October 29 – November 1
One of the few “knowns” during our itinerary planning has been our dates for Vientiane, due to the lucky circumstance that our friends Nicole and Ryan would be spending time in the Laos capital for some volunteer work at a local hospital at the end of October. It didn’t hurt that we’d heard wonderful things about the small French Colonial-reminiscent city perched on the Mekong River just over the border from Thailand.
So, we left India and spent the next 18 hours making our way east, by way of Bangkok (where we spent a lovely few hours sleeping at the airport before catching a shuttle to the smaller Don Muang airport across the city, hopping a plane to Udon Thani, Thailand where we then caught a van to the border and crossed into Laos). Potentially our most creative transportation schedule yet. Just trust us, the savings were worth it. (EDITOR’S NOTE: To all you future employers reading this, that booking required creativity, research skills and budget savvy. Like what you see? Please send any and all job offers through our contact page on this blog.)
Upon weary arrival, we found a cozy little guesthouse in the center of the city, dumped our bags and followed through on the promise we’d repeated to ourselves for the last three weeks. We went for a run (the small, congested streets of India gave us a perfect excuse to avoid exercise). While the “running” was short-lived, our hour or so of winding up and down the main streets and along the (unexpectedly) muddy brown waters of the Mekong, gave us a good sense of the city.
The next day, we tagged along with Ryan and Nicole to the hospital, where the doctor they’d traveled with let us check out a surgery. Like, really check it out. Ah, the lax Laotian laws…
Scrubbing into the spinal surgery (the patient had extreme tuberculosis in her spine, and after removing some vertebra, screws were put in to keep her spine straight…yep, apparently about as painful as it sounds…) was an experience I’ll never forget (although I’m pretty sure Dave would pay good money to). New respect for all the nurses, techs and doctors out there. Mental images permanently burned into my brain aside, the opportunity to explore a local Laotian hospital was super interesting…and at times, depressing. Post-surgery, many patients (who can’t afford the $8/night private rooms) are rolled into the hallways to recover. There are groaning, bandaged patients at every turn, and your heart breaks as you watch their kids on a blanket underneath the rolling beds. A highlight was passing out candy to all the kiddos…seeing them smile while experiencing something scary made us feel like we were actually DOING something, versus feeling helpless.
This is the doctor’s 22nd trip to Laos, and I hope he continues his incredible work for as long as humanly possible. Talk about making a life-changing difference for a lot of people. Incredible.
Anyway, we also took advantage of some of Nicole and Ryan’s free time, grabbing dinner and drinks with them during our overlapping stay. Ryan, a friend for over 15 years, is one of the funniest people I know, and he married his match in sense of humor. We spent several hours trading stories and laughing over the ever-popular Beerlao. Know it. Love it. Because it’s everywhere.
Halloween also happened to fall during our stay here, and my fear of one of my favorite holidays passing without ceremony was quickly laid to rest. WHO KNEW that Laos would celebrate in style?
After our friends headed out for a post-work celebratory stop in the Chinese islands, Dave and I continued to explore the city, hitting up several of the French bakeries for breakfast and tucking into local Lao food for dinner. What does that look like you ask?
Local cuisine is heavily influenced by Chinese flavors as that is where the Lao people originally migrated from, so it makes sense to see the remnants of that influence in many restaurants. But I still found the food to be distinctive from what I’d expect from a Chinese restaurant menu. In a good way. Also, as I mentioned, there is a heavy French influence from the time the country spent under French rule. This means baguettes are sold on street corners everywhere, and you can find a delicious, authentic French meal in most cities.
But back to what seems to be authentically their own…Laap, a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish is on every menu, usually served with sticky rice (ALL HAIL THE STICKY RICE. I HEARBY DECLARE RICE PREPARATION FOREVER CHANGED!). Eaten by hand, sticky rice is balled up and used as a vehicle for whatever else you’re eating to make it’s way to your mouth. Lemongrass and fish sauce are important ingredients and papaya salad, fish, chicken curries and noodle soups are found everywhere.
The small night market provided a better glimpse into the local cuisine, with rows of grilled meats laid out for purchase. While our rule of “no sketchy looking street food” held firm here, it was fun to walk the lines of vendor carts and get a feeling for all the offering of Lao cuisine in one spot.
Overall, a comfortable place to spend a few days. After our “city” stay, we were excited to head next to Vang Vieng to kick our feet up and pass some lazy days before heading north to Luang Prabang.