Laos Part One: a cycle tour, pancakes and the only restaurant in town

10-11 September 2011

It was an early start as my tour group left Vietnam for Laos. Apparently, the Laos border closed at 5pm so we had to firm deadline to meet. Thankfully, depending on your point of view, our mini-bus proceeded to bomb around the country roads, overtaking any car or bike that got in our way and beeping at anything in sight – standard driving practice in Southeast Asia really. Beeping in Vietnam essentially means, “I’m here, watch out”, unlike in England where it tends to angrily mean, “what are you even doing?!”

We stopped off at a cafe for lunch but had already stocked up on food the night before so we just got some hot water for our pot noodles, which we were charged 25,000 VND for (almost one whole pound). We soon arrived at the Vietnamese border and got through pretty quickly before having to wait to be picked up by our new Laos driver, who drove a little slower.

At the Laos border we had to fill in our visa forms by candlelight as the electricity didn’t seem to be working, before trying to track down the money exchange man as there was not going to be a cash machine at our overnight stop and none of us had any local currency. Finally, we were all sorted and soon we arrived in Lac Xao where we stayed at the only hotel in town. Our tour group of six all split into three separate double rooms, which was to be our setup throughout the tour. I hadn’t expect hotels and private rooms, I figured we’d all be bunking in dorm rooms together. This was an added luxury.

After a bit of a rest, we all headed out to look around a local market before going to a pool hall. I only played a quick game because, lets face it, pool is not my forte. Still I won by default when someone potted the black ball – I’ll take that victory. I also sampled Laos’ own beer – the creatively named Beer Lao. My tour guide informed us that it is hard to find this beer anywhere else, except maybe some places in neighbouring Thailand, because it doesn’t really get exported. However, I found it in a bar in my university town of Nottingham one time so I’m not sure how much truth there is in that.

For dinner, we went to the only restaurant in town called, again creatively, the ‘Only One Restaurant’. The highlight of the night however was the discovery of a pancake stand in the street outside. This was to become one of my main food sources during my stay in Asia. I found them across Laos and Thailand and they all serve up delicious (and cheap) pancakes with a variety of toppings. On this occasion, I didn’t buy one myself – just picked at others. I wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

We left Lac Xao at 8am for the Laos capital: Vientiane. We arrived at, what I think was called, the Phasouk House hotel, and went for lunch at an American bakery chain that our guide was a particular fan of, called Joma. I treated myself to a very cultural tuna melt. Afterwards, we took a slightly more cultural bike tour around the city, stopping at a golden building (the Pha That Luang) and Laos’ answer to the Arc de Triomphe (the Patuxai Victory Monument), as well as the parliamentary buildings. We also went down to a park next to the river, where we could see Thailand sitting on the other side of the water, as well as a temple for us to explore. Us girls had to don long skirts (provided at the entrance) to cover our knees before we went inside.

Later we all went off to a restaurant for dinner, where we were joined by a guy who had left the tour in Hanoi (where I had joined it). He decided to order everything – erm – “different” on the menu and so had a dinner of crickets, duck bill and chicken cartilage. We all gave the dishes a try. The crickets tasted a bit like chicken, the duck bill was hard and slimy and the chicken cartilage was just a bit unpleasant, although (somewhat bizarrely given the taste and texture) it was the second time I’d tried it. For my main course, I ordered pork larb – a traditional, local dish that comprised of mined meat and herbs. It wasn’t the best dish I’ve ever tried but the tower of Beer Lao we split between us made up for it.

After dinner, we went for drinks at the bar opposite. Laos has a curfew of midnight, meaning that most places closed by 11.30pm, so we went to find a pancake stand before bed. We were all craving chocolate but sadly it wasn’t an option. Happily, we found a nearby store where we could buy a bar and the vendor helpfully melted it over the pancakes for us before adding in some banana. Happily fed and watered, we all headed off to bed.

Read about the rest of my trip:

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