Jan. 20th, 2017

Vientiane

Jan. 20th, 2017 11:31 pm
lupestripe: (Default)
Tuesday 13 December

I flew into the capital of Laos, Vientiane, with Defago, a local fur I had met at FURUM and with whom I had arranged to travel during my five-day stay in his country. Unfortunately, the only cheap flight meant having to get up at 3:15am, a time not aided by the fact that Kuala Lumpur Airport is so far away from the city. Defago had booked a taxi for me the night before, which was just as well as everywhere was desolate, with the only life coming from the hotel reception staff. I checked out and fortunately didn't have to wait too long until my ride showed up. The rain was pretty heavy but the traffic on the motorway was light as we rushed towards the airport. In all honesty, I probably should have booked the taxi half an hour earlier as we were cutting it fine, but fortunately we got there with some time to spare, and after a rather pleasant conversation too. Defago was quite easy to spot at the airport and once we had done the customs and check-in thing, we had a quick bite to eat at Burger King before boarding our plane.

The flight was largely uneventful, but as we had booked at different times, we were sat in different places. The advantage of this was that I could get some sleep, even if I was wedged into my middle seat by a rather large Chinese gentleman. Upon disembarking at the other end, I had to join the queue for a visa, for which I had to pay the princely sum of $35 in crisp bills. Fortunately I knew this in advance and had some. The visa system was rather efficient, although there was time to speak to a rather charming 50-something American who was doing some teaching in the northern hilly region of the country and a batshit crazy German spiritualist who kept lamenting about how "sorry she was they were losing us" in reference to the Brexit vote. I had travelled halfway around the world partly to get away from this and the number of times it cropped up was amazing, but I managed to express my ire and lament myself, wishing that I had moved to Germany six years ago when I had the opportunity. Anyway, now wasn't the time for regrets.

Defago met me on the other side of customs and we had soon collected our bags. We met his brother, who had brought a rather large pick-up truck, inside the airport terminal and after introductions, we emerged into a wonderfully sunny morning as we made our way to the car. The drive into the city centre was quite short, around fifteen minutes, meaning I was soon outside my hotel, the Day Inn on Pangkham Road. This bright and airy place was quite cheap but unfortunately I arrived at around 9:30am meaning it was far too early for check-in. Defago had headed off, arranging to meet me in the early afternoon and thus giving me a few hours to kill. The hotel were kind enough to let me leave my luggage at the front desk, freeing me to have a wander around this rather compact little city for a couple of hours. It was a nice day after all and I didn't really have much else to do. I could have gone on one of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks or jumbos, but I tend not to trust these things when abroad, and the city was so small that walking it was pretty straightforward. Consequently, I turned right and headed towards the river, ignoring the pleas from the various drivers to hop on board.

My first stop was Nam Phou Place, which is effectively the heart of the city, marked by a large fountain. It wasn't operational the first time I was there, but later in the day when I walked past it again, it had come to life. There was a range of eateries and bars around the fountain, of varying quality in all honesty, as well as the Ibis Hotel which I didn't even realise they had. This wasn't my main interest though as I wanted to walk around some of the wats, remembering some of the fantastic temples I had visited on my trip to Bangkok seven-and-a-half years earlier. I visited a good number that morning - Wat Mixai, Wat Hai Sok, Wat Ong Teu, Wat Chanthabouli and Wat Inpeng from memory - and each one had similarities but also subtle differences. Most of the wats weren't temples but complexes containing a range of buildings, some of which being important religious buildings. The sim is usually the grandest structure, adorned in gold and beautiful paints, although it was interesting to see in some complexes that buildings were being constructed and that they were mostly made out of concrete. You would have thought they would have used a better material, but the bright colours and breathtaking artistry puts our use of concrete (see Coventry as an example) to shame. A number of the complexes contained separate towers, no less ornate, with a bell or gong while there were also more functional buildings which were used for teaching. Inside Wat Mixai there was even a girls' school, with a number of girls of around ten years of age running around playing. It was interesting to observe that each student had their own unique identification number sewn into their uniform (white shirt, blue dress) above the right chest pocket, which I guess is a part of the state-run system they have there. Unfortunately for me, the naga dragon, a long snake-like serpent is a very strong feature of Laotian Buddhism and so there were dragons adorning most of the stairways up into the buildings. In some places, there was rather scary statues of three or five-headed dragons which really freaked me out, while in a couple of complexes I got to see the gravestones of some of the local families, which are golden pillarboxes standing near the walls. As is common, I had to take my shoes off to go inside the temple, but I was often unsure where I could or could not go. Not wanting to offend, I only went into places where there already shoes planted outside and where no teachings were taking place. This didn't work all the time, but the monks I saw were all very kind, just walking around the temples in their orange robes largely oblivious to my presence. The same was the case for the surprisingly large number of European tourists, a good chunk of which were elderly men with younger local women, but there was a healthy backpacker contingent too.

Walking from wat to wat was a pleasant way to spend the morning, and there was a large number of beautiful trees and plants in full bloom. Defago had recommended a cafe, the Cafe Perisian, as a place to get a coffee but I was too interested in the sights to bother with that. The temperature was a relatively comfortable 28C with little humidity, while the city had adopted a pleasant charm which didn't make it feel much like a capital at all. Indeed, the centre is really only centered on around six streets in a largely gridiron system so navigation was straightforward, and by the time I headed back to the hotel just before lunch, I had seen a good chunk of Vientaine already. Upon arriving back at the hotel, my room was ready, so I checked in and headed upstairs, with a porter showing me the way. The room was bright and airy, with a nice view out onto the road and the rather classy looking restaurant beyond it, and upon discovering that Defago was running ever so slightly late, I flopped on my bed and had a quick snooze. I awoke about twenty minutes later, discovering that Defago was on his way, and soon I was back in the pick-up truck and being driven to a popular lunchtime eatery near his work out in the suburbs. Call Pho Zap, it specialises in Laotian cuisine and I had a pleasant local version of pho which was far less spicy than its Vietnamese equivalent. There was a dark paste on the table which accompanied it, rather strong tasting and bit like rotten farts, so I didn't eat much of this concoction. Defago was quite a fan though and lapped it up. With my meal, I got a bottle of the ubiquitous Beerlao, one of the country's main exports and a beer you can get pretty much anywhere. In the UK, you can get the basic variety but in Laos there were a number of other fizzy lagers they produce including the smoother Beerlao Gold, which was largely my beer of choice throughout the trip. It did make a nice accompaniment to the meal and after it, once we had managed to sort out a lack of water in the workings of the pick-up truck, we headed out of town and past the Beerlao factory on our way to the Buddha Park.

The Buddha Park is around 25km out of Vientaine and the further you go from the capital, the worse the road gets. Indeed, it becomes very potholed very quickly, which is quite a surprise as it leads to one of Laos's major tourist attractions. On the way, we called off at a little spa/hotel resort which had clearly seen better days. It was set by the Mekong River which forms the border between Laos and Thailand, and indeed you could see Thailand on the other bank. A major destination itself around fifteen years ago, it has slowly drifted into decay, with the naga dragon fountains and sculptures set in the woodland looking a little forlorn (if not slightly terrifying). Speaking of terrifying, there were two rather aggressive-looking ostriches in a cage behind some Lao writing, assumedly meaning don't feed the bastards, while there was also a charming Mad Max aviary containing peacocks and a paltry selection of other birds. In this small complex, which was just to the side of the hotel area, there were statues commemorating Laotian myths and Buddhist allegorical stories, but Defago's knowledge on this wasn't particularly strong and so he couldn't really tell me much about them. There was also a concrete stage, rather sad and disused now but with masonry which reflected a grander time, before we stumbled across a truly bizarre collection of dinosaur sculptures which were somewhat out of place. There was also a couple of huts, examples of traditional Laotian housing, but as we couldn't get into them, we couldn't really see much.

The weird sculptures kept on coming at Xieng Khuan, the local name for the Buddha Park, as there was a collection of baby dinosaurs set at the front gate. Set in parkland adjacent to the river, the Buddha Park is effectively a collection of ferro-concrete sculptures which have no real business being together. There are a large number of Buddhas, including a reclining one which is 25m in length, while our friend the naga dragon made a number of appearances too along with every conceivable deity in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. Created by Luang Pou Bounlena Soulilat in the late 1950s, a man who claimed to be the disciple of a cave-dwelling hermit from Vietnam, it is quite a mess of a place but fun to walk around for an hour. There was no guidebook so I was largely looking at a range of concrete sculptures with no real context, but the madman behind the perimeter fencing who was playing his flute for donations added a nice ambience to everything, although he was quite scary once we started talking to him. It was a shame the Park didn't employ him full-time really as he did add a pleasant feel to the place. Anyway, the highlight of the Park for me was the giant pumpkin/alien spacecraft structure with a dead tree sprouting on top of it, which greets you to the right as you enter the complex. You enter the structure through the gaping mouth of time and you can explore representations of the "three planes of existence", hell in its belly, earth halfway up and heaven at the top, which leads out to a ledge upon which you can see the entire Park and the river beyond. We met a nice American guy here, who was worried about fitting down the spiral staircases contained within, but upon noticing that he and I were "of similar size" he was happier with it. Most of the interior was quite dark as there were only small windows in the structure, and this made the hell section full of sculptures of tortured souls somewhat disturbing. Still, this was probably my favourite bit in this labrynthine turnip largely because it was where the most was happening.

After the trip, we headed back to town, calling off at a roadside cafe to pick up some delicious sugar cane juice in a green plastic bag with plenty of shaved ice. It's a common way of serving it here. We also picked up a spicy local salad and some grilled meatballs and sausage in an unctuous sweet sauce. Sat by the river, looking over to Thailand and eating street food with a friend was one of those seminal moments in my life, very similar to the Georgian experience I had had a month previously. I felt very lucky to be there and it was an excellent snack, while I even got phone reception from Thailand, making sending text messages three times cheaper (so I sent a message to my mother). The lady serving us the food was very friendly, so we prolonged our stay somewhat, before we headed to the duty free shop at the Friendship Bridge, one of only three border crossings into Thailand from Laos. It was very much a standard duty free place, but we did spot some local rum in handy 75ml bottles, so we bought one traditional and one coconut flavoured one to try later in the week. After this detour, we stopped off further down the road to take in the huge operation that is the Beerlao Brewery. It employs many people and we could see a number of lorries delivering freight to and from the factory, while Defago was telling me that it was quite common for trucks to line up down the road waiting to be filled with beer to be exported all around the country. As I have mentioned previously, the ubiquity of Beerlao was quite surprising as most restaurants stock it, while the company even do standardized yellow signs for the bars which offer the beer, the only difference being the name and details of the bar, which is written in red writing. We stood outside for a few minutes before making our way back to the hotel, calling off at the odd pyramid stupa That Dam which was situated on a roundabout in the middle of the road parallel to where my hotel was. It is an inverted bell shape, like an unopened lotus flower, and is called the Black Stupa, with legend saying it was once covered in gold and guarded by a seven-headed dragon. The tale says the gold was taken in the 1820s during the Siam-Laotian War although others say it went in 1828 during the sacking of Vientiane. Due to this, it's quite a forlorn and unloved structure, sitting unkempt in the middle of the road. This gives it an odd atmosphere as there are a number of good restaurants around it, along with a wine shop. It is still regarded as the city's guardian spirit too.

I was dropped off back at the hotel after this, needing a shower and a rest before our planned evening out. Craft beer isn't a huge thing in Laos but there are one or two places, and knowing I am a fan, Defago drove me slightly out of town (again towards the Beerlao Factory) to Core Beer Brewhouse, a microbrewery specialising in their own brews. They only really had an IPA and a Witbier but both were very pleasant, although I doubted their full commitment to craft due to the huge neon Heineken sign above the bar. And of course Beerlao was there too. We grabbed some food here - a miscellany of sausages, rice and salad - as we sat in the corner and enjoyed the live band and then the rock music which was being played. Unfortunately, they ended up playing a whole album by the same band which was far less diverse than Defago's excellent playlist which had accompanied us in the pick-up truck as we drove around (seriously, he got me into the new Green Day album through this - I bought it when I got home) and after a long day and an early start, we soon left, getting back to the hotel by 10pm. From memory, I think we were going to be joined by one of Defago's friends, but he couldn't make it, which precipitated our early departure, but judging by how tired we were, this was probably for the best. It was good to end it here as we had another long day in the morning, suffice to say that it had been a very good first day in Laos.

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