We did a nice mix of tourist stuff and just hanging out while we were in Vientiane.
Food and drink
After weeks in the northern Laos countryside, Roman was happy to indulge in the international fare on offer in the capitol. We found some really nice places for food.
I did get introduced to and promptly fell in love with one Lao speciality – the country’s beer. We’ve tried the “gold” version and some of Laos’ other beers like Savan, but the original is the best. Beerlao, made with rice, hops and yeast and served icy cold on a hot, sunny day has got to be one of the most delicious things ever.
Deliciousness (This photo’s actually taken in Savvanakhet, not Vientiane)
Noy’s Fruit Heaven had really tasty western offerings with both service and ambience that was cute and friendly. I had one of my rare beef cravings (happens probably about five times a year) and was in luck – Vientiane has a western style steak house called Xayoh and my tender, juicy filet with fries, salad and veggies (and a bottle of that oh so good, oh so cold beer) really hit the spot. And we ate too much ice cream at the newly opened Swensens, something we’d discovered in Bangkok with mixed feelings (another massive global chain… so bad! But, delicious tasty ice cream… so good!).
So far I’m finding Laos is very different from the other Buddhist countries we’ve visited. It has a relatively short history as a nation in comparison to Thailand and Myanmar and has suffered many losses of historic sites over the decades whether at the hand of attacking neighboring kingdoms or during the ceaseless hail of bombs from the US during the Vietnam war.
I’m not sure if the relative youth of the temples and sacred spaces we visited in and around Vientiane was a contributing factor to this, but I found that, while they were beautiful, they didn’t convey the almost tangible spiritual atmosphere I’d experienced in some Buddhist sites we visited in Thailand and Myanmar.
I’ll write more about it later, but subsequent to leaving Vientiane we were able to participate in some Buddhist rituals in a rural village and I can tell you those were very moving. Perhaps the Buddhist spirit of Lao is more present in the coming together of its people than in its monuments?
None the less, I really enjoyed the places we saw.
Temples and parks
Haw Pha Kaeo had lush, immaculately manicured grounds populated by flickering butterflies. The wat (temple) itself was lovely. I really enjoyed seeing all the various buddha statues along the outside of the building, watching visitors rub the faces, arms, feet of the bronze figures in devotion. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me the day we visited. Check here for a bit of info and some pics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_Phra_Kaew
Wat Si Saket, with its alcove-filled cloister walls containing thousands of little buddha statues gently picking up the warm light of the midday sun from the open courtyard, was peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful.
A portion of one of the many buddha-filled walls
Offerings and the remnants of candles in front of a Buddha statue
We took a trip out-of-town to visit Xieng Khuan, also known as Buddha Park. Created in 1958, it’s a surreal “park” along the edge of the Mekong river, containing massive, bizarre and wonderful statues representing figures from both Buddhism and Hinduism. I’d say it’s got an almost Edward Gorey-esque feel to it, and while it’s fun enough during the bright Lao afternoon, I’d be disinclined to spend a night in the park alone. 😉
A panoramic shot of the park – click for a closer look
Monks in front of a massive reclining Buddha
Monks in orange, statues in bizarre
Hindu god in the foreground, monks and the Mekong river in the background
Not sure what’s going on here
Even more surreal though was the next stop we made. We’d shared a ride with a bunch of sight-seeing monks who wanted to go to see a “Cultural Park” before we headed back to the city. This is not something that is listed in the guidebook and I can see why. Although it was open and we had to pay addmision, the “park” felt and looked like it had been abandoned years ago, with locked up, cobwebby exhibitions, public areas entirely overgrown by nature, and not all that much to look at. I think the idea behind it was to showcase Lao culture; there were replicas of different traditional tribal houses and what looked like a good sized outdoor stage that may have hosted dance and music performances. Mostly though there were just shut up buildings, cracked pathways and lots and lots of trees and shrubs. Oh, and some random dinosaur statues. 🙂
Pha That Luang, an impressive, massive, gold covered stupa, is the national symbol for Laos. We headed there after the amusing visit to the Cultural Park. We got there past closing time, so we couldn’t go in, but we enjoyed people watching and strolling around the beautiful, open grounds and checking out the lovely temples around it as the sun began to sink lower over the city.
Pha That Luang
One of the Wats on the grounds
Ribbons around a beautiful, massive tree in front of Pha That Luang