On the evening of our departure we went to the office of my usual travel agent to wait for transport to the bus station. It was just a short ride to the bus station, in fact we could have walked over there from the travel agent's office. We had to wait for over an hour for other passengers to arrive, and when the bus finally came, we left Bangkok around 9 pm. Our double decker bus was air-conditioned with fairly wide reclining seats and a toilet on the lower level. I found it quite comfortable. but my American friend did not.

The bus stopped only once about halfway through the journey at a small Thai rest stop. It gave the passengers a chance to stretch their legs and get something to eat. Early the next morning we reached Nong Khai, near the border with Laos. It parked at a restaurant which was right besides the Mekong River on the Thai side. It was still dark as we could see the full moon. I remember it as being one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, the view of the river and the moon in the sky. We were at this restaurant for a couple of hours, and one of the bus company's staff who had accompanied us from Bangkok distributed the Lao immigration forms for the passengers to fill out. He also explained to us the procedures at the Immigration office once we crossed over to Laos via the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge.

At the Immigration office we had to wait over an hour for the Laotian authorities to process our visas on arrival. The cost of the visa depends on one's nationality, and can be anywhere from USD30 to USD50, while for some other passport holders it is free. The fellow from the bus did wait for everyone to get their stamped passports back, and directed us to another mini-bus to take us into Vientiane which was not that far.

The mini-bus (it was actually a van) took less than half an hour to get to town. Along the way we noticed both the Laotian national flag hoisted on government buildings and private houses, alongside the Communist party flag. I was expecting to see a lot of poverty but although there were some dilapadated houses and huts along the route, the city didn't look that run down. The van dropped us near a fountain, and two other Westerners, both young girls also got off. I thought we were somewhere outside of town as the vicinity didn't look so busy, and waited for another car to take us into the city, as I had heard the driver tell the girls earlier that another car would come along soon. What a misunderstanding! After about 30 minutes of waiting I found out that we were practically in the city center. The two girls were just waiting to go to another town. Anyhow, we walked past the fountain and found a hotel to our liking, and checked in. I discovered much later that the fountain was one of the landmarks of downtown Vientiane!

We didn't do much on the first day of our arrival as both of us were feeling tired after the long bus trip. We just walked around near the hotel. Our hotel was located right in the downtown area, but it was so quiet compared to Bangkok, not that I minded it at all. I was beginning to like this city. Laos used to be part of French Indo-China, along with Cambodia and Vietnam. I noticed that in all the government buildings around Vientiane, the signs were both in the Laotian and French languages, whereas in Cambodia and Vietnam the signs were only in their official language and in English. Although this is just an observation, I wondered about it. Anyway, the next day we hired a tuk tuk (3 wheeled taxi), similar to the ones you see in Bangkok. I had no problems communicating with the locals as the Laotian language is similar to Thai. We didn't even need to change any money as the Thai currency is accepted everywhere in town.

The tuk tuk driver took us to a number of attractions around the city which we wouldn't have seen otherwise. He was a real friendly guy, and waited patiently for us at every place. We visited the Haw Phra Kaew temple which had a well kept garden, Wat Si Saket the oldest temple in Vientiane which is just across the street from Haw Phra Kaew. Then, to Pha That Luang which I was told, is the national symbol of Laos, located in a huge plaza. When we got there I was feeling so hungry that I bought a couple of steamed dumplings from a vendor who told me that it contained minced pork. It is one of my favorite snacks and I have eaten it quite often in Asian countries, but this time the taste was a bit strange. It didn't taste like pork at all, and I started wondering whether it was dog meat. Needless to say, I threw away the other one. Luckily, I didn't have any adverse side effects, but my friend thought it was quite funny! The last place our driver took us was Patuxai, a War Memorial known as the Victory Gate. It was a busy thoroughfare, and it was here that I observed the most traffic in the whole city. After we returned to the hotel, both of us agreed that we had a great tour, and gave a generous tip to the taxi driver.

The next day we ventured out on our own. First, we walked over to Talat Sao or Morning Market. It is a huge traditional market and situated in the heart of Vientiane, near the city's main post office. There are rows and rows of stalls and shops selling a wide variety of goods. You name it, they probably have it! Most of the shops are outside, but there is also a modern 4 storey shopping center connecting to the market. Inside you will find more items such as mobile phones, electrical/electronic products, CDs, DVDs, etc., etc. I would say almost all of the stuff sold there are fake, but who cares, they are dirt cheap!

We also saw the That Dam pagoda or Black Stupa at the center of a roundabout in the old section of Vientiane. According to legend, this stupa is standing guard over the entire nation to protect it from all enemies. We took a stroll along the Mekong River, and went inside the Lane Xang Hotel for a short rest in the lobby. This hotel is a riverside hotel, and I imagine its upper level rooms must have a good view of the Mekong River. I should mention that I was a bit disappointed at seeing the river in Laos. The view I saw there was unlike the one I saw in Nong Khai on the Thai side. I think it was the only disappointment I felt during our stay in Vientiane. The same evening a mini-bus came to pick us up for the return trip to the Immigration office at the border. Departure formalites were smooth and quick, and we took the bus back to Thailand, stopping at the same places as before, and reached Bangkok the next morning.

To conclude, I would say that Laos is a forgotten country, not emphasized too much on the tourist map. Most of the people who were with us on the bus from Thailand went there for their visa runs. In Vientiane I didn't see many tourists like in Bangkok. However, for me I liked it because, as mentioned earlier, the people there seemed sincere, and their life style seemed more relaxed and easy going. For sure, there are a lot of poor people (I'm certain even more in the rural areas) but I didn't see anybody living in abject poverty. Although Vientiane is the nation's capital the atmosphere there was more like a country town, unlike busy busy Bangkok. True, the country still has a communist system of government, but from what I could see during my short visit, the people didn't look like they were oppressed at all. They even looked happy and carefree going about their daily business. I wish them the best of luck for their future, and for the prosperity of their country.