Our visit to Laos has been an unexpected adventure from the beginning. When we arrived in Thailand nearly six months ago, we didn’t have any plans to visit Laos. Heck, two years ago, I couldn’t have found it on a map (blame my US geography education or lack thereof), pronounce it correctly, or tell you anything at all about its place in the world. To be honest, I am still not sure of the pronunciation as I have heard and read that it rhymes with both cow and blouse. Either way, we love Laos (or Lao?).
Thanks to our loose approach to travel and a European restaurant owner in Bangkok who said that all his young customers love Laos the most of all the Southeast Asian destinations, here we are. Thank you, “visa on arrival.”
Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane, dedicated to those who fought for independence from France
And the journey to get here was no less unexpected than the idea that we would travel here in the first place. Trent booked us $15 overnight bus tickets from Bangkok to Sri Chiang Mai, the nearest Thai city to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, which is on the border. We could have flown direct to Vientiane, but we thought we would save some money and have a new experience by taking the bus.
The Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok on Friday night of Songkran (Thai New Year) weekend was the most insane place I have ever been. Imagine a terminal the size of an airport terminal in the US, filled wall to wall with people in the chairs, on the ground, sleeping, watching TV, putting kids to bed. Thousands of people. A constant flow of enormous double decker busses and nary a word of English anywhere.
Mo Chit Bus Station, Bangkok
Trent managed to find a young man who spoke English who looked at our tickets and shepherded us to the right place. Then he kept an eye on us until our bus pulled up and we squeezed through the crowds of people on their way home to celebrate Songkran with their families.
Waiting with the masses outside at Mo Chit bus station, Bangkok. The guy in the purple shirt kept us from getting lost in the crowds.
We are so grateful for the kindness of strangers who help us to find our way quite regularly. A smile and respect has never failed to take us as far as we needed to go.
Our rickety two-tier bus pulled out around 9:30pm, drove around for a while, then randomly stopped in a gravel parking lot somewhere on the outskirts of Bangkok and we all got off and changed busses. I still have no idea why.
We slept fairly comfortably in our top level seats, despite the constant rattling and shaking that threatened to tear the bus apart, piece by rusty piece. Trent dreamed he was in a hurricane that was destroying the house around him. Ha! I thought it felt like being on the Harry Potter Knight Bus for stranded witches and wizards.
The next morning we awoke as the bus began to drop people off on the side of the road in small rural Thai towns near the Laos border.
We randomly changed busses again. A fellow American traveler, a recent college grad James, who was also headed to Vientiane didn’t make that change and I found that a little disconcerting. By the time we came to Sri Chiang Mai, we were the only people left on the bus. Hmmmm…
When we asked the bus driver which way to the Thai-Laos Friendship bridge (we thought we could walk across), he just looked at us with a baffled stare. I’m not sure if he understood the question or not, but either way it left us wondering what to do next as the bus pulled away from the curb, leaving us with just our bags and a bit of hopefulness.
Our solution? Look! There’s a 7-11 (7-11s are prolific in Thailand)! Surely, they can help us. Desperation makes one take comfort in the smallest familiarities.
Well, they couldn’t help us, but we were able to use the bathroom, so that was a win. We began wandering down the street, dragging our bags behind us, occasionally asking tuk tuk drivers to take us to Laos. They just gave us more of the same puzzled and puzzling looks. Not good.
Finally, after walking along the river for a long while, where we could see Vientiane, Laos on the opposite side, an English speaking Laotian man was able to tell us that we couldn’t reach Laos from Sri Chiang Mai. We needed a bus. Ha!
So we began wandering back toward the street where we had been dropped an hour before. Not that our bus or any bus would still be there. We were at the very edge of Thailand on a national holiday weekend. Most businesses were closed. We had no game plan and no internet. But we still had a good attitude. We’d made it this far after all.
Lucky for us the Thai people are very generous and welcoming. We happened upon a young woman and her sister who were celebrating the New Year and Family Day with their large family, all of whom had traveled to Sri Chiang Mai to be together. When Be and Mu Ke saw us, they insisted we come into their home while they figured out how we could get to Laos on that day when everything seemed closed. They fed us homemade banana candy and savory breads that they went to the market special to buy.
Savory breads given to us for breakfast by Be and Mu Ke on the way to Laos border
In the end, Be (pron. bay)and Mu Ke (pron. moo-kay ) kindly drove us 20 miles back to a town we had stopped in earlier that morning, where our American friend had gotten off. When we offered to buy gas, they refused and kept repeating, “This is my culture.”
Me, Be (in hat), Mu Ke, and Trent at the Laos border with Thailand
They parked and walked us all the way to the border crossing and made sure we got in the right line, before hugging us, calling us family, and asking if we would come back and visit them in Sri Chiang Mai. Wow!! The kindness of strangers is an awesome thing.
As we neared the border, we added young Johanna from Sheboygan, Wisconsin to our group. She ran up to me asking if I spoke English and said she had never crossed the border before and could she tag along. Why not! Pay it forward.
Johanna, me and Trent at the border
I can not express sufficiently our gratitude for these two young women, Be and Mu Ke, who took time away from their families on an important holiday to help some strangers. What an adventure! And it wasn’t even 10am!
And who should be in the visa line just ahead of us but our fellow American traveler, James. We laughed when we saw each other.
Life is funny. You roll with it. You don’t worry too much. You smile. You accept kindness when it’s offered and give it back in return. It’s a simple but compelling thought that nothing that terrible will happen if you don’t expect it to.
We spent two nights in Vientiane and enjoyed the city, even though many things were closed thanks to the New Year celebrations. Laos also celebrates Songkran like Thailand.
And we spent most of those two days wet from the water festival that filled the streets with kids and kids at heart, who especially loved to douse the foreigners. It was 105 degrees so we really didn’t mind. In fact, we kind of loved it. You literally could not leave the hotel without being dunked by the guy in the pink pool below.
In Bangkok, people mostly used water guns, but here it was all out war with buckets and hoses.
Looking down from our hotel balcony. No escaping the splashing.
The water festival has its roots in the sprinkling of perfumed water on Buddha, then using the run off to bless family members for a good year ahead. I love that.
While I’d love to bring back the water festival to the US, even more I’d want to bring back the love and joy that people exude throughout.
Next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos, to the north
Other highlights from our two days in Vientiane, Laos
Trent at the top of the Vientiane Arc de TriompheAt a temple in Vientiane, wet from the many blessings received.
It’s Lao tradition to free animals at New Year’s. I freed a family of birds!Inside the templeBuddha Park, where everyone was sprinkling the many Buddha statues as part of the New Year’s traditionWe climbed through the giant mouth to climb to the top of a big round building, which you can see on the right in the picture below.