phonsavanh and the Mysterious Jars...

* Board the bus heading towards Xieng Khouang from the Northern Bus Terminal in Vientiane. LaoMiao's blog has good information on bus schedule.
* We were told to purchase the bus tickets on the day of travel, just turn up at least an hour earlier at the bus terminal to secure your tickets. But if you are there during the holiday period, you should check to see if you can buy the tickets ahead of time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Laos 2 : Vientiane, Old World Charm New World Prices

“This place is like Taiping (a small town in Malaysia) 20 years ago” my travel companion remarked.

Indeed, Vientiane seems to be a city time forgot. It has the languid atmosphere of a provincial town rather then the hustle bustle one would associate with a capital city. Pre-war style shop houses line the main roads and French colonial buildings co-exist with rustic Wats and Buddhist inspired buildings.

Patuxai, the iconic landmark in Vientiane
At 2.30pm, the streets were deserted except for foreigners like us crazy enough to brave the searing heat. We were driven out to the streets by our empty bellies to seek repast. Marching up and down Setthathirath Road and after peering at menu prices of the various restaurants and cafes, we settled for Blue Sky CafĂ©. 57,000 kip (USD6.80) for 2 plates of fried rice wasn’t provincial prices but definitely more affordable than some of the other restaurants we’ve passed by.

Vientiane has no lack of places to eat, provided you have the moolah. Due to its French colonial heritage, there are plenty of restaurants offering French cuisine, but be prepared to splurge.

Since lunch was rather meager, we decided to spring for dinner at Kua Lao, the restaurant recommended by our guesthouse receptionist for traditional Laotian food. Spurning the sampler set dinner; we ordered ala carte from the menu and ended up with this.

Looks familiar? Pandan chicken, otak otak, pork sausages and some sort of coconut milk based stew. We ended up paying USD26 for a meal that could be had for a fraction of the price at a Thai restaurant back in Kuala Lumpur. But never mind, the dinner comes with a side of traditional Laos performance.
(In-house band, they weren't exactly rocking =.=)

It is possible to get around the city under your own steam, either via bus 11 (on foot) or on bicycles. Bicycle rental cost only 40,000 kip a day. It is a cheap mode of transportation which many tourists choose. Unfortunately they have to settle for whatever vehicle is available at the rental shop. To our amusement, we saw a huge strapping man peddling a kiddie's pink bicycle, like a clown at the circus.

Vientiane is virtually traffic free, there aren't many cars on the street, especially on a hot searing afternoon when we were about. Of course you can find the ever present tuk tuks lurking at street corners where tourists frequent. On hot lazy afternoons, the drivers even string up hammocks to sleep in their tuk tuks while waiting for customers.

We hired a tuk tuk to get to the Northern Bus Terminal to purchase our onward journey bus tickets to Xieng Khoung. The 2km journey cost 40,000 kip (USD4.80) which we subsequently bargained to 30,000kip. Cost is equivalent to a taxi ride in Malaysia.

For all its backwater appearance, Vientiane has no lack of accommodation to suit all budgets. Most of the hotels, guesthouses and hostels are congregated near the river front, Fa Ngam Road and Nokeo Khoumane Road. Not many of them have email booking facilities though, your best bet is to phone in or fax. We picked Lani Guesthouse, a quiet guesthouse tucked in a cul de sac off Setthathirath Road. Mid range price, USD25+10% for a single room or USD35+10% for a double twin bedroom. The place was clean and neat, a stone's throw away from the main street. So no complaints there.


* Ask for the price before you hop into a tuk tuk. You can try negotiating for a slightly lower fare.
* Lani Guesthouse