Since I last blogged, my travels took me to Borneo, peninsular Malaysia, Singapore and India. In India, I had more than my share of distractions with lots of festivities and idle family time, so it was easy to win back most of the pounds lost earlier in the trip. With barely a couple of days to the end of our stay, I caused some panic by nearly breaking Sriram’s nose attempting to do an assisted handstand. No permanent damage was done though and a few days later, we set out with our heads held high from Delhi towards Laos prepared to face our next set of adventures.
Our first stop was Vientiane, the sleepy little capital city of Laos. We arrived at it’s dusty streets a little past dinner time. Our guesthouse, Auberge Sala Inpeng, was a wonderful little oasis with its own garden in the midst of a little alleyway off the Mekong. Our first evening was very quiet; our only adventure being ordering a vegetarian meal “baw sai nam pa” (without fish sauce).
Over the next couple of days, we explored Vientiane at a languid pace, suitable to the nature of the city, scoping out the various temples (Wats) and the city’s prominent landmarks such as Patouxay and the Golden Stupa (Pha That Luang) interspersed with frequent visits to various cafes to explore the local food choices and more so for free internet access. Our evenings were spent sampling the burst of flavor that is the Lao cuisine, drinking the excellent and understated (compared to its lighter sibling) dark Beer Lao, and strolling along the Mekong through the night markets.
On the third day, feeling intrepid, we decided to take the public bus to Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) instead of opting for the pricy private tuk-tuk or minivan options, in order to get the “local experience”. We were also assured by a random fellow traveler, who indicated to us that the bus stops just outside the park entrance.
We arrived at the final stop, just short of the border of Thailand where we were immediately surrounded by a throng of tuk-tuk drivers vying to take us to the Buddha Park, quoting unreasonably large prices by Laos standards. Our misguided information led us to believe that the park was in walking distance of the station, so in order to not let them get the best of us, we shirked them off.
We probably looked like we knew what we were doing since an English couple (James & Liz) who were about as lost as us, asked if they could join us while we figured our way out. While I chatted with them, Sriram who was trying to get our bearings, unwittingly almost crossed over to the Thai border on foot without a passport. Eventually, we decided to walk out of the station, still clueless yet faithful.
As we exited, we took a right at a fork based on directions someone at the bus station had indicated to us and walked down about a 100m when we came across another tuk-tuk driver. This time when we asked him to take us to the “Buddha Park”, he fervently nodded and asked us the equivalent of $0.50 per person, about a tenth of the price that was originally quoted to us. Feeling utterly satisfied with ourselves on striking a good deal, we agreed and hopped in, congratulating ourselves on our victory along the way.
As the driver sped on, we exchanged some travel stories. James & Liz had traveled across Laos, and we were curious to hear about their experiences. Sriram seemed to be the only concerned party regarding the distance we were traveling. Ten minutes later, as the tuk-tuk stopped to pick up more local passengers (none of whom spoke English), we casually inquired (with a lot of hand gestures and pictures of the park) whether they were also going to Xieng Khuan. It was only then that we realized, that the driver had no clue where we were headed. He had driven us 10km back towards Vientiane, in the opposite direction!
We got off and struggled to find random strangers (even kids) for directions to get back. Turns out, kids speak the best English in some parts of town. Eventually, we found a man who spoke “fluent” English (relatively) who informed us that we should cross the street and catch the same bus back to the station. Luckily, a bus happened to come just then, and we hopped on for a second shot at getting to the park.
This time as we reached, we all ashamedly hid ourselves from the tuk-tuk drivers we had earlier dismissed, and negotiated our way to the park. Finally, we found a tuk-tuk driver willing to take us for a little over a dollar each. After a long and bumpy ride on rough roads, we finally arrived at our destination and were amazed by the psychedelic, larger than life sized sculptures of Buddha, and other Hindu gods. Our not-so-local experience had been totally worth it!
Our way back was comparatively uneventful, but at the very least our journey to the park left us with a few laughs and a story to tell!