Lost in Vientiane
It all started innocently enough.
After a heaping breakfast at our hotel, we decided to visit Talat Sao, Vientiane’s bigger market. According to the Lonely Planet, Talat Sao is a sprawling collection of stalls offering fabrics…
It was my fault really.
Given our shopping excitement, I have somehow misplaced our copy of the Southeast Asian Lonely Planet. In my panic, I figured that given the huge market, there should be a stall selling Lonely Planets somewhere.
So there I dashed around, looking for a Lonely Planet while my traveling companion was still buying slippers. I figured that this will take a while so there I went…
When I returned around 15 minutes later with the newly-purchased book, my friend disappeared!
I asked the salesladies what happened and they said that my friend tried to look around for me 3 times around the area, and when couldn’t find me, left. Check this out, with rows and rows of stalls like these, one similar to each other, it’s so easy to lose someone else at the Talat Sao market!
Anyway, I figured that it’s better to wait where I saw her last which was at the slipper stall. Isn’t that what they teach you? When you lose someone, you stay put just where you are and you’ll see each other again.
So I waited for 15 minutes…
At almost an hour, I figured that she may have already left so I scrawled a note and asked the saleslady to give it to her when they see her. Afterwards, I went back to the hotel in hopes of finding her there and left another message with the concierge which asks her to give me a call (thank God I brought my mobile).
And I figured, such a waste to be waiting for each other the whole day so I proceeded to travel around Vientiane — without my traveling companion! 😦
First Stop: Pha That Luang
Boarding a tuktuk just outside the market, my first stop was Pha That Luang, Laos’ most important national monument and a symbol of both Buddhist religion and Laos sovereignty. It’s also Laos’ un-official symbol and is placed in their national seal:
Its full name means “World-Precious Sacred Stupa,” and Pha That Luang emphasizes Laos deep-rooted belief in Buddhism. 70% of the population follow the religion and the That Luang is one of the oldest Buddhist structures in the country, which probably explains why there’s so many monks and novices around the many towns. It seems expected that young men first train as monks.
It has been said that a part of Buddha’s breastbone is hidden in the stupa though there is no evidence of this. What we do know is that when King Setthathirat moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the mid-16th century, he ordered the construction of Pha That Luang.
The structure shines in painted gold in the sunlight. Each level of the stupa symbolizes some Buddhist doctrine and visitors are supposed to contemplate the meaning of these features as they walk around.
There are three levels, with the second level surrounded by 120 lotus petals, and 288 siimda on this level, with 30 small stupas symbolizing 30 Buddhist perfections:
To illustrate, here’s a photo of the stupa:
Same same but different… 🙂
Patuxai: Asia’s own Arc de Triomphe
Afterwards, my driver took me to Patuxai, Laos’ own version of Arc de Triomphe of Paris. From this moment on, I have commissioned my driver to take me around Vientiane for USD 11 the entire afternoon, reasonable enough as I only had a day to tour the city.
Built in the 1960s using the American-purchased cement that was supposed to be used to construct a new airport, Patuxai looks unimpressive from afar.It does remind me of France’s own Arche de Triumph but it doesn’t seem to be well, that huge. However, up close, you can see the strong Lao design and distinction. Check out the bas relief on the sides and the temple-like ornamentation along the top:
For 3,000 kip, visitors should definitely not miss out in climbing this structure. Surprisingly, once you do climb up the stairs, Patuxai gets bigger with every step you take! It’s not really small, and there’s around three to four long flights of stairs to the top.
The second floor is filled with stalls selling Lao shirts and other souvenirs, a weird sight especially inside a cultural
The third floor shows a bird’s view of Vientiane — check out the large fountain and park where most Lao bring their families on relaxing weekends.
After my climb, grabbed a light peanut noodle lunch at the base of Patuxai. Never ask if the food is dirty or safe. If you don’t dare, don’t even eat.
Wat Si Saket and Haw Pha Kaew
Up next, my tuktuk driver took me to Wat Si Saket. Here’s the photo of my driver and tuktuk just in case you’re curious — despite the USD 10 charge, he’s tried to fleece me from more money so beware when negotiating!
Anyway, continuing on, built in 1818 by Chao Anou who was a vassal of the Siamese state of Bangkok, Wat Si Saket is Laos’ oldest surviving temple. The temple is constructed in early Bangkok style, and its similarity to their own culture probably motivated the Siamese to spare the temple even when they razed others during the Chao Anou rebellion:
One notable characteristic of this temple are over 300 seated and standing Buddhas of varying sizes and materials that rest on long shelves below the niches, most of them sculpted or cast in characteristic Laos style. There are 6,840 Buddhas in Wat Si Saket:
Across Wat Si Saket lay Haw Pha Kaew, which looks super similar to Wat Si Saket. It was once a royal temple built specifically tohouse the famed Emerald Buddha. Now however, it’s a museum of religious art.
According to history, the temple was built in 1565 by King Setththirat, who brought the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The King brought with him the Emerald Buddha, which was actually made of jade. It served as the king’s personal place of worship, but following a skirmish with the Lao in 1779, the Siamese stole the Emerald Buddha, which now lies in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew.
Later, this temple was razed in the Siamese-Lao war in 1828.
From 1936 and 1942, the temple was rebuilt by the French, but it’s been said that it didn’t really resemble the original. Mainly because the French architects were building blindly — they didn’t have the original plans after all!
Check out the handles to the steps, nicely-carved dragon monsters which I found to be cool:
Wat Si Muang
My favorite temple is the Wat Si Muang (means “Holy City Monastery”), which my driver brought me to next. It’s been said that the grounds is site of Vientiane’s guardian spirit:
Legend says that when the pillar arrived, it was suspended over the hole with ropes. Everyone waited for a volunteer to jump in the hole as a sacrifice to the spirit as drums and gongs were sounded. Finally, a pregnant woman leapt in and the ropes were released, establishing the town guardmanship.
Check out the large piece of stone that lies behind the temple, which I believe is the pillar the legend is taking about:
Here’s a few weird yet interesting characters I’ve met when I circled Wat Si Muang:
But they’re not as scary as what’s inside — dark and foreboding, Wat Si Muang felt like a sacred temple. Imagine, in the outer room sat a medium-aged monk who was using water and fire to bless some older women and then tying strings as a sort of blessing. I wanted to take a photo but it seemed disrespectful, especially with the solemn ceremony going on.
The main prayer room looked like this:
Several other Buddha images surround the stone pillar, which is wrapped in sacred cloth. There is a cushion in front of the altar. As you can see, there are numerous plates of candles and offerings in front of the altar.
The practice is to lift off the damaged stone lying on the pillow three times while mentally phrasing a question or request. If granted, you must return with an offering of bananas, coconuts, flowers, incense and candles often two of each. That is why there are so many fruits, flowers, and incense surrounding the sim.
Meanwhile, since it was already getting late and most wats close at 4:00 pm (Aaargh, wasted so much time losing my friend at the open market!), my driver only took me to see That Dam, or the Black Stupa.
Positioned in the center of Vientiane, That Dam is neglected and forgotten. There was perhaps one other tourist who was there for the same reason as I was — because everything else was already closed.
It was said that this stupa was once coated with a layer of cold, which was unfortunately carted off by the Siamese (again?!) in their pillaging of 1828. It’s been said that this stupa was supposed to protect Vientiane and its people from its enemies, but as you can see, the Lao lost, which is why the towns folk paid back the “protection” by leaving this stupa in a state of neglect.
It’s still impressive, and reminded me of Myanmar’s many majestic stupas…
Last Tourist Stop: Wat Sok Pa Luang
Slightly further away from the city center (probably 25 minutes ride via tuktuk), Wat Sok Pa Luang is located in a shaded, almost semirural setting, reminiscent of its name which means forest temple.
When I arrived, I bore witness to a vipassana session, a type of Buddhist meditation which involves mind-body analysis. Here you can see the elders up in front and the novices in white sitting at the back:
However, Wat Sok Pa Luang is most famous for its herbal saunas and expert massage. Most of the masseurs are usually lay people residing in the temple and after following a small sign that says “Sauna and Massage,” I came across this little hut:
Not exactly the site of top-class herbal spas, but for 40,000 kip (around USD4.5), who can complain? The relaxing sauna consists of two heated rooms. After relaxing inside, you can cool off by drinking herbal tea in the veranda to cool off.
The price includes a clean sarong you can wrap yourself with, and it’s cheap enough that even the locals frequent this place. Check out the foreigners sipping the weak tea and the massage area on the left:
You aren’t supposed to wash away your accumulated perspiration for three hours afterwards, allowing the herbs to soak into your pores.
I tell you, if you ever go to Vientiane, don’t miss out in this authentic Lao massage experience. Aside from being cheap enough, Laos massage is a perfect way to de-stress, with a lot of emphasis on the feet, which is ideal after walking all day.
The masseuse uses a lot of pressing and touching; starting with the feet and moving up to the head where unfortunately, they spend less time on. They do turn your body and you do hear a couple of comforting cracks during the duration of the exam.
For your reference, I pilfered this from the Net on how Laos massage works:
Using a technique akin to Thai massage, Lao practitioners stretch limbs into yoga-like positions and press on the body’s 10 sen lines, also known as prana pathways. (Don’t be alarmed when they push the one at the top of the thigh.)
Rather than manipulating individual muscles as in Western-style massage, Lao masseuses consider the body as a whole. Indeed, they view their body and yours as a unit, and I often heard them humming as they focused on matching their movements to my response.
This unhurried style of massage feels natural for a country that is rich in time, if little else.
Lost and Found
Rejuvenated from my massage, I went back to the town proper for food. Tummy’s complaining already…
As I was looking at the menu, lo and behold who did I bump into?
My traveling companion as she was just rounding the block! Omigosh, that’s how small Vientiane is…!
Thankfully, she’s not that pissed off and we decided that going forward, everytime we go around a maze similar to that of the open market, we will set up a time and meeting point just in case either one of us get lost (let this be a lesson for all of you as well!).
Check out what constitutes a typical Laos meal:
It’s kinda blurry but the menu consists of sticky rice, which is a staple and a refreshing change to boring steamed rice. Now, as you can see, Lao food is similar to Thai cuisine, as they similarly use basil, mint, coriander and lemongrass in addition to lime juice, fish sauce and shrimp paste. Laos food can also be quite chilly as chillis are often added.
One of the most common Lao dishes is laab, which is finely minced meat/fish tossed in lime juice, garlic, green onions, mint leaves and chilis. They are usually served with a large plate of leaves, and you eat it with balls of sticky rice, which come in cute woven containers:
Laap is yummy and our favorite dish to order in Laos.
I couldn’t help it as well. To end our meal, we ordered some Laos dessert combo, which is shown on the right — that’s coconut custard with rice bits, sweet potato gelly and some balls of fresh fruit.
Of course, I couldn’t resist — also ran downstairs to buy another one of those banana pancakes. Check out the oil sticking on the paper! 🙂 So unhealthy yet so worth it.
For dinner, we were accompanied by Chris, one backpacker I bumped into while looking at the restaurant’s menu.
Originally from Denmark, she is a perfect example of the many fellow travelers you’ll meet in Laos. She used to work for a center for autistic people when she realized she wanted to travel and has been traveling for the last 6 months.
She first started in Russia, then to Mongolia which she claims was amazing, then around China, moving to Vietnam, then to Laos. For Christmas, she’ll be traveling to Thailand to meet up with friends.
Chris is one of the many vegans we seem to bump often into this trip. Ironically, despite taking care of her body with what she eats, she smokes. Hahah, funny right?
Anyway, we treated her to dinner as backpackers often have a minimal budget and then went back to the hotel for an early start the next day. Our bus to Vang Vieng would be at around 9:30 am, and since I wanted to try out one of the famous Laos bakeries for breakfast, I had to wake up early.
So there you go — my account of Vientiane adventures!
Next stop, Vang Vieng…!
To be continued