So I arrived in communist country #2 ½ (I know Russia is no longer a communist country, but it is still close) of my 12 country trip with rather low expectations. While I had a great time in Saigon and the Mekong Delta, my stay in the northern portion of Vietnam was far below my expectations (and my stay in St. Petersburg went well, but my stay in Moscow was a lowpoint). Anyway, I was not expecting much difference and happily I couldn’t have been more wrong. As I soon learned, the Lao people are quick with a smile and a Sabaidee (hello) and love their Beer Lao (a brand of beer that is quite yummy). And the kids are absolutely darling.
Anyway, my flight to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, early Tuesday morning was uneventful. Although, it did provide me with one more parting Stalinesque experience from Vietnam as all three flight attendants on the Vietnam Air flight provided the passengers with a coordinated demonstrations of the in flight safety instructions. No kidding. They opened and closed the seatbelts at the same time, pretended to puff on a cigarette at the time and then shake their fingers simultaneously and on and on. It was hysterical. They must have practiced the routine for hours.
So when I landed I purchased my visa, was allowed to pass go and grabbed a taxi to my hotel, the Hotel Khamvongsa, a lovely guest house (a guesthouse in Laos is a very small hotel) near the Mekong riverfront. (The Mekong River originates in China/Tibet and meanders through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam providing a vital sea link and food link for the people of Southeast Asia.) I got settled and then grabbed a map of Vientiane to start a little exploring the rather tiny city on my own. I had not hired a guide for my two days in the capital because the sites are close together and rather few in number.
I set out down the block and began a walk along the Mekong River. Now for some reason, Vientiane is built quite a ways away from the riverbank so the city planners are now in the process of building a huge promenade and park area between the road and the river. Apparently construction has been ongoing for years and by the looks of the guys lazing under trees will be ongoing for years to come. However, a new addition to the waterfront was the recent unveiling of a huge (and when I say huge I mean HUGE) statute of King Chao Anouvang, who was the last king of the Vientiane dynasty of the Kingdom of Lane Xang. He reigned from 1804 to 1828 and proved to be one of the bravest kings in the Lao history, courageously fighting against the Siamese (Thai) invasion during the 1826-1828 fight for national independence from the Kingdom of Siam. Ultimately, the King was captured, caged and left to die in the hot sun. As a result, the fallen King holds a special place in the hearts of the Lao people for his bravery in battle and in death. There were huge wreaths of marigolds and candles all around the statute honoring the King.
I then crossed the street to the Presidential Palace, which does not allow tours. So the best I got was a guard to let me in the gate so I could at least take a picture and look at the gardens near the gate. Beautiful building and beautiful grounds (at least from what I could see).
I then walked down the block and spotted a lovely looking courtyard with a sign that advertised massages, manicures and pedicures. It took one look at my feet and decided a detour was in order. One hour and a pair of happy feet later and I was back on the street feeling much better about my open toed sandals.
I checked my map and noticed that there were a couple markets close by (if you have been reading my blog for the past three months you know my penchant for markets) so I immediately set out to track those down. The first was the Khue Din Market near the bus station and it was very easy to find, only a few blocks from the Presidential Palace. Now while the market area beside the bus station was standard fare (fruit stands, produce stands, bread etc), the market area further down the alley was not. The market was built on a dirt floor (so much for my nice pedicure), and the place was not the model of hygiene. However, this market appeared to be the lifeline of Vientiane. There were baskets of spices and vegetables the likes of which I had never seen before. Rows and rows of clothing. And booth after booth of manicurists and hairdressers filled with locals. I wandered around and was greeted by Sabaidees and smiles everywhere I walked. I felt pretty sure it was rare for a tourist to venture into this area so my foray was rather unique for the folks who did not appear to be jaded by the influx of tourists that so often occurs in more mainstream markets.
As I wandered the stalls I was struck by the sameness of everything. The booths were congregated according to product. However each booth in the designated area had the same clothes, the same strange vegetables, the same Buddhist candles and garlands and on and on. How the heck does anyone choose which vendor to buy from and how the heck do the vendors make a living when they are all selling the same products? I was mystified as I walk through the maze of stalls and smiles.
I finally extricated myself from market number 1 and headed for market number 2, which was the Hmong market. (The Hmong are an ethnic group spread through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.) This market appeared to be only a couple blocks from the Khue Din Market, but darned if I could find the place. I wandered around the same block twice and finally walked down the middle of the block through what I thought was a parking area and then viola… there it was in a building that looked like a warehouse. I wandered in and this place was much cleaner and much more organized. The place also appeared to focus heavily on textiles, cloth and Buddhist offerings. It was interesting, but not really my cup of tea. However, as I wandered, I came across a shop featuring handmade stuffed animals for children. The proceeds of the shop went to benefit orphaned and abused children. The abuse of children in Laos and Cambodia is very common as poor families sell their children to owners of brothels. Countries have been working together to put an end to the vile activities of the so called sex tourism industry by prosecuting the men who travel to Laos and Cambodia to frequent these establishments, but the problem remains rampant. So if I could help with a little money, I was all for it. I was handed some literature and looked through a book of pictures. I then had a look through the shop and ended up buying a gift for my grand niece (who I hope will one day understand the meaning of the gift).
After making my purchase, I left the market and headed up Lane Xang street to the Patuxai, which is Vientiane’s version of the Arc de Triomphe and commemorates the Lao who died in the pre-revolutionary wars (the period prior to the 1970s). The interesting little tidbit about the arch is that it was paid with American tax dollars. In 1969, the Americans donated cement to Vientiane to build a new airport, but the government built the the Patuxai instead. (Nice runway.) The structure is rather impressive and has wonderful carvings in the ceiling of the arch as well as carvings in the windows at the top. You can climb to the top and the views were absolutely incredible. The area surrounding the arch was also pretty and featured a park and lovely fountains.
My next stop was to be the Pha That Luang, which is the most important monument in Laos. I had been told that the walk to Pha That Luan was only about 4 km from my hotel, but by now I had been walking for about 5 hours (including the stops to the markets), my feet were sore and I was boiling in the heat. It was also about 3:00 p.m. and the site closed at 4:00 p.m. However, a woman from Britain I ran into at the arch told me it was only a short walk to the Pha That Luang so I set out. Uh … not so short. Twenty-five minutes and two hills later I was finally standing in front of the place, but I was too exhausted to go in. So I figured I would grab a tuk tuk, head back to the hotel for a rest and visit the site in the early morning when it wasn’t so darn hot.
Now about the tuk tuks. It appears that each of the countries I have visited to date have a vastly different idea of a tuk tuk. In India, a tuk tuk is a three wheeled scooter with a very small boxy covered seating area (it almost looks like football helmet on wheels). In Vietnam, a tuk tuk is a three wheeled ATV type vehicle with a large boxy covering generally used for hauling produce instead of people. (The more common mode of transportation around the cities is the cyclo – a bicycle ridden by a driven hauling a rickshaw type seating area.) In Laos, a tuk tuk is a three wheeled scooter with a large boxy seating area (kind of like a large wagon that has a roof and seating on either side).
Anyway, I approached a tuk tuk driver, showed him a map with my hotel on it, told him my hotel name and he gave me a blank look. The fellow did not speak English and did not appear to understand where I wanted to go. He motioned for me to get in anyway, and I shook my head. I approached another driver, showed him the map with my hotel marked on it and he immediately nodded. I got in the back of the tuk tuk and off we went. The wagon/seating area of the tuk tuk is open on all sides and as we trundled through the Vientiane streets, I suddenly understood why all of the scooter riders wear surgical masks on the streets in Southeast Asia. The exhaust from the vehicles and the dirt kicked up was brutal. When I got back to the hotel and washed my face, the white cloth was tan when I was done. Yuck.
So, I decided to rest my weary bones and put my feet up for a bit. Two hours later, I woke up and realized I was starving so I asked the folks at the front desk for a recommendation from the list of restaurants I had made for Vientiane. They were of no help, so I decided to wander down the street and see if I could find one of the places on my list. As I turned off the street where my hotel was located and began to walk along the road fronting the Mekong River, I was confronted with an entirely different scene than what I had encountered earlier in the day. What had been bare sidewalks and street corners had been turned into a makeshift food emporium with outdoor food vendors everywhere. I had not walked more than a block when I found one of the temporary sitdown sidewalk restaurants that was packed with people. Clearly this was the place to be so I accepted a menu from the vendor, grabbed a table and ordered a Beer Lao (which as I said before is the local popular beer that is quite frankly very, very good). The menu was very extensive and included fresh seafood … literally. The seafood was still alive in buckets by the grill and included fish, shrimp and frogs. I ordered the jumbo barbequed shrimp, sticky rice and Lao spring rolls.
As I sat and watched the proprietor and his family hustle patrons, I noticed an extraordinary number of older western men accompanied by young Lao women. The folks in my guesthouse had a sign posted in the lobby that said “No Prostitutes Allowed” (and I am staying in a very nice guesthouse), but I had no idea the problem was so rampant. Anyway, as my meal came, (which turned out to be absolutely delicious) a western man and a very young Lao woman took a seat near me. I watched as he ordered and she sat there saying nothing. When his food cam came, the young woman began to feed this buffoon. And to make matters worse, this was happening in front of the Lao family (and the young boys waiting on the tables) who were running the street restaurant. I was absolutely appalled and wondered how the wonderful Lao people around me could stomach such degradation of one of their own. It was an embarrassment, and I badly wanted to go over to the table and slap the man for all of the women he had previously done this to. A complete and utter ass!
I got up, biting my tongue as I past the jackass, and thanked my hosts for the lovely meal and told them I would be back he next night. (Hey why look for another place to eat when you’ve found the best.) I wandered back to my hotel and went to bed with no real agenda for the next day.
I woke up late and decided to see if I could hire a tuk tuk to take me to the Pha That Luang and the Lao National Museum aka the Lao Revolutionary Museum. A few minutes later, I was back in the wagon of a tuk tuk and heading back to Pha That Luang, in a much better shape than I was the day before. Pha That Luang (“gold stupa”) is a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa, and, as I said before, is generally regarded as the most important symbol in Laos (it’s even on their money). The original Stupa was allegedly built in the 3rd century BC to house the breastbone of Buddha. Over the years, the Stupa was destroyed and rebuilt. (By the way, a stupa is a dome or mound shaped shrine containing relics and symbols to Buddha and is often found on the grounds of a Buddhist temple.) Pha That Luang is so important to the Lao people because the architecture of the building includes many references to Lao culture and identity, and thus has become a symbol of Lao nationalism. Pha That Luang consists of three levels, each conveying a reflection of part of the Buddhist doctrine, and is 147.6 feet high as measured from the ground to the top of the stupa.
Anyway, my tuk tuk driver deposited me at the front gate of the Pha That Luang and motioned to me he would wait near the gate. I paid the entrance fee and wandered through the gates toward the massive gold stupa. It was brilliant in the bright morning sunshine. And everywhere I looked work was taking place in preparation for Bun That Luang, the annual festival held for three days during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. Unfortunately for me, however, the 2010 festival was not being held during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (which actually coincided with my time in Vientiane). Instead, it had been moved by a week in order to coincide with the 450 year celebration of Vientiane.
Despite the work on the grounds, the Stupa was unaffected and that was lucky for me because the Stupa was absolutely gorgeous. I wandered around the structure, climbed the stairs to the top level and watched the monks and the faithful all around the grounds. It was a fascinating trip.
After spending time at the Stupa, I found my driver and we headed back towards the main part of town and the Lao National Museum. Originally, the museum housed a display solely dedicated to the Lao Revolutionary War and the victory of communism over the “puppets of the U.S. imperialists”. However, the museum was expanded to include displays featuring Lao history, culture and art. Unfortunately, however, the museum displays were not well marked and the revolutionary war exhibit still dominated the museum.
The war exhibit was a hilarious ode to the “great” success of communism and featured huge pictures of lots of “people who are patriotic to their homeland” being awarded medals for various actions and activities during the war, lots of pictures explaining the “unfortunate setbacks” of the great patriots and enough weapons to arm a small nation (uh … I guess that would actually be Laos). Anyway, the slam against Americans, Lyndon Johnson and Ric********** went on for rooms and rooms. If you knew nothing about the United States and looked at this display you would think that Laos had invaded the U.S., captured the Capitol and ate Congress for dinner. It was a riot.
Unfortunately, my laughter stopped with my trip to the final room in the museum. This room featured what I like to call the consequences of war. A video about UXOs (unexploded ordinances) was playing in one corner of the room and it was gut wrenching. The focus of the video was about one village where children have been killed by landmines and other devices and about the ongoing work of the Lao people to clear their homeland of landmines. The video described the problem, the training and the danger in exploding the devices and showed the actually recovery and destruction of the devices. What is really heartbreaking is the fact that it is the children playing in the fields and forests who discover the UXOs. The video emphasized that until the country is cleared of UXOs, the country’s development is limited. (Who wants to buy property or develop areas when there are UXOs.) I watched the video twice because it was so well done.
After the sobering reality check, I decided to walk to Wat Si Saket, which was the only temple to survive the destruction of Vientiane by Siam in 1828. The temple was constructed between 1819 and 1824 by King Anouvong using a Bangkok style (he had been educated in Bankgkok), but the building was surrounded by cloisters similar to those surrounding Pha That Luang. (It is generally believed that the Siamese spared the temple because it looked like one of their own.) The temple is unique for its free standing building, the Ho Tai, that housed the Buddhist manuscripts in a gold cabinet and for the cloisters that house hundreds of Buddhist statutes.
Anyway, when I arrived, the temple was closed for the lunch hour so I hung out for a bit walking around the grounds and taking in Ho Tai, which was outside the walls of the temple. At 1:00 p.m., the temple opened, and I wandered through the cloisters (the wall separating the temple from the outside world). The cloisters featured beautiful murals and more Buddhas statutes than I knew existed. There were small Buddhas in little alcoves and large Buddhas lined up along the walls. There were stone Buddhas and wood Buddhas. It was Buddha heaven. And quite frankly, it was quite lovely.
After I walked the cloister square, I took off my shoes and entered the temple. No pictures were allowed, but the temple also contained beautiful murals and a huge statute of … who else … Buddha in the middle of the temple. As I walked back out of the temple, a number of monks were entering. I thought about sticking around to watch, but decided that was too intrusive so I too my leave.
I wandered back to my hotel and asked the staff if they could call a driver for me to take me to Buddha Park, about 20 km away. (It was too far to take a tuk tuk, plus I had heard the road was rather bumpy). Buddha Park is a park full of concrete Buddha and Hindu statutes (including Shiva and Vishnu) designed and built by Luang Pu in 1958. Apparently he hired a host of unskilled artists to help cast the statutes so my expectations were rather low. In addition, the tour books kind of played down the park. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to take a drive outside Vientiane to at least see the countryside.
The driver showed up pretty quickly and we were off to Buddha Park over a very, very bumpy road and through numerous small villages. By now, I have pretty much seen anything and everything traveling through the villages of Southeast Asia and India (kids sitting at the front of motorcycles grasping the handlebars, dead animals in cages on the back of scooters, people cooking food on the side of the road, small open air stores selling produce and sundries and on and on) and the trip to Buddha Park mirrored prior trips to the countryside.
We got to Buddha Park and as soon as I entered the park I knew that the tour books were flat out wrong. This place was stupendous. The park was built along the banks of the Mekong and was set amongst a grove of trees. But the stars of the park were the sculptures themselves. The sculptures were absolutely amazing. There was a huge reclining Buddha, there were Buddha’s playing a guitar. There was a crocodile and other animals. There was a statute of Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god). There was a statute of creatures sticking out their tongues. There was a statute Aspara (the dancing goddess). And on and on and on. It was wonderful and fun as I wandered around the park and took pictures mimicking many of the poses. I finally left when the park closed at 4:00. The Buddha Park was the highlight of Vientiane.
When I got back to the hotel, I decided to have a drink in the lobby and relax a bit. As I sat and enjoyed a very lousy Pina Colada. (Hey I thought since they had so much coconut around they would be able to make a good one … wrong!) Anyway, as I sat there, a young Lao woman dressed in a skirt no one should wear wandered in the bar and I watched as two of the mangers descended and shooed her out the door. They moved her out so quickly I am not certain she was actually in the bar. The two managers looked over at me and shook their head, clearly embarrassed. (As I said, I had no idea the problem was so rampant when the sun set.)
So after struggling to finish my drink (I did not want to offend the bartender so I made sure I drank the whole thing … if you so much as leave anything on your plate or in a glass a Lao will immediately express concern and ask if everything is ok), I decided to head back down the street to the waterfront and the nightly street food fest.
I quickly found the street vendor I had dined with the previous night, set up at the same location, and order the “hot pot”. They bring to your table a small clay pot over coals filled with a broth as well as your choice of meat and an assortment of noodles, chilies and greens. You then proceed to open the lid of the clay pot, place some meat, greens and chilies in the broth, cook for three minutes and viola your own soup. You repeat the process as you eat the soup. I chose the chicken and began the process of making my little soup. It turned out to be fantastic!
As I sat there making my soup, a fellow on a bicycle pulled up beside me and almost fell into my table as he got off his bike. He was clearly drunk. He stumbled over the curb and sat at the table across the aisle from me. He proceeded to yell for a beer in French and motion that he wanted to order the same thing as me. For the next 10 minutes he tried to talk to me. Initially I was polite, but the guy proceeded to be loud and obnoxious to the family running the restaurant.
When the food came he dumped all the meat into the broth and demanded more. Unfortunately, the Lao are VERY polite, very shy folks and do not enjoy confrontations so they avoid and comply. So the proprietor brought more meat to the table. Two of the servers stood off to the side and watched this jackass wolf the food down and motion for more beer. As this guy slobbered all over himself and made repeated outbursts in a mix of French and English, many of the patrons just stared at this guy. The guys kept trying to talk to me and I finally told him that he was drunk, rude and needed to leave (seriously). “OK, you don’t like me.” “I don’t know you, but you are being rude to these people and you need to leave. These are good folks and you are abusing their hospitality.” I apparently said it loud enough for the other patrons and the proprietor to hear me. (The proprietor and his daughter actually folded their hands together with fingers pointed up and did a slight bow in my direction (a sign of appreciation in Laos).
Anyway, the guy fumbled around for a bit and then got up and proceeded to argue about his bill. He tossed 50,000 kip towards to the folks (about $6) and started to stumble out of the restaurant. I glared at him as he was picking up his bicycle parked beside my table. I must have embarrassed him enough because he returned and tossed 100,000 kip on the table. Jackass. The proprietor and his daughter again made the Laos sign of appreciation and I returned the same and with that I paid my bill and headed back to my hotel. I was headed to Luang Prabang in northern Laos in the morning, but I was going to miss this lovely little street restaurant with the wonderful food and friendly people.