Other bits and pieces from our stay in Vientiane

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Monastery visit

One of the nice things about sharing the tuk tuk ride to and from the Buddha Park was getting to know the other passengers. A monk named Sone was taking some other monks, newly arrived to his monastery, and his sister and his friend sight-seeing. They had limited English except for Sone, but were very smiley and sweet.

Their peaceful, small monastery was on the way back to the city, set on a ledge with a lovely view over the Mekong. When we arrived there, Sone invited us to take a look around, and we ended up having a really enjoyable chat with him.

He’s a really determined guy who worked hard to teach himself English fort he opportunities it would open for him. With his education, he’s been able to travel throughout Asia, which has been eye-opening for him.

He told us that the message the government pushes is that Laos is the best and the education and infrastructure and opportunities afforded through the benefit of communism are superior to what’s available in other countries. He said the average Laotian isn’t given enough education or perspective to question this. He feels very strongly that education is key, and he teaches English to a growing number of students.

Unfortunately we’d already made plans to leave Vientiane in the morning, so we couldn’t take him up on his invite to come meet some of his students the next day. I’m still so glad we met him and I hope I can help him out on the proof-reading front when he works on his applications for scholarships at some schools abroad next year (he makes me feel like a slacker! 😉 ).

Fruit of the loom

One other thing I did while we were still in Vientiane was a day trip to the Houey Hong Centre, a vocational school just outside the city center where underprivileged women (and actually a few men too) are trained in traditional Lao textile arts and given a chance to earn a living. I loved the day there. They offer tourists a chance to see the facility and do some simple dyeing and weaving.

The center comprises a clutch of simple, open, concrete buildings set on wooded land. Each building is used for a different part of training. There were no new students when I was there, so the weaving room was full of now-trained employees who were creating beautiful silk scarves and sarongs to sell in the center’s small shop. What I loved to see was the number of young children playing between the wooden looms; mothers are welcome to bring their kids who are too young to attend school. The atmosphere was totally relaxed and friendly, with the women chatting and helping out with each other’s kids.

The dyeing process was (for me – someone else had done a lot of the prep like weaving the scarf and preparing the all natural dye) easy, but stinky! I don’t know if all the colors smell the same, but the red I chose, made from bug resin (didn’t know that before I chose the color!) produced the most disgusting smell!! I tried my best to keep up wind of the steam as I stirred to help the color set. Luckily, the end result smells just fine. 🙂

The weaving took a lot more time and technique, but I loved it. I was the only tourist visiting that day, and once I got a feel for it, the woman who was teaching me left me to it. It was so peaceful. The rhythm of the wooden shuttle clicking back and forth with the gentle sounds of birds and insects in the woods and the children and women speaking in the back ground. It was almost a bit meditative and I really enjoyed it.

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The simple died scarf and woven material I made

Other little things I enjoyed about Vientiane

  • On certain roads, the beautiful trees had been labeled with their scientific names. Too bad I don’t know any Latin, but as a tree-lover I appreciated the city’s attention to the beautiful specimens lining its streets.
  • One tree that was everywhere in Vientiane was Leelawadee, or Frangipani. I’m slowly falling in love with this tropical beauty. I’ve seen it lots of places, but this city was really chock full of the trees and flowers. The flowers have a gorgeous scent that you can smell once you get close. In Vientiane though there were so many that the fragrance was in the air on certain streets.

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  • It was funny to see hammer and sickle flags everywhere. Also books and posters of Marx and Lenin for sale in some shops. And the stickers of Che Guevara on lots of the vehicles. Not the classic headshot of him looking all dreamy that we know in the West, but a more angular, harsh looking man with flowing locks and a red hat… (didn’t manage to get a photo while in Vientiane, where the stickers were everywhere, maybe I’ll have a chance elsewhere in Laos.) Need to find out more about communism in Laos
  • At the food stands at outdoor markets in Thailand, I’d seen people using plastic bags on sticks to shoo away flies that would land on the food. Saw something new in Vientiane though – a long stick with plastic bags on either end that was attached to a small motor and hung over the dried fish or barbecued meat, spinning like a slow propeller. Seemed to be pretty (or just as) effective. Genius. 🙂
  • One evening, I counted 32 geckos on the wall of the building down the street from our hotel. 32 on one wall! 😀
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Sights in and around Vientiane

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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.

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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!).

The vibe

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.

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A portion of one of the many buddha-filled walls

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Buddha detail

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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

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Monks in front of a massive reclining Buddha

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Monks in orange, statues in bizarre

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Hindu god in the foreground, monks and the Mekong river in the background

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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. 🙂

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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.

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Pha That Luang

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One of the Wats on the grounds

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Ribbons around a beautiful, massive tree in front of Pha That Luang

Sabaidee Laos, Bonjour Vientiane

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Jumping through time again, but I want to capture some impressions of Vientiane while it’s still fresh in my head. 🙂

Sabaidee Laos

So what I’ve learned so far is that you can get by pretty much fine on English in all the countries we’ve visited so far, but there are two words in the native language which, while not essential, will definitely enhance your experience: “Hello” is just friendly and generally useful and great for greeting kids you encounter. You will receive help and kindness from people you meet, and, especially when they don’t speak English, it’s wonderful to be able tell them “Thank you” in their own language.

To my ears, the Lao for these two words, while bearing a connection to the Thai “sa wa de ka” and “kap coon ka” (female form), sound sweeter, warmer and more familiar. The same for both gender, the Lao greeting is “sabaidee” (pronounced like it’s spelled) and thank you is “khawp jai” (pronounced kind of like “cup chai” – easy for me to remember 🙂 ).

Bonjour Vientiane

My instant like to the language has been reflected in my reaction to the country so far. I’ve really been enjoying Vientiane and feel very comfortable in Lao’s little capitol city. It’s a total world apart from it’s neighbor Thailand’s bustling, urban capitol. For starters, Bangkok has a population about 12 times that of Vientiane. Other differences were also immediately recognizable.

Roman arrived in Vientiane earlier than I did, and had found a hotel, sussed out our neighborhood, and come to meet me at the airport that evening. We emerged from the simple airport into the deep, steamy dark of the Lao night, and the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke – the same peat-like smell of the coal used so often in India, something I hadn’t smelled at all in Thailand.

The tuk tuk that was waiting for us at the outskirts of the parking lot (cleverly arranged by Roman – only taxis can come right up to the arrivals hall and they have to pay a heavy fee, which is passed on to their passengers) was yet another variation on the three-wheeled transportation theme that runs through Asia. A fancier, more colorful and comfortable take on the Burmese motorbike with two benches in back, but they all look worn out and rustic compared to the shiny, colorfully lit tuk tuks that zoom around Bangkok.

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Lao tuk tuks

The roads we drove through to get to our hotel were mostly two-laned and flanked by low buildings. Most of the buildings in Vientiane are only one or two storeys; it’s rare to see anything above five. Once you get away from the city center and important cultural or government sites, the roads start to get bumpier and cracked and sometimes fade into dirt and gravel paths. Side walks are not consistent and it’s important to watch out for cracks above the drainage system. The city’s architecture and monuments are a bit of a mix up between traditional, colonial, communist, modern and simply functional.

This all might make it sound a bit decrepid. while it does feel a bit worn, I would say it is more simple than shabby, and the city has a down-to-earth, relaxed feeling to it. And there are lots of areas that are really beautiful.

French connection

Laos used to be a French colony, and there is still plenty of evidence of the occupation to be seen in Vientiane (even in the spelling of its name). Street signs are written in Lao and Roman script, with the Roman versions of the names often beginning with the French „Rue“. Many building signs are also in French. Some of the larger roads in the city are broad and tree-lined, reminiscent of Parisian boulevards; one even is punctuated by Laos’ answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai Victory Gate.

Walking around we’ve heard as much French being spoken by Westerners as English – something we’ve not encountered elsewhere in Asia. We’ve also enjoyed some pretty good baguettes! Apparently they can be found throughout the country. Although not as lightweight and chewy as the Parisian version, I’ve been really happy to have them since decent bread can be pretty hard to come by in Asia.

In fact, I’d like to write more about Vientiane, but I’ve got a big date with a breakfast baguette and some Lao coffee coming up shortly, so I’ll end here for now. 🙂

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mmmm…. breakfast….

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Baguettes for sale at a market

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Tree-lined avenue, the Victory Gate at the end

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Patuxai Victory Gate up close (notice the sickle and hammer on the billboard to the right)

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Street sign

Orienting in time

There’s so much I want to capture from the past months in this blog; I have been and I supsect I will continue to be a bit all-over-the-place until I well and truly catch up with the present.

For anyone who may be confused by my sloppiness, I’ve put together a simple timeline of where I’ve been when since India. I’ll use it to sign post when I’m writing about until all the back-filling is complete.

(should be clickable for a closer view)

Where we are now

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For starters, I just want to mention that since Sunday I’ve been in our fourth country of trip (I know, we have been moving VERY slowly): Laos. I flew into it’s capitol, Vientiane, on Sunday night, where I was gallantly picked up at the airport by Roman.

I’ll spend more time on Vientiane later on, but I can say that for a capitol city it is sure a change after the urban hussle and bustle of Bangkok. Tropical and steamy, simple, quiet, provencial, and very charming so far.

Accommodation notes

We are staying at a lovely hotel, Vayakorn Inn (pictures to follow), which Roman assures me is much fancier and sophisticated than anything on offer in the smaller towns he visited while I was in the US.

It’s in the heart of the city, with plenty of good places to eat or enjoy a cup of Lao coffee within easy walking distance. Highly polished wooden stairs lead away from the big, bright foyer to a highly polished wood-floor hallway. Our room is spacious, pristinely clean, with dark wood furniture and some simple but elegant decorative accents. The wide balcony windows face lush palm leaves. It’s up there with some of my other favorites on the trip so far and I can definitely recommend it if you are looking for a place to stay in Vientiane. We paid USD 33 per night.

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Entrance to the hotel at night

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Lovely big windows

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Bathroom