On the 27th of December Louis and I leave Vang Vieng for Vientiane. He’s flying into Vietnam from there, and me? Well I’m a sucker for temples and Vientiane is simply a place I want to see. Don’t need much more reason than that, right?
Having gotten used to our slow mornings and late wake ups, we schedule an afternoon departure by minibus from Vang Vieng (60,000 kip/ 6 euros). The roads will be bumpy, of course, but I’ve finally downloaded another playlist, and the ride is only 3 hours. Easy peasy.
Traveling together has been easy since the start, but the more time that goes by, the more love I have for our habits as a duo. Big love. We talk shit while we wait for the bus, making fun of each other – not many people can sass me quite like you do. We recount tales of our most recent miscommunications; we chuckle at the multitude of loopholes we’ve encountered. We complain about how hot it is; I complain that my backpack feels heavier. “So put it down, you stupid bitch.” See? Sass. But also: fair point.
The minibus arrives and we climb in. It’s empty – for now – so we carefully select the perfect seats. “This one will have less bounce.” “Yea, but that one has more leg room.” “Ooh, good point.” As the bus begins to move, our hands search for our headphones and begin to untangle them. One of us will say “right, happy place,” and our headphones will be popped in.
The next hours will pass in that way, with both of us staring out of the window wrapped up in our own world of music. If we’re sitting next to each other and see something interesting outside, we’ll point at it – an unspoken “I don’t want you to miss this.” If we aren’t, like on this drive, we’ll speak only once the bus stops for a bathroom break.
We barrel down bumpy roads lined with trees – banana, papaya, palms, and a hundred other unidentifiable beauties. Somewhere along the way, I quickly request my visa for Vietnam. After 4.5 hours (that’s right, they had said 3) we are belched out at what appears to be a bus station.
“Uhm, does this look like Vientiane to you?”
As we check Google maps and ascertain that we are not, in fact, in Vientiane yet, we are ushered to an open-air taxi. There’s a lot of yelling and confusion involved, especially as we have both just been woken up from naps. Thunk. One backpack is thrown up onto the roof. Thump. The other goes into the belly of the truck. Before we know it, we are seated in the front seat, shoulders raised in an “I don’t know, let’s just see what happens” stance. A kind girl behind us informs us that this is normal, and that we will be in the city center within 20-30 minutes. Cool; this is all normal.
Tired, hungry and sleepy, all we do that night is eat (amazing Indian food, I might add). While doing so I come to the sudden realization that the visa I purchased for Vietnam requires arrival by air. Oops, guess I’m flying too. I book a flight ticket while Louis sasses me over pappadums. Enough excitement for the day, now it’s time to pass out. The next day, we will see Vientiane, we say.
We wake up slowly. We eat breakfast, drink a cup of coffee. I play with a dog. We make a friend at breakfast and cook up a plan to go to the Buddha Park together. After extensive haggling we find ourselves in the second slowest tuk tuk I have ever been in. We laugh at our misfortune as we bounce the 40 minutes to the park.
Buddha Park is something that is difficult to describe and only mildly easier to show. A conglomeration of enormous Buddhist and Hindu statues, it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before. There are humans, gods, animals, demons. There is a giant “pumpkin” that you can enter. You begin in hell and climb tiny, precarious stairways all the way up to heaven.
We stand on top of the pumpkin and take in the sights. We comment on what a bizarre place it is. We Google it and marvel at the fact that just across the border, there is a sister park in Nong Khai, Thailand. That’s right, there are two.
We make the bumpy ride back to our hostel and our friend leaves us to travel onwards. As we say goodbye, we meet a retired traveler named Larry. We decide to go out to lunch together. Larry is fascinating. He is also talkative, and after a long lunch of many stories, we both go home for a nap.
Oops, so much for all the sightseeing we were going to do.
That evening we set out for the night market with a new friend from our hostel. On the way there, we hear “hey, Louis!” No way. Across the street under the glow of Vientiane’s streetlights is Paul, another friend we met on the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
I’m telling you, that slow boat is the gift that just keeps on giving.
We rope Paul into our plans. With backpackers that’s never too hard to do. We stroll the night market, scouring the stalls for sunglasses and other things on our shopping lists. We plop down on plastic stools along the side of the road and eat an amazing meal. We keep a steady stream of beers coming our way from the closest convenience store. We laugh about the lady at the market who was unimpressed with our bargaining skills.
I am beginning to realize that this is what traveling looks like for me. I am beginning to realize that I can make lists of sights, I can set a route up on Google maps, I can read every Lonely Planet there ever was, but ultimately that’s not how I travel.
I am, it appears, here for the people I meet. I’m here to get wrapped up in hours of conversation, forgetting that there is a dancing monkey on a street corner that I ought to see. I’m here to get caught up in personalities, in jokes, in adventure and misadventure.
We all travel differently. I’ve met travelers who find great pleasure in completing their lists of recommended sights. I met a guy in Yangon who hadn’t seen some of the temples but experienced insurmountable joy out of going to the fish market at 5 am to see the vendors set up.
Through my slow days with my new friends, I am being reminded that you can travel however you want.
In my first 24 hours in Vientiane the only “sight” I saw was the Buddha Park. And it was beautiful, but it’s not the part of Vientiane I will remember most fondly.
I know that what I will remember is a bumpy tuk tuk ride filled with the roar of the engine and the sound of our laughter. I will remember climbing through hell and earth in a pumpkin and wondering whether we would really fit through the little opening. I will remember eating spring rolls with a man named Larry and drinking beers on the side of the road, just me and the guys.
And guess what? I love that.
The following day, with about two hours to spare before our flight, we grab another (faster) tuk tuk and race around town to see the rest of the sights.
Okay I guess sometimes I like traveling by the book, too.
Laos, I will be back to see more of you one day. Now it’s time for Vietnam.