The Long Wander in Laos © Sahand Sedghi

Perfect Circle

Vientiane, Laos


Ominous eyes © Sahand Images

Traveling is a bit like falling in love. The first time you meet a city, it fairly shines with beauty and grace. It is full of possibility, wonderful unknowns, and personality. You want to discover it, to get lost and then, with the miracle of a map, find yourself again. Getting lost in a new city isn't difficult, but it's like exercise for the mind. You remember a painted sign hanging from the side of a shack, or the unpaved alleyway and the monkey with the forlorn face chained atop a concrete wall. You wander, often in expanding concentric circles, until at last you realize you been here before and produce the map to validate your déjà vu. It is sweet remembering every time you pass something you've passed before, a comfort, a confirmation: Yes, it is still here, I am still here.

Some cities are so various and mammoth that, indeterminate of time, this déjà vu-ing could continue forever. London, Tokyo, New York, Bangkok. All of these cities are monsters that refuse to be known. They are grumpy sleeping beasts and if you wake them, will eat you alive. But most of the cities in Southeast Asia are small enough that, given a little time, you discover what it means to move past the glow of first meetings and into the hum-drum of familiarity. That quaint sign or forlorn monkey eventually looks faded and tattered. Passing by a remembered corner is no longer sweet but tasteless and drab. This is also the beauty of travel. After the shine has faded and your eyes have adjusted to the lines and light, you are free to unceremoniously dump this tired old town and move on to the next one. Where is the bus station, please?

Just like a city holds circles, however, sometimes a country will send you in a nauseating loop, setting you back down right where you started from. Only the second time around, there is no glow, no shine and no lovely déjà vu. Granted, with a little foresight and planning, retracing your steps may not be necessary. But when it’s your first month on the road, your first new country and your first border without visas upon entry, you may be forced to take a geometry lesson and know by heart the exact contours of a circle.

The first time through Vientiane was as glowy and wonderful as it ought to have been. It was a bit like falling in love. It sits directly over the border from Thailand and we were flushed with the excitement of having entered our first new country overland when we rode into Vientiane on a songteaw from the border. We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel and spent a few days admiring the imposing Arc de Triomphe replica, Patuxai, which led the way to the Laos national treasure, Pha That Luang, a gigantic golden stupa. We indulged in the gigantic baguette sandwiches and fruit shakes on offer, got fat, and finally left town, happily bidding farewell to Vientiane.

Whatever looks like a short distance on the map of Laos in reality turns into a marathon bus journey. One inch is easily eight hours. We covered the four inches from Vientiane to the north of Laos in a matter of weeks, spacing out the arduous rides with every town worth stopping in along the mangled road that winds north and then east through the country. We failed to note the fact that the road that goes north and east also continues back around to head south and west, never guessing that we would be retracing those four inches in a twenty-four hour geometry class that turned out to be about so much more than math and circles.

We spent loads of time in Luang Prabang. Probably a good ten days were wiled away there. We watched the festivities of the Laos New Year, getting plenty wet ourselves. When the last drops of water fell and the Buddhas had all been restored to their thrones, we slipped into an ecstasy of enjoying the town as it is normally, which was a pleasant mix of café life mingled with massages and long walks throughout town to admire the temples. There had been more than enough time to apply for and receive our visas for Vietnam. If only we had known.

The guidebooks do say that you need a visa for Vietnam, just not in such a straightforward manner. “There are no visas on arrival,” seems an appropriately clear statement. Instead, the Southeast Asia guide book says something to the effect of, “Tourist visas are valid for a single 30-day stay and are stamped ‘any international border’. This allows you to enter/exit Vietnam at any of the eight land borders.” What isn't excessively clear, and we are people of excesses, is that you need the visa before you get to any one of the eight land borders.

As we neared the village of Vieng Xai and it began to dawn on us that we were planning to enter a communist country that only opened its borders recently, we started to take that tiny quote in the guidebook a bit less optimistically thinking, ‘Maybe they don’t issue visas on arrival. Maybe we should have gotten them back in Luang Prabang. Lord, have mercy.’ Sure enough, the nice border officer sadly informed us, as we stared back at him with our faces full of dread and realization, we needed them before we got to this, one of eight, land borders.

There is a bus that goes all the way. It starts in Sam Neua in the north and ends in Vientiane, the capitol. The bus conductor told us it would take fourteen hours. We started out at six in the morning. By six in the evening we were only just passing through Phonsavan, in the dark, in the rain, with aching asses, in a bus that seemed to be on its last leg. We decided to get off and continue the journey the next morning. We slept in a hotel that was huddling against the earth across a stretch of gravel from the bus station. The next morning our asses were still numb, but we climbed into a new bus and took another twelve hour journey to Vientiane.

Traveling through a city twice is a bit like falling out of love. You've seen it all before, you know what the next move is going to be, what the city will say next and, frankly, it no longer turns you on. Or maybe it's just Vientiane. Some cities are only good once. The Patuxai was a phony replica, the Tha Phat Luang is only good the first time and the rest of the city isn't worth wandering again. But we comforted ourselves with gigantic baguette sandwiches and amazing fruit shakes, got fat, and when our visas came through from the Vietnamese embassy, we traveled our last inch in Laos to another of the eight land borders with Vietnam. Those four inches to the north and back again were ten centimeters of a lesson well learned. And they formed a perfect circle.


After our first three weeks of travel we were still adjusting to the rigors of the road. We decided the only way to banish the grit and dirt of travel was to stay in a hotel with a name we couldn't pronounce. If you can't say it, it must be good. We were completely right. Chanthapanya. (Pronounced Chan-ta-pun-yah.)

From the Photo gallery

Click here for the Laos photo-set.