Last weekend I made a quick trip to Bangkok, to collect some of my personal things that I had to leave behind when I left Finland in January and to get a sense of the city for a change. After all, Vientiane is still more like a small town in the league of capitals.
Getting there. One can fly directly to Bangkok from Vientiane, with a cost that matches international flights. A cheaper way is to cross the border over to Thailand and catch a domestic flight from Udon Thani, some 50 km from the Lao-Thai border. The only downside of this choice was its timing on a Friday afternoon, as Udon Thani was expecting around 600,000 vehicles and 1,000,000 pilgrims to attend the cremation of a famous Buddhist monk Luangta Maha Bua on Saturday. So we left in a minor panic in good time, only to find ourselves sail through the border and pass time at the airport with beer and grilled chicken while waiting for our plane (which naturally was late as well).
Whilst in Bangkok, I took advantage of the ample shopping opportunities, great food and cheap air-conditioned taxis. I visited the giant Chatuchak weekend market in the north of Bangkok, where you can buy anything and everything under the sun from furniture to pets, soaps to fabrics, jewellery to antiques and so much more. Similar to the weekend market at Porte de Clignancourt in Paris, you need really good shoes, tons of patience and preferably a map of the market to find what you’re looking for amongst the thousands of vendors. I did find some 100-year-old Chinese wooden chests (the likes after which I have been lusting for years), for a price of 7,000 bahts (~170 euros) + shipping they are nearly half the price you can find in Helsinki. I didn’t get one this time, but next time I might just be carrying enough cash to buy one. Another thing in anticipation of future trips to Bangkok was a visit to the Hua Lamphong railway station. Taking the overnight train from the Lao-Thai border town of Nong Khai to Bangkok is not only half the price of flying but also a great experience in itself, so I wanted to check out the place to have an idea of what to expect upon an early morning arrival. My worries of a large, crowded and poorly sign-posted railway station faded away – it’s hardly the size of the railway station in Helsinki.
I also made an effort to explore the local culture a little bit. I took the river ferry to the Grand Palace to see the Emerald Buddha, a remarkable figure carved from jade with an important role in the historical relations of Laos and Thailand. The two countries have very different versions of the story of the Emerald Buddha, including two opposite accounts of who it really belongs to. Some friends of mine once visited the temple carrying a large back bag and were faced with suspicion after the wardens found out they were living in Laos – they were afraid they wanted to steal the Emerald Buddha. Myself, I also got some suspicious looks as I was wearing a traditional Lao skirt (the only skirt in my travel wardrobe long enough for wearing to a temple). Here is what the Emerald Buddha looks like in winter attire (clothes are changed three times a year in a ceremony featuring the royal family):
The weather in Bangkok is very different from Vientiane, largely due to high humidity (we will get that as well during the rainy season but Bangkok has it year-round thanks to its location near the coast). Outside air-conditioned taxis and shopping malls, your skin is constantly sticky and the air feels heavy to breathe, although the latter is also due to poor air quality and pollution. Hence I felt excited to join some friends for a drink at the open air Vertigo Bar at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel. 61 floors up from the ground, there is a much welcomed constant breeze (that also wrecks havoc with your hair) not to mention great views over the city:
Getting back. The way back was the same as the one in, domestic flight to Udon Thani followed by a ‘limousine service’ to the border. The ‘limousine’ was a Toyota Corolla that took our party of four to the border in next to no time, with a maximum speed of 130 kmph as our friend on the front seat told us. Departure paperwork on the Thai side of the border, a crowded bus across the bridge, arrival paperwork on the Lao side of the border and my first shared jumbo ride into town. Being back on the noisy, dusty and bumpy roads of Vientiane gave rise to a minor culture shock after having spent five days in relative civilisation in Thailand. The two countries do enjoy markedly different levels of wealth and development, something I somehow didn’t expect to observe so sharply…