Vientiane, Laos
October 24-28, 2005

Sticky rice, left as an offering Sticky rice, left as an offering
Wat Si Saket Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket, temple of 6000 Buddhas Wat Si Saket, temple of 6000 Buddhas
Lotus blossom Lotus blossom
My Laos adventure really started in Thailand, long before I reached the border. After a full day of watching gibbons and monitor lizards in Khai Yao National Park, I made a last-minute decision to head north to Laos. Because of the holiday weekend, I recognized that all of the first- and second-class train tickets would be sold out. Regardless, I made my way to the train station to purchase a third-class, "standee" ticket for the nine-hour redeye.

My first challenge was convincing the ticket agents that I understood that as a third-class passenger, I might very well have to stand for the duration of the trip. Despite the fact that most Thai travel this affordable way, it's quite unusual for westerners, so the station agents insisted that I instead buy a second-class ticket for the following evening. Surely, as a comfort-addicted American I didn't want to lie in the aisles for a nine-hour ride. But with enough perseverance, I finally got what I was looking for.

Inside the packed train, I was lucky to find a tiny patch of floor space near the doors where I could sit on my backpack and dangle my legs down the steps while leaning back against the entry railing. As someone who doesn't put a high value in comfort, it was more than sufficient as a place to get some much-needed sleep.

But what I had forgotten to consider was that as a tall, pale, blue-eyed American on a local train to Nong Khai, I was not only an anomaly, but something of a celebrity. Everyone wanted to ask me questions about my travels and my home, and the inebriated fellow who had tried to chat with me on the train platform was eager to step in as translator. The only problem was that I couldn't understand a word he was saying. As far as I can tell, he knew only one English verb -- "go" -- leaving nouns as the only clue to what he might be trying to say. Everyone else seemed convinced of his impeccable language skills, so while I tried to figure out how "letter," "New York," and "visa" might somehow be used to form an intelligible question, an audience of ten would give me an expectant stare, holding their breath for an answer. Incidentally, just introducing myself in southeast Asia can be a challenge, as "Rob" inevitably becomes "Lahv" when put through the language filter. Two young women desperately wanted to be pen pals, although I finally figured out what they were really looking for -- a written invitation to the United States, a key asset in obtaining a U.S. visa.

Barely able to keep my eyes open, my audience finally exhausted their questions around 2am and I drifted off to sleep. But whenever I would wake up, the young girl across the aisle would still be smiling, watching me as I slept.

Patuxai Patuxai
Pha That Luang Pha That Luang

Following my 6:30am arrival in Nong Khai, a couple of short taxi rides, and an hour of wading through the international bureaucracy, I finally reached my destination at 10am. Perched on the banks of the Mekong River, Vientiane doesn't feel much like a national capital at all. The small town, nearly devoid of any buildings more than four stories tall, is shrouded in a green blanket of tall, tropical trees. The pace of life is remarkably slow and in the heat of the afternoon, it's nice to join the locals for a fresh fruit smoothie, served in a thin plastic bag, available at any of a dozen different street vendors.

The most important monument in Vientiane is That Luang, the Great Sacred Stupa, which serves both as a religious monument and a symbol of Laos' national sovereignty. This tiered golden tower is a curious mix of sharp corners that mirror the monument's square shape and smooth, feminine curves that form the structure's vertical elements. To the north and south of That Luang are gorgeous Buddhist temples that rival the beauty of their golden neighbor. And while the Buddhists aren't exactly known for their austere architecture, the temples of Laos are particularly colorful. On the walls and ceilings, murals depicting scenes from Buddha's life are painted in glowing, almost neon colors. At each entrance, stone dragons stand guard, their gaping mouths and rippled metal tongues often spotted with grape-sized balls of sticky rice left as offerings by the visiting faithful.

Closer to downtown, the temple of Wat Si Saket houses nearly 7000 images of Buddha, forged in bronze, silver, and gold. Small, simple statues, each about six inches high, are tucked away into thousands of regularly spaced niches that riddle the walls. In front of the honeycombed walls, more elaborate life-size statues line the corridors, some wearing the same bright orange robes used by the monks.

Buddhist monks pass near the Presidential Palace Buddhist monks pass near the Presidential Palace

As a poor approximation of Paris' Arc de Triomphe, Vientiane has Patuxai, a grey monstrosity built from concrete that was donated by the United States for the construction of a new airport. The equally grey, mundane interior houses three floors of tourists kitch, leaving the only redeeming quality the panoramic view from the top floor.

One of the more bizarre attractions in the area is Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park, an hour south of Vientiane by bus. Part spiritual refuge and part amusement park, the large complex on the banks of the Mekong has more than 100 larger-than-life concrete sculptures based on characters from Buddhist and Hindu lore. At the park's focal point is a titanic reclining Buddha, 40 meters from head to toe. Other figures of humans, gods, demons, and animals are scattered about on the lawn in front of this centerpiece.

Near the park entrance is the most bizarre item, resembling from the outside a twenty-foot tall pumpkin, perforated with dozens of small, square windows. Visitors can enter through the gaping mouth of a 10-foot tall demon head. Once inside, a maze of stairways and narrow corridors leads befuddled tourists through three levels of dusty concrete statues depicting the artist's renditions of heaven and hell. And while a careful look through the dimly lighted corridors may reveal angelic forms near the top and disembodied heads and thorny trees below, all of the rough, grey figures appear somewhat ominous and morbid.

By the end of my time in Vientiane, I had started to figure out the routine of this curious capital city. At sunset, young couples on motorbikes flock to the sandy shores of the might Mekong to watch the last glow of orange light reflect in the broad river. Just as the sun goes down, you can follow the techno beat to Haw Kang Chinese Temple where more than 100 people attend an aerobics class in the huge, open-air pavilion. Meanwhile, restaurants seem to magically appear on the shore nearby. Food is prepared at portable carts and served on plastic tables, complete with a clean blue tablecloth, white candle, and a vase of fresh red roses. Later, young families head north to the night market to end the day with a sweet fried dessert or a fresh fruit smoothie.

If its capital city is a reliable indicator, life in Laos saunters along at a welcome pace for those who have exhausted of the western rat race. As for me, I need a little speed in my life. So while Vientiane offered a pleasant opportunity to kick back for a few days, I found myself more than ready to return to Bangkok when my time came to go.

A gecko clings to the ceiling A gecko clings to the ceiling
Butterfly at Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) Butterfly at Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park)
Massive reclining Buddha at Xieng Khuan Massive reclining Buddha at Xieng Khuan
Entrance to the Pumpkin Building at Xieng Khuan Entrance to the Pumpkin Building at Xieng Khuan
Plumeria, the national flower of Laos Plumeria, the national flower of Laos
Sunset over the Mekong River Sunset over the Mekong River
Motorcyclists with parasols -- a surprisingly common sight Motorcyclists with parasols -- a surprisingly common sight
Plumeria blossoms Plumeria blossoms
Sunset over the Mekong Sunset over the Mekong
Evening meal on the banks of the Mekong Evening meal on the banks of the Mekong

© Copyright 2005-2007, Rob Jagnow.