Wednesday, January 29, 2014

WALKING THE STREETS OF VIENTIANE - LAOS - DAY 1

Reading some travel guides on Vientiane before I headed out, I read that most books say 2 days is enough for visiting Vientiane, unless you go trekking in the country. So, i booked 4 days. Simply because I try to see everything that's there, except for places which are totally overrun by tourists. No danger here in Vientiane though.
For my first day, or rather half day, after flying in and checking into a hotel in the old part of town, I just wanted to get acquainted with the town, scanning shops and restaurants  around my hotel and getting the usual necessities like water and SIM card.  

But after that I wandered off to the Mekong, which I did imagine a bit more exciting. But then this is Laos and Vientiane, where few tourists go. And this is not Singapore, where business owners would have a theme park, entertainment and riverside restaurants etc. built along the river. It is very much a quiet town which is very walkable. So is the walk along the river on Fa Ngum Road. 

There are a few bars with drinking and screaming locals and tourists located along the river but that is really it during daytime. I went West first and passed through a small park with Fa Ngum Statue on my way back along a parallel road to the River. Even though it was exceptionally cool in December, there were still no people around in the parks. Initially I was prepared for people to say it is too hot!
Going back to the river on the east side of the old town, there were a few more sights to see and explore, all around Anouvong Park. Life is still very slow here. I have seen groups of novice monks walking down the street along the river and turning around at once just to walk back up the street. 

Occasionally Vietnamese girls on bicycles will ask locals and tourists for manicure jobs but during the daytime there is no hassle to buy things. The statue of Anouvong, the Presidential Palace and a small Chinese Temple are really all the attractions here but this is a good place to wait for the sunset, i thought. 

And the sun sets really spectacularly as an orange-reddish ball across the river above the treeline in Thailand. There were more people out now and more mosquitoes and I was glad that I had a bottle of mosquito lotion in my backpack! 

With the sunset finished Fa Ngum Road was closed for traffic and local joggers were doing their evening routine while all along the park, people started setting up their tents for the nigh market. During the week the night market was nice and relaxing to see, while on the other evenings and specially on Saturday evening I was more or less pushed through the market by Lao teenagers. There are no real bargains to be found here, nor were there any unique items sold. A few shops with Buddha images (all new, made look old!) and a few shops with paintings (some people actually painted) but mostly T-shirts, clothes and electronics were sold. 

The all so quiet riverfront became an open air disco club on Saturday evening with two huge groups of aerobic fans doing their exercises to the sound of funky tunes from huge loudspeakers. I was wondering how the monks of the nearby Chan temple would be able to concentrate on their evening chanting, since the temple is right next to it. 

The bars and restaurants along the riverfront and in the side streets were relatively full with tourists at that time. Some places were completely empty with some places totally full. My favourite place became (sadly) Via Via Pizza, which did have the best Pizza in town and around, good prices and friendly service and since this was my third visit in Laos, I did (for good reasons) fully intend not to eat Lao food on this trip!
While there were plenty of tuk-tuk drivers who offered their services in a polite and non-pushy way, I decided not to use their services this time. Vientiane is a totally walkable town, though one has to be rather good on foot, even on my first afternoon and evening, I did quite a few kilometers on foot here.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

SWEET DREAMS IN VIENTIANE LAOS

Nightly turn-down service!
Indeed, those were sweet dreams at the SALANA BOUTIQUE HOTEL in Vientiane, Laos. It was a perfect stay all in all, with only minor items that did not work perfectly. 

I had looked up the down the maps and booking sites before I decided that I will stay at the Salana. I had several other hotels booked first, which were half the price, but in the end, the location of the Salana is awesome, close to the river, nestled between two temples and next to restaurants. And the reviews were awesome, however accurate they are, but in comparison to comments on other hotels, this one seemed the best choice. 



As always, my personal ranking and rating system needs to be applied here, and I think I will use this for my future hotels as well:

Location 5 of 5 
Room Size 5 of 5
WiFi free and working 4 of 5
Breakfast included and yummy 4 of 5
Staff competency and friendliness 4 of 5
Safety box in the room and adequate size 5 of 5
Bathroom functionality 5 of 5
Room design and functionality 5 of 5
Sounds 4 of 5 



Location rocked! Right next to Wat Ong Tue and behind Wat In Peng. Just what I wanted. Walkable distance to the Mekong River, restaurants and night market. 

The room was large and I had plenty of space to open my large suitcase. No drawers really, but enough hanging space. Free WiFi is a must for me and it worked mostly, but slow.


Breakfast was included with plenty of choices from the buffet, plus a selection of freshly cooked items. My vegetarian omelet came with ham though :-(  so I returned it. I opted for a saver choice the next morning with two fried eggs and those were completely forgotten while my toast, beans and the tea were cold by the time they came after I complained. Staff was friendly and nice but seemed to lack a good manager who keeps an eye on things.


Staff overall was very attentive, friendly and competent. One thing did not work and it pissed me off but the hotel apologized and in the end did not charge me for it, so I will only mention here that the hotel learns from mistakes and tries to correct them. 

Laptop, camera and all my valuables fit into the safety box, which was securely mounted at an acceptable height inside the closet. 



The bathroom was great, with a nice gallery-style window to the garden from the shower, plenty of light for shaving or putting contact lenses in and the amenities were plenty. Nice large fluffy towels which were exchanged daily!



Awesome large bed (I like it hard) with a thick blanket (it was only 10 degrees at night). Hundreds of TV channels, fully equipped bar!!! and a nice desk and chair for working on the laptop. Plenty of electric sockets, so batteries, phones, laptop and anti-mosquito plug-in worked (though I probably would not have needed it, there were no mosquitoes in the room. 


hallway to the lobby

The doors of the rooms are equipped with an electronic alarm which sounds when the door is not fully shut, which resulted in the guests slamming the doors into the lock. That was a bit disturbing and it was so noisy that I actually had to sleep with ear plugs, which I never really do anywhere. 


View onto the temples
There is a lounge with a balcony on the 4th floor with a good view onto the neighborhood. Limited drinks are available though and WiFi did not work for me up there, despite having the right password. 

All in all a great stay and I will surely book this place again for a future trip!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

BANGKOK SHUTDOWN - THAILAND

Phew....I got out! That was my thinking when I reached Singapore this week. Even though the protesters in Bangkok said, they would not block the airport, I am not so sure this will be true. The airport might not be blocked, but if all the streets are blocked then how would I get there? Even skytrain and subway stations will be jammed with people who struggle to get to the airport. 

The imminent shutdown of one of the worlds largest cities was already felt in the past week, with less traffic than usual on the streets. I could basically walk across my usual Soi (small street) which is usually packed with traffic. While people where still returning from the holiday season it felt much more empty than usual. My hotel was only filled about 50% and from friends who work in the hotel industry I heard that they have only been occupied between 30 - 70%. Remember this is the high season!! The rattle effect will be enormous! The hotel staff is often paid by occupation rates and a lot of those employees are politically on the other side than the protesters are, so the money they earn normally goes right back the families in the provinces. 

A number of friends already complained that they had no income, jobs they applied for were not filled anymore and some of them were already packing up to go back home because there was no money to be made in Bangkok now. 

Asoke Intersection

  I went to the big last protest day before Christmas and New Year, carefully evaluating if it was safe to be that close to the protest sites. But I did get closer and saw that it was basically all nice and friendly people. They all smiled and waved their Thai flags and invited me to take photos of them. By the end of the protest day, I had more than 600 shots and video clips taken and visited 4 protest sites - Lumpini Park, Central World stage, Asoke Intersection and Silom Intersection. 

Silom intersection

Not taking any sides here, but it was rather impressive! And it was peaceful because there was absolutely no police in sight and no anti-anti-protesters!  That will chance now with the protest leaders threatening to shut down the city for good. First clashes have already been reported as far away as Chiang Mai and Ratchaburi, so it is just a matter of time until this gets bloody again. And I have no intentions to be in Bangkok then and for the near future. So, I got out in time and Bangkok will not be on my travel plans for the foreseeable future.