Steve and I like visiting capitol cities. We feel they offer important insights into any country. That's why we wanted to have at least a few hours in Vientiane in Laos. You can get to the Laotian capitol via a sleeper train from Bangkok. Thus we found ourselves pulling out of Hualamphong Station on the #69 Saturday night.
Somewhere deep within my psyche lies buried the delusion that night trains are romantic, which is why I keep taking them when I have a chance. At one point Sunday morning, in the Nong Khai station in Thailand, near the Laotion border, we actually saw such a train, incarnate. Elegantly labeled with raised golden letters, the Eastern & Oriental Express had dining car after dining car, and when they rolled by, we glimpsed tables set with linens and flowers. All the passengers looked to be plump and wealthy and Caucasian. I imagine their private compartments were plush and cozy.
The train we took, in contrast, had just one dining car, with six tables and battered plastic menus. The fluorescent lighting was blue-tinged and grim. A cheerful waiter served meals that were better than most of the fare we get on airlines (though those Eastern & Oriental Express passengers would have sneered at it). Steve and I also loved the fact that all the dining care windows were wide open, letting in the warm night breeze and giving us excellent views of the squalid conditions alongside the tracks that some of Bangkok's residents somehow endure.
The train wasn't the worst sleeper I've ever taken. It left precisely on time and arrived, 12 hours later, only about 20 minutes late. When the porter made up the bed in our car, the sheets looked reasonably clean, and the mattress wasn't too hard. Still the clatter of the wheels penetrated my earplugs, and I'd have to be truly deluded to call the motion rocking, rather than jarring. When I have to pee in the middle of the night, I'd rather not have to walk through a corridor to a bad smelling little compartment with liquid on the floor, but we did enjoy waking up to stare at the fields of rice and sugarcane flashing by in the early morning light. After we pulled into Nong Khai, transferred to the shuttle train that takes you on the 8-minute ride across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), then took a taxi to our guesthouse in town, it was about 11 a.m. and we both felt a little weary.
Still, we were game for doing Vientiane. I'd had the good fortune to find and print out a September travel article published in the LA Times, so we had up to date recommendations for restaurants (which we hunted down and which proved to be 1) excellent (Xang Phoo for lunch) and 2) superb (Lao Kitchen for dinner)). That writer's 5 must-see sights were all within walking distance of our hotel and each other, and we found and enjoyed visiting them all. By dinner, we were passing our judgment: Vientiane (pop. about 250,000) feels sleepy and mellow by the standards of other world capitols. It's worthy of a 7-8 hour tour, but not two whole days.
So we were happy to climb aboard the “VIP bus” to Luang Prabang at 8 the next morning. We could have taken a plane (Lao Air, less than an hour and not expensive), but we'd read that the scenery seen from the bus was splendid, and we told ourselves: we enjoy the occasional bus ride. Once again, we were forgetting the qualifiers: IF it isn't 10 hours long and IF the bus has halfway decent shock absorbers and IF it doesn't break down or go over the precipice of one of a zillion hairpin turns. Steve and I usually enjoy that. Our ride avoided death AND disaster. The scenery for at least half the ride was indeed surreally beautiful. We saw details we would never have glimpsed on the plane: posses of three years olds running down the road with no adult anywhere in sight, tiny flooded rice fields, chiles drying on tin roofs, preteens hauling sticks in bags slung their foreheads, and more. But the last few hours felt grueling.
The town it took us to, Luang Prabang, in contrast has exceeded the good reputation that drew us here. It's one of those enchanted towns, a Brigadoon or Shangrila or at least a Santa Fe. The balcony of our guesthouse overlooks the Mekong, which even this far north is wider than the Colorado. Surrounding mountains are as comely as those features of classic Chinese paintings. The streets are filled with pretty restaurants serving great food, with glorious temples, with spas offering massage services so cheap that even massage-resistent Steve succumbed to the lure of a 60-minute Classic Lao session (and liked it!). Monks parade through the streets at dawn accepting crackers and balls of rice from tourists and locals alike, and an endless line of stalls set up along the main street every night selling wares that even shopping-averse Steve found beguiling.