Friday, April 07, 2006

A Quick Trip to Laos: Day 1 of 5 - Vientiane

One last look out from my balcony and its time to go to Hua Lampong Station. Except that one last look at the train tickets reveals they were for a train that left last night. My trusted assistant, the one whose name is a car brand, and myself get new tickets and leave two days later than planned in a second class, non-air-con sleeper train to Nong Khai--only slightly annoyed at my incompetence.

It's an eleven-hour journey that takes you across half of Thailand in more comfort than even the "VIP 24" buses (24 seat buses with very wide seats that recline a lot) since you get a real bed. The cabin is loud in non-air trains because the windows are fitted with louvers and mosquito screens, not glass. But compared to the stinking cabins I'm used to in France, with beds piled three-high and six people farting cheese and cassoulet all night in a tiny closed room, this Thai train was like flying first class. You have a real sense of privacy and space thanks to the curtains and the decent headroom. Tickets are 418 baht for the top bunk and B.468 for the bottom one. So "tuk" (cheap)!

When you get to Nong Khai, at 8:55AM, you need to pretend you're ready to walk to the Thai-Lao Friendship bridge to get a tuk-tuk to give you a ride for just twenty baht. Then it's just a two-minute ride to Thai side of immigration where I got my Thai visa stamped out. A B.10 bus takes you across to the Lao side and a passport-sized picture of yourself and B.1500 (or USD30) gets you a 15-day tourist visa good in all of Laos. Get your pictures before coming to Laos and you will save yourself a lot of trouble and the B.300 that some hustlers ask for to do your Lao visa application. You don't need them! Once you've crossed into Laos, pay the B.10 entry fee (don't ask) and now pretend you're going to take a bus to Vientiane. This landed us a taxi that took us the 25km to Vientiane for only B.100. Everybody takes Thai baht or US dollars in Laos and you can do change with just about anybody at rates that are nearly as good as the banks. It's 1 dollar to 10 000 kip and 260 kip to a baht.

note for those going to Laos as a visa run

You proabably already know there are two types of "visa runs" for those that plan on staying in Thailand for a long time. You can simply cross any Thai border to get a free 30-day tourist visa or re-activate one of those weird multiple-entry visas that I've never heard of anybody actually ever getting.

OR you can do a consulate run to get an extendable 60-day tourist visa, a non-immigrant, etc. With low-cost airlines, consulate runs to Singapore, Phom Pen or Kuala Lumpur are definitely an option but for those of you who've been to all those places before or are flat broke, Vientiane is a cheap and pleasant alternative.

From the Friendship Bridge, I went direct to the Thai embassy. You need to drop off your visa application before noon and I made it only ten minutes before that (hence the use of taking a taxi from the bridge, as opposed to waiting for a bus that will drop you off at the Vientiane's "Talad Sao" market). You need a picture, a photocopy of your passport and 1000 baht. Pick-up of your passport is the following working day after 1PM.
In Vientiane, I stayed in a room that definitely needed a fresh lick of paint and whose mosquito screen I had to rig into place with tools I'd taken for my tripod. The bathrooms were outside and pretty clean and it only cost me B.200 (Sihom Guest House,, 856-21 219081). By the time I'd eaten and washed up, the afternoon light was already getting pretty good and it was high time to explore.

On Th Settathirat, the first temple I saw walking towards Nam Phu (the small fountain at the heart of Vientiane), was Wat In Paeng.

In the streets behind it, there was a very cute school. All the trees were surrounded by cages in which lived very healthy looking guinea pigs. As opposed to Thailand, little boys wear long pants. Some of the girls skirts were longer as well and not pleated but had hems embroidered with Lao motifs. These kids were so chic! The fact nobody in Laos is overweight helps too. While the Thai kids have well caught up with their American buddies, Laos apparently doesn't have enough TV/coke/processed food yet. Give them a few more years.

Taking pictures of fast moving children with an all-manual camera is no easy feat and I'm surprised these shots came out alright. To move in closer to their faces or get more action shots, I would have needed an all auto 35mm or DSLR camera with a zoom, super-fast focus, and maybe high-iso too.

Walking down Th Settathirat took us past some cute homes, some in colonial style (there are lots), past Nam Phu, which has all the looks of a French townsquare, past the Presidential Palace which lacks finesse (like the White House, maybe worse) and to the extraordinary Wat Si Saket. It's the oldest temple in Vientiane (1818) and the good news it that it shows. Actually this is true of many temples in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Compared to Thailand where many temples are so perfectly restored you can't tell if they were built last year of five centuries ago, the temples I saw in Laos almost always had a kind of patina, the feel of something ancient. I really miss that in Thai temples.

The wall running on the left of the above picture contains the actual temple. Temples charge 5,000 to 10,000 kip for entry, depending on their historical importance. This one is, of course, a 10,000 kip (wow!) temple and worth every one of them.

This is the central building in the enclosed courtyard.

Note to photographer: that $150 Nikon ultra-thin super-multicoated polarizer version II in your bag, next time, use it.

And now a word from the indispensable Lonely Planet, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (the March 2006 edition):
Wat Si Saket has several unique features. The interior walls of the cloister are riddled with small niches that contain more than 2000 silver and ceraminc Buddha images. [...] Most of the images are from 16th to 19th century Vientiane, but a few hail from 15th to 16th century Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang is our next stop after Vientiane but that's Day 3!

If the janitor's bike was any newer I'd bitch about him parking IN the cloister but I guess this one is vintage enough to fit in.

My camera has a center-weighted light meter. That means I point it a different zones of the image and try to figure out how to get the light and dark zones properly exposed myself. I should be using Ansel Adams ten-zone system but I do a very approximated version of it which consists in trying to keep the dark and light zones within a reasonable range of the shutter speed and aperture I shoot at. If this makes no sense, read the masters' book "The Negative" and it still won't make any sense.

The assistant with a car brand name and myself decided to walk back along the Mekong promenade. Lao people were chilling out, eating and strolling around. Laos could well be even more laid back than 'sabai sabai' (easy easy) Thailand. I didn't see as many spirit houses in Laos as in Thailand but this one was quite beautiful and again looked much older than anything I'd seen in Thailand.

We then had dinner by the Mekong. Lao food is very similar to Isaan food. Isaan is the name by which goes Thailand's Northeast. It makes up most of Laos' border with Thailand and both are extremely close culturally--food, language, songs and dance are nearly the same on both sides of the border. Even with central Thai, the difference between the Lao language and Thai is much smaller than I suspected. I was surprised to pick up a few things listening to Lao even though my Thai is still quite basic. The Assistant could even read most of the signs as the alphabets are very similar as well (both originate from Pali Sanskrit).

Lao people watch only Thai TV. I never saw a TV set on a Lao channel. They get it with a simple antenna in Vientiane (Thai mobiles work there too) as Thailand is just across the Mekong. In the rest of the country, a satellite dish does the job just fine. There are hill tribes that don't even speak Lao but in cities, everybody is bilingual Thai-Lao.

Simply pronouncing the word Lao will crack a Thai up. For Thais, they are the stupidest, most backward people. The "just say Lao" trick worked fine with my high-school students back in Phucket but adults fall for it too. When "Tom Yam Gung", the Thai-boxing action flick with Tony Ja, came out, there was a point in the trailer when Tony Ja's partner described China Town in Sydney as home to Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, and then he would pause before adding, "Oh and Lao!" Which had the whole theater rolling to the floor with laughter, every time.

My opinion in just five days there is that the Lao, being landlocked, surrounded by five countries no less, and the victims of colonization, can be more worldly than the Thais who are a bit too convinced in the innate superiority of Thailand to take interest in their surroundings.

After dinner, we walked down onto the bed of the river which is nearing its lowest, April being the height of the dry season in the region. I was setting up this picture when this kid decided he wanted to be in it.

I took the same picture again, without the kid, and without the sun that had only appeared for a minute between two banks of clouds. This picture was shot using a 35mm wide-angle (equivalent to a 21mm on a 35mm camera) and a polarizing filter to remove reflections on water. It's halfway to being a decent landscape shot. Wide-angle landscape shots usually call for an interesting foreground, a nice open middleground of water or lush grass, a nice skyline (such as mountains) and a sky bursting with colors (a sunset or sunrise). This picture is lacking the last two but I'm still happy of how I visualized what I wanted (again an Ansel Adams method, see Book 1: The Camera), set it up, and got what I had set out to do.

There's a lot going on by the Mekong so it's a great place to hang out. Kids are swimming, some guy was riding a horse, another flying a model plane, people are eating, playing football, flying kites.

And that's it for Day 1. After sunset, we crashed at our guesthouse hoping the skies would clear up for Day 2. They didn't until Day 4!


Anonymous Mathieu said...

The camera did not die in vain... and film is not dead!

You really caught the light, the color, and your frame is impeccable as always.

Kudos, Ajarn!

5:09 AM  
Anonymous ratplat said...

Wow. As always, I love the photos. I even know who Ansel Adams is, though not enough to understand the references.

Sorry to see your camera took a spill. Nice autopsy though.

5:15 AM  
Blogger schuey said...

i thinbk there is a place where you can make extra cash... :)

Love the pictures but not a specialist.

Mais le texte était un putain de bon accompagnement avec !!!

1:14 PM  
Anonymous jemedebat said...

superbes photos !

j'y étais en décembre, quel pays merveilleux...

10:33 PM  
Anonymous jemedebat said...

...Pffff je vais foutre mes photos du laos à la poubelle !

ça claque !

10:37 PM  

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