Eventuallly the rain slowed down, and I went upstairs to check out that art show. It was awesome, and the upstairs space was lovely. I don't understand why this coffee shop wasn't jam packed with people studying and meeting and chatting. I miss the coffee shop lifestyle. Here are a couple of my favorites:
On the walk back to my hostel I passed by some little old Thai men, and one of them said "Be careful!" I paused, unsure what he was talking about, and then he pointed at the rainy sky and explained "I don't want you to get cold!" Oh Thailand, you have a piece of my heart.
The next morning I got up bright and early to be ready for my shuttle to the airport. Basically a woman showed up in her pajamas, gestured for me to follow her, and walked me down the street to McDonalds, where a random white van pulled up and told me to get in. So, kind of like a kidnapping except I had a receipt. I was subjected to the most terrible music the entire way there (think someone playing the highest note on a cheap keyboard and someone else singing super high pitched over the top of it). At one point I saw the driver casually put his seatbelt on...so I put mine on as well. The driver dropped us off at the arrivals gate, suggesting to me that this was a bit of a non-legit shuttle bus system (yes, this was the first moment I realized this) since it didn't take us to the actual departures area.
Regardless, I found my way upstairs to the departures area, and immediately went to the post office. I had a couple of items that I wanted to ship home to ease up some space in my bag, including a couple of things I brought with me and a couple of things I had purchased along the way that I didn't want to lug around for the next 6 months. The woman working at the post office was so nice, and helped me purchase a box and get it sealed up and labeled properly, and even weighed it for me first and checked the price to make sure I had enough money. I had exactly 823 baht left, and was trying to get it used up before I left without having to take anything else out of the ATM, otherwise known (pretty much only by me) as the backpacker olympics. I finally managed to get a package, an envelope, and several postcards shipped off for 720 baht, leaving me with 103 baht left to my name (about 3 dollars). Perfect. The package will take 2 months to arrive in Portland, but that doesn't really bother me since I won't even be back by then. Yay.
I made my way through check-in, passport control, and security, and found my gate. I parked it at the front of the gate area and just read my book until it was time to go. The flight to Laos was only an hour and 15 minutes, which was good since I was sitting at the very back of the plane by the toilet. I was the first person on the plane, so I had some good time to ponder a couple of things that confuse me about flying.
1) Why do we lose our f&%*ing minds about getting on the plane where we each have an assigned seat? People get in line early, push to be in front of each other, and then RACE to the plane. Why? You have a seat. It's assigned. They won't let anyone else sit in it. The plane won't take off with you standing in the aisle trying to get there. The only thing I can think of here (which is my reason for acting a little bit like this) is that some people occupy an entire luggage compartment with all their "carry ons," so you have to put your bag far away from your seat, which is then a pain when we get to question 2.
2) Why do we lose our f&%*ing minds about getting off the plane, when no one can move until they open the door, approximately 7 years after the plane lands? If you have a flight to catch you better have told the flight attendants and everyone around you. Otherwise, you're just going to shove your way out into the aisles so you can get your heavy bag and stand awkwardly in the aisle until everyone else moves. Or, if you're particularly insane, you do the half-stand awkward neck lean thing from the window seats. Literally all you have done is stand up so you're even more uncomfortable. Again, the plane isn't going to shut the door and lock you in if you don't make it off in time.
3) Who are these mental people who don't use the toilet before we board? You'd rather cram yourself into a cigar box and pee while everyone can hear you? And how small is your bladder that you can't make it through an hour long flight? I know there are plenty of reasonable exceptions here and those aren't what I'm talking about... but I genuinely don't understand people who seem to prefer using a tiny airplane bathroom. Personally I loathe the idea of using the toilet in the air. What if you hit turbulence??? Wouldn't this be the equivalent of being in a port a potty when it falls over? Disgusting. I myself go into total camel mode on the airplane. I make sure to use the bathroom right before boarding, and then go into a meditative state on the flight so my digestive system goes on pause until I can get off that plane. I consider this the only reasonable explanation for the rush to get off the plane. Yes, I'm the only reasonable, sane person there is.
When we landed in Vientiane, I had my paperwork and my exact change for the visa all ready to go. I was utterly alone in this preparedness. The visa on arrival line was chaos of people who had no idea what was going on or how much their visa would be or where to get cash etc. etc. etc. I met a very nice older couple from South Africa in line, and they were so proud of me for traveling by myself for so long, and told me to come visit South Africa some day and to be safe and we wished each other well and went on our way. Yay nice people
When I finally made it through passport control and security I found my taxi driver waiting in the teeny tiny arrivals area, drenched in sweat and not speaking a word of English. He didn't understand when I asked where the ATM was, so I had to stand there scanning the area until I found the only ATM tucked away in a corner. To clarify, I don't exchange money anywhere (you lose so much doing this!). Thus far I've been successful with taking out money from ATMS in local currency, and then using it all up perfectly before I leave a country. I knew the cost of the taxi ahead of time, but I had no money to give him. I took about a million kip, got some change from a counter nearby, and we were on our way.
I've never taken out a million of something before. The exchange rate here is crazy! About 8,000ish kip equals one US dollar. Kip is also really interesting because all the bills look kind of the same and are in the same color palette, and they have so many different denomination bills! All of these bills are different denominations. You have to be really careful when you're paying somewhere so you don't give the wrong bill and you get the right change. Thai baht was a lot more beautiful, but this is all part of the interesting things to discover as you travel!
I made it to my hostel, which is gorgeous and lovely, and has full thickness mattresses. I met a girl in my dorm from Ireland, and we became friends and headed off to dinner at a Lao restaurant together. I knew I had been eating too many toasties the last week or so, and desperately needed some vegetables, so I ordered a giant plate of veggies and rice, and ate until I couldn't eat anything else.
The next morning the Irish girl and I decided to go spend the day exploring together. We walked to Patuxai Arch in the psychotic heat, and it was gorgeous! This is a war monument built between 1957 and 1968 and is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It looks a lot like the Arc de Triomphe, but is Laotian in design, decorated with mythical creatures from their culture. The word Patuxai essentially means "Victory Gate." The monument was built using American funds and cement actually intended to build a new airport, which is why it has the nickname of the "vertical runway." Ha! A feisty bit of defiance from Laos. I have a lot more to learn about the history of Laos, but I'm very curious about its independence from France.
You can climb up to the top for only 3,000 kip (about 36 cents) - what a deal! 7 flights of stairs later and we had a stunning view of this part of the city. Neat!
After this we walked, drenched in sweat, down to the riverside, where we found some lunch at a little cafe. I got a focaccia bread sandwich, which was delicious. The french influence remains strong here in the coffee and bread, which is a win for everyone in my book.
After lunch we got picked up and taken out for the afternoon to the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women (https://www.travelfish.org/sight_profile/laos/vientiane_and_surrounds/vientiane/vientiane/3344). Founded by a Vientiane native (#win), this organization provides training for disadvantaged women (especially rural women) to learn traditional Lao craftwork (dying, weaving), and other skills so that they can make a good living and maintain the traditional handicraft skills. You take a tour of the facilities, and then you get to dye your own hand-woven silk scarf!!! You pick out your pattern and they show you how to fold and tie the scarf up, and then they teach you about the different dye colors. All of their items are hand-dyed with all-natural dyes, and we learned all about the different fruits and plants and organic items that are used for different colors. You dye the scarf yourself (with some help from the expert), and then you rinse it out and hang it to dry in the sun! After you're done you can wander around the shop where they sell other items, and they will iron and fold your scarf for you. You can also learn to weave, but that takes a lot longer and you certainly can't weave an entire scarf in a day. Our visit here was WONDERFUL and I can't believe more people don't do it. I had to hunt for hours to find this as an option in the area, so now my mission is to convince other people to go as well.
After we got back from this exciting adventure, we wanted to go down and wander the night market. On the way there we saw a dog walking around on the street with his mouth taped shut. I was VERY concerned to see this, and he seemed to be very gentle and not aggressive at all, but certainly looked a little rough and likely dehydrated. The Irish girl could not seem to be bothered in the slightest, and informed me at this moment that she had seen him last night the same way (but hadn't done anything), and didn't even like dogs anyway. She said maybe he had rabies or something and really wanted to just keep going. The blossoming threads of friendship between us immediately severed. I can not and will not be friends with anyone who thinks this is acceptable. He disappeared down an alley and I promised myself to immediately research animal rescues in the area when we got back to somewhere with wifi (my phone doesn't have data service here so far...). I got in touch with the ONLY animal rescue I could find, and they told me there are no animal welfare laws in Laos, and they are the only rescue in the area. It sounds like it's basically just one girl running the whole thing herself, and she's out of town, so she suggested that if I feel safe doing so and I see him again, that maybe I can cut the tape off. So now that's my entire mission for the rest of my time here in Vientiane. Aren't you glad I got those rabies shots now? I messaged a friend who is a vet to get her take on the situation, and have marked on a map where I saw him so I can return and look around for him. I know there are a lot of explanations for why someone might have done this, but I don't find any of them particularly justifiable. I will be careful, I promise.
Anyway, you're caught up now! Yay I did it. I head to Luang Prabang tomorrow for the foreseeable future, so more to come!