Once the Thai Government had confirmed my role, I was in need of a new visa. My retirement visa was no longer adequate – as I’m no longer retired! An Official Visa, (F class) was necessary but it can’t be obtained in Thailand so out of the country I must go.
A trip was needed and Vientiane in Lao PDR was fairly close by. We had not visited before so why not have a holiday, check out this country and do the visa business all at the same time – besides it was going to be my birthday – so a celebration could also be included in this adventure. Love it when a plan comes together.
Early in the morning of Sunday, 5th January we left our house in Chiang Mai and headed the trusty MUX south towards Lampang. Here we joined up with Hwy 11 and headed over some hills to Utteradit Province. More steps hills and with wonderful scenery we made our way further south before turning east towards Loei Province. On the way we passed wondrous green fields of growing rice. Hills abounded and the roads snaked their way between or over the them with lovely views.
On road trips it’s always an excuse to have a few coffee’s, cakes and stops for food. I find the Amazon coffee shops make a good brew that we often take away to sip as we drive along. Food is always plentiful in Thailand and roadside shops are always worth exploring or the PTT petrol stations always have food to eat or take away.
The first day was lovely and sunny, crystal clear blue skies and temperatures in the mid-30’s. The roads were good and only lightly traveled making driving easy. As we were navigating towards the city of Loei we stopped for coffee and a rest at a curious pink resort – decorated with Hello Kitty designs.
Very odd for the surroundings of tree-lined hills but it seems to work as many vehicles were stopping by for a wander around the rose garden and the over indulgence of pinkness!
We then headed further east taking various back roads, according to google maps, through very rural farm lands, fields of sugar cane and tobacco crops along with tiny villages. Funny farm truck and single engine tractors meandered the roads with us. Sugar cane trucks were also now appearing and crawling along making progress slightly slower. I am also always surprised by the decorations on busses that ply the highways – some are works of art.
We arrived in Nong Khai, our first nights destination just before sunset and checked into the Royal Nakara Hotel. It was a nice, clean and satisfactory place to stay with a good buffet breakfast included in the room.
Nong Khai, known as the Naga City (Nagas being the giant serpent guardians said to inhabit the Mekong River) and famed for its lovely position on the Mekong, is a bustling Thai town and the gateway to Laos and Vientiane. It has some sites to visit including Sala Keaw Khu the almost surreal sculpture park; the enormously revered Luang Por Phra Sai Buddha Image which has a remarkable history and the Thai-Lao Indochina Market called Tha Sadet Market which occupies many streets in the centre of town.
Not to mention the numerous Vietnamese restaurants and food vendors. We found one for a great night time feast.
Nong Khai is famous for having one of the highest number of temples per head of population in Thailand. The most famous temple is Wat Pho Chai as it is the home of Luang Pho Phra Sai. Commissioned by the three daughters of the King of the Lao Lan Chang Empire, it is one of three identical Lao Buddha images, one of which fell into the Maekong during a storm 200 years ago. Its head is said to be made of solid gold! A large part of the centre of town, including the river bank, has been made pedestrian-only. The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, built by Australia and opened in Apr 1994, was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and only the second on the full course of the Mekong. So you can travel to Vientiane easily.
Nong Khai offers Isaan culture, which dominates northeast Thailand and which has an identity distinct from the culture of the center, north, and south of Thailand. Famed for its warmth, kindness and friendliness, the culture has evolved from its Thai and Lao roots. Most locals speak both Thai and the local dialect called Isaan, which is closely related to both the Thai and Lao languages.
On day 2 we didn’t rush; having morning coffee in the room and then wandering down for a lovely buffet breakfast. Lots on offer. Afterwards we had a tour of the town. After a chat with the desk clerk about leaving the truck with the hotel for 3 days, booking a room for our return from Laos and getting some tips on the town we headed out for a quick tour.
We visited a renowned temple Wat Pho Chai known for its highly revered Buddha image and unusually modern wall murals. Wat Pho Chai is Nong Khai town’s largest and most important temple.
We drove along the river road, stopped to admire the Mekong and found a lovely Vietnamese family restaurant for some light lunch.
After an early lunch we mounted the available transport system and took a tuk tuk from our hotel to the Thai-Laos friendship bridge to process out of Thailand. It was a short ride to the bridge entrance and we walked up the departures area not certain how the process worked.
Ace purchased a border pass based on his Thai ID, we went through (1) the immigration departure lane for our exit stamps; then (2) a bus ride across the bridge and into Laos. It was fairly simple and straight forward just a few more steps to get the visa on arrival (4) get and fill out forms from window, (4) turn in forms and passport, (5) wait and pick up passport from window 3 and then (6) find a taxi to town. It was quiet during our crossing so not much queuing on either side of the border. The Laos immigration staff decided to have a short lunch break just as we arrived so had to wait about 20 minutes for the noodles to be consumed.
When you arrive there are touts vying for your business. Ace negotiated with a friendly fellow who agreed to a 300 THB ride into town. I had read many online sites saying it was 400 so this seemed ok. It turned out to be fairly new Kia with a/c and pleasant driver.
Late afternoon we took a stroll to soak up the new atmosphere of Vientiane and a coffee was enjoyed near our hotel at a patisserie with cake. There was clear French influence evident everywhere you go.
We continued our stroll to the edge of town near the river to watch the sun set and to explore the night markets. It was a busy scene, lots of people watching the setting sun over the Mekong River. As night fell the markets got busier as did the street food vendors.
On day 3 week again woke early to be at the Thai Consulate by just after 8 am to ensure an early queue number for lodging my visa application. The system was a bit uncertain but once the Thai staff began to hand out numbers some semblance of order was clear. People were queued in rows of chairs according to their arrival. At 0830 they began to review documents and hand out queue numbers. By 0930 I was directed to a service window to have my papers and passport received, receipt issued and told to return the following afternoon to pay and retrieve my passport and visa.
After these formalities it was time for some sightseeing before the heat of the afternoon set in on us. Vientiane, Laos’ national capital, mixes French-colonial architecture with Buddhist temples. We first went to the Patuxai, a war monument, in the centre of Vientiane, Laos, which was built between 1957 and 1968. The Patuxai is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France.
Next we headed to the golden, 16th-century Pha That Luang or The ‘Great Stupa’ is a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa. Since its initial establishment, suggested to be in the 3rd century, the stupa has undergone several reconstructions as recently as the 1930s due to foreign invasions of the area. It is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol.
As we visited it was undergoing further restoration to its border fencing and entry areas, challenging for photos.
It was my birthday so doing merit was a good Buddhist activity at this place.
Along broad boulevards and tree-lined streets are many notable shrines including Wat Si Saket, the oldest which features thousands of Buddha images. Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 on the order of King Anouvong was built in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture, with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, rather than in the Lao style.
This may have kept it safe, since the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane following a rebellion in 1827 used the compound as their headquarters and lodging place. It may be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The French colonial government restored Wat Si Saket in 1924 and again in 1930. It formerly held the Emerald Buddha that is now in Bangkok.
The Presidential Palace is nearby and the official residence of the President of Laos, who, informally, also holds the position of General Secretary of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. We checked that out through the large fenced gates.
Across the street there was this temple with many historic artefacts, more a museum of sorts. It held a number of buddha images and other relics of history.
It was my birthday as well so why no celebrate a little so a lunch was taken at Kaolao, a locally famous Lao food restaurant in a restored colonial house.
The food was similar to Thai Isaan with lots of flavours and tastes for the mouth to sample.
In the evening we headed to a french restaurant at a local hotel in a restored french colonial building. Food in both facilities were very good and nice service – great choices for the big day.
It was nice to see the many restored French Colonial mansions and buildings around the city. This hotel for dinner was particularly lovely and no doubt would make a nice place to stay if we visited again. It was in a very quiet lane and one block from the evening river markets, sunset observation point with many places to eat nearby.
On the 4th day it was time to pick up my visa in the afternoon so some free time in the morning took us for a little walk in the neighbourhood. The Lao National Museum is located nearby in Vientiane. It was founded as the national museum highlighting the revolution of the 1970s and is located in a French colonial building.
In 2007, the United States donated a grant to help develop the museum which was originally built-in 1925 as the French governor’s residence. It presents the history of Laos, highlighting the Laotian people’s struggle to free the country from foreign occupiers and imperialist forces.
After a lunch we headed to the Consulate and awaited to be called when they opened at 1330. I was number 49 and we were at the border by 230 and into Nong Khai and our hotel by 330. We decided to rest as Ace was getting over a virus and seemed to have picked it up, not feeling well. Our plan now is to head along the Mekong River to Aces home town.
A few more days of travels in the next post. But for now, the sun sets on a busy few days as we enjoy, yet again, a Vietnamese dinner.