Monday, January 14, 2008

Vientiane, the Lao capital

Vientiane is Laos's largest city and borders with Thailand along the Mekong River. The first international bridge over the Mekong, Friendship Bridge, between Thailand and Laos is in Vientiane. The capital city is noticeably rich compared with the rest of the country. Government buildings, fancy hotels, swanky restaurants, and men in business suits line the streets.

Toyota SUVs, trucks, and cars are commonplace; we even saw a parade of black Mercedes drive by. When compared to Western standards, Vientiane's population of 250,000 hardly warrants the moniker of "city" but by Lao standards, this is huge.

The city contains Laos's most famous monument, Pha That Luang.

The large golden stupa is the center of Laos's largest temple fair, the That Luang festival. The festival opens with a procession to the monument. Festivities continue for a week and are capped off when people bring banana leaf and flower towers to the temple as offerings. The temple is covered in offerings and surrounded by people in the photographs we have seen. As Laura and I toured That Luang's surroundings, we came across a wat with an open-air, pillared roof building containing beautiful Jataka murals depicting Buddha's previous lives.

It was like visiting a Buddhist Sistine Chapel. Well, kind of.

The other central monument is the Patuxai, similar to Paris's Arc de Triomphe.

The Patuxai has four gates and was built using American-donated concrete (the concrete was supposed to build an airport runway). The Lao people are so proud of it, they have a sign on the Patuxai that reads, "From a closer distance, it appears less impressive, like a monster of concrete." The park surrounding the Patuxai was full of city citizens relaxing and playing with their children. Laura and I were ecstatic to find freshly-made ice cream in the park.

In the evening, we enjoyed dinner on the Mekong. Riverside vendors are set up alongside the not completely dry riverbed; they offer spicy papaya salad, all the common rice dishes, and really push the barbecue chicken, pork, or fish.

This is a great place to enjoy a Beer Lao and watch the sun set over the Mekong river.

Laura and I chose to walk the 150 meter sandy riverbed to the small river that currently is flowing. Along the way, we were surprised by hundreds of tiny frogs, about the size of crickets, leaping in the sand. There were so many, we likely reduced the population as we walked. We didn't look back to check.

Also in the evening, the Nam Phu fountain is well-lit and running. The fountain is surrounded by the best restaurants in the city. Also around the fountain is an office for the only English newspaper in Laos, "The Vientiane Times". It is truly remarkable that the ever-controling, socialist Lao government actually allows the paper to be published; obviously, it adheres to the party line. It was required reading for both Laura and I as it was mentioned in a book we've read on this trip.

Turns out there was a large number of job listings for world organizations like the United Nations and the World Bank who have branches operating in Vientiane.

Finally, about 1 hour ride outside of the city is Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park).

The park is full of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures.

According to Lonely Planet, it was one man's bizarre ambition to merge Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, mythology, and iconography. Highlighting the group of Hindu and Buddhist deities is a giant pumpkin which can be entered.

The pumpkin has a central room holding a collection of small sculptures; a hallway surrounds the room. Stairs lead up three levels to the top of the pumpkin where there is a beautiful view of the bizarre park.

Besides the scupltures, the park has numerous Vientiane novice monks attempting to intercept visiting tourists to practice their English. It's a great opportunity to get some insight into a monk's life and Lao life.

Although we've really enjoyed the previous sights in Laos, we ended up disappointed with Vientiane. The city's charm is hurt by the numerous banks, government offices, and embassies. It seemed like a city lost in government bureaucracy and financial matters instead of Buddhist teachings and French baguettes. Of course, we did miss out on the ever-popular bowling centers and free weekend Vipisana meditation at a Buddhist wat so we could have done more. We are off to the Dong Phu Vieng NPA in central Laos for a trek to a Katang village.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss some random thoughts regarding our trip. As we enter each town, mission #1 is always accomodation. Our primary criteria for a guesthouse is location, price, and cleanliness. It must be within walking distance of sights, reasonably priced, and have clean sheets and clean bathrooms. After that, Laura and I go our separate ways. Laura hopes for hot showers; in Southeast Asia, an electronic device hooked into the shower hose is used to heat the water.

Every place that has one of these claims to have hot showers. Unfortunately, we're having a lot of issues with the "Whale of a Time" brand; it has only worked about 50 percent of the time and Laura's ready to wipe the smile off that whale's happy face. Here's to hoping we've seen the last of the happy whale. Oh, and by the way, my secondary criteria is the presence of a butt hose; I just can't stand paper anymore!

Speaking of bathrooms, guesthouse checking means two free bars of soap, clean towels, and a new roll of Lao pink toilet paper.

This pink stuff isn't your average break-thru, 2-ply Charmin. It has the toughness of Bounty, the quicker picker upper. The paper is unbreakable so one ply of one sheet if enough for one wipe and I haven't had a rash yet! Not only that but it doubles as restaurant napkins, paper towels, kleenex, and much more. How come the most advanced country in the world still can't make this?

You may have seen me mention lao-lao (Lao whiskey) in previous and surely future posts. Interested in what this clear nectar of the gods tastes like? Head down to you local liquor store, the cheap one. Ask the person behind the counter for the cheapest vodka he has. A shot of that will be as legally close to lao-lao as one can achieve. You could get closer if you follow the same itinerary above within any of the former Soviet republics, but by then, you might as well buy a ticket to Laos.

Finally, after all of these long, arduous bus rides in Laos, what keeps a farang passenger going? Every 2 to 3 hours, the bus pulls over for a pit stop. Passengers go searching for a refreshing cola, barbequed meat, or a juicy fruit to survive until the next stop. After enduring hours of bus ride reflection on why you are doing this to yourself, a taste from home is necessary. Western capitalism has busted into the most remote Lao bus stops to fulfill farang appetites for home in the form of Coca-cola products, Pepsi products, Carlsberg beer, Lays potato chips, Oreo cookies, Pringles, and salted peanuts (although not Planters). The foods are all available for twice the price of the local equivalent product, whose Thai or Lao artificial flavoring pales in comparison to American artificial flavoring. I found myself twisting the top off an Oreo cookie while humming "Oh, Oh, Oh, whose that kid with the Oreo cookie..." near Phon Hong, Laos. Ahh, does American capitalism know any ends?


Anonymous said...

Dick and I are both looking for a butt-hose installer but at Colton's J.B. said he has never heard of the butt-hose. Guess you'll have to do the installation yourself whenever you get back to VT. The variety of stuff that you have been able to do on this part of your adventure is amazing--temple viewing, rafting, hiking and river diving; just fantastic. winter has returned to the Kingdom; temps back in the teens and 5-6" of snow yesterday up here ; even more snow down at Marco's. Love Dad

Greg said...

Rot gut Wahd - ka you say. Now there's a specialty I learned in Kazakhstan. Have no fear I see numerous Former Soviet Republic produced brands such here.

Sure did enjoy the art work in the wat. From your pictures it seems very similar to cartoon art.

So you guys did embrace civilization when you revisited. That's a danger sign you may be "going native". that's a certain oil company's lingo for get his/her but on some R/R out of the country.

Sure do enjoy the blog. "Butt-hose" those two South Ave boys did pay attention to your blog of eons ago - a kitchen sink type dish rinser sprayer hose - guys.

Forecast for tonight MINUS 10 to 14 F.


Greg said...

OH yeh. You mom, Dad and I saw LRUHS Boys BB go to 9-0. 61-33. No need to tell you if your Dad or I had the best guess of the final score. Ahem!

What fun to watch the flying acts. You know like in "he flies through the air with the greatest of ease". Really playing as a team - correcting each other's mistakes numerous times. Now if there was just a little more consistency in scoring - invincible.

Anonymous said...

Ah, This is spot on! Puts to bed
several contradictions I've read