Victory over the sun in Vientiane
Published: August 5th 2020
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You know, you teach. You do not know, you learn … ~ Lao Proverb
Today we were travelling south from Vang Vieng to Vientiane.
We woke early (5:30am), as we had an early start. We were leaving for Vientiane at 8am, and it was our last destination in Laos. We headed down to Phetchaleun Hotel’s large dining area at 7am, where I helped myself to a fresh baguette, omelette, tea, coffee and the ubiquitous orange cordial that our Laotian hosts always offered in the morning.
With breakfast complete, we loaded our packs into a minibus and made our way out of Vang Vieng. Within minutes we were speeding towards Vientiane, hitting every conceivable pothole on the way – the roads in Laos are not in the best of condition. At first the terrain was flat, with houses and dwellings built right to the edge of the roadside. We passed rice fields, old American airstrips and cement factories spewing smoke into the heavily polluted atmosphere.
The road occasionally narrowed as we passed through small villages and larger towns, with shops and dwellings crowding the road’s verge. We slowed considerably as our driver navigated the main street of one particular village, where local fish vendors were selling cooked and raw
fish from stalls on either side of the road. The vendors source much of their fresh produce from Ang Nam Nhum, an enormous artificial lake located midway between Vang Vieng and Vientienne, which we occasionally glimpsed from the minibus window.
Within half an hour the road began to climb upwards, twisting and turning through the mountainous terrain in this part of the country. Rubber plantations lined the roadside, and small wooden dwellings dotted the landscape. Every so often the poorly sealed road would mutate into complete rubble, and we would jolt uncontrollably in the back of the minibus until our driver found the next section of potholed bitumen. Things became very relative. I looked forward to the relative comfort of a poorly sealed road.
Water buffalo stood aimlessly in rice fields, barbers groomed clients in roadside huts, trucks sped by with reckless abandon, excavators carved dark scars through unspoilt forest, and the leaves of trees were caked in thick brown dust. We occasionally found ourselves driving beside unfinished sections of the China-Laos Railway Project (a high-speed train link that will connect Kunming in China with Vientiane in Laos by 2021), and I secretly longed for the comfort of
train travel, typing with ease as we drifted and swayed gently along the tracks. It wasn’t long before another pothole jolted me back to reality.
After two hours on the road we stopped at a petrol station, and it was a welcome break from typing on the backseat of a minibus. We refreshed with some cold cans of Nescafe coffee before continuing our journey to Vientiane. As we edged towards the country’s capital, the tell-tale signs of augmented human habitation began to appear. There were more houses, more cars, more building sites and an ever-increasing amount of litter scattered along the road verges. Sometimes a perfectly manicured lawn would stand out like a sore thumb amidst the otherwise unkempt and earthen streetscape, and I wondered who tended it, and why.
We arrived in Vientiane around midday, only to discover that our room at the Family Boutique Hotel wouldn’t be ready until 2pm, so we headed straight to lunch at Benoni Café. We settled at a long table upstairs in an air-conditioned room and ordered khao soi (translated as ‘Luang Prabang rice noodle soup’) for me and khao piak sen (chicken noodle soup) for Ren. We also ordered two
Thai red teas, as we hadn’t had a milky iced tea since arriving in Laos. The food was exceptional. It was easily up there with the best food we’d sampled so far in the country. However, we had to remove the cubes of coagulated blood from our dishes… it was just a step too far at this stage of the trip!
Feeling refreshed, we headed out on an orientation walk of the city in the searing afternoon sun. We walked past the Presidential Palace, then crossed the road to Wat Si Saket. While the temple and its history were interesting, our visit was significantly enhanced by a wedding shoot. We always manage to stumble upon at least one public wedding on our travels, and this was our first in Laos. We almost forgot where we were…
For some reason, a favourite poem from my favourite poet suddenly sprang to mind (as it so often does when I stumble upon a wedding). Phillip Larkin’s words have always resonated with me, and his poem The Whitsun Weddings has rarely strayed from my subconscious since first reading it as a young impressionable 15 year old. To put the poem in context,
an observer (almost certainly Larkin) is trying to read on an empty London-bound train, and as he passes through towns along the way, he describes the weddings that distract him from his book. The following lines from this extraordinary poem flooded back as I observed the wedding shoot at Wat Si Saket:
Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
‘I nearly died’,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
– An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl – and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
(Phillip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings)
We left Wat Si Saket and made our way along Th Lan Xang to Patuxai (Victory Monument), which is also known as Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe. After capturing a few photos in the early afternoon sun, we
jumped into the back of a jumbo (a motorbike with a covered trailer containing facing bench seating) and headed to the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Centre – a dismaying visual history of the impact of America’s unexploded bombs in Laos following the Vietnam War. COPE is also the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in the country.
Our orientation walk had taken a little longer than expected, and it was pushing 4pm, so we jumped into the waiting jumbo and headed back to the Family Boutique Hotel, where our large and comfortable room was ready. After resting a while at the hotel, we headed out to Khop Chai Deu for dinner in the early evening. I refreshed with a Beerlao, while Ren opted for a Teter cocktail (vodka, pineapple, lime and coconut cream). While the Teter was meant to contain vodka, it didn’t seem to have any alcohol whatsoever. We shared two dishes (stir-fried morning glory and red curry), and while both were okay, they were no match to the morning glory and red curry we’d shared two nights’ earlier at Vang Vieng’s Oasis Restaurant.
At the end of the meal we
walked down to the Mekong and gazed across at Thailand on the horizon, then made our way back to our hotel via some dark and decrepit backstreets. Ren collapsed into bed within seconds, while I settled with my laptop and caught up on my travel writing. After a long day of travel, I succumbed to sleep a little past midnight.
We woke up to a cloudless sky and a clear view of the limestone karsts surrounding the town. Even though I haven’t rated Vang Vieng highly, I’ve loved waking up to this dramatic view. It was a travel day – we were heading to Vientiane.
The hotel breakfast was the same as the day before. However, I skipped the khao piak sen (Lao chicken noodle soup), and settled for a small serve of fried rice, fried egg and stir-fried vegetables. Even though I was trying to have a light breakfast on a travel morning, I had to try the omelette and baguette that Andrew had raved about the day before (and given me food envy). The delicious pineapple juice had been replaced with a pink juice, which I happily assumed was guava juice but
it turned out to be a miscellaneous sickly sweet liquid. So it was back to the fluoro-orange drink… better the devil you know! 😊
We piled into a minibus and left Vang Vieng at 8am. We had the same driver as before (Mr Nha), but a new local leader – Mr Ki. He was a bit of a joker, and managed to irritate a couple of people right from the get-go. We re-joined Highway 13 that we’d driven on from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Apparently the road starts in China and crosses through Laos all the way to Cambodia.
A couple of us in the group had been discussing our disappointment at the significant absence of any in-depth country information about Laos from our group leader (Naa) or the local leader so far. So John spoke up and asked Mr Ki if he could please provide us with any information he thought we’d find interesting. Mr Ki looked a bit puzzled and asked ‘such as?’… John suggested he could talk to us about the culture or any areas or things of interest we passed. Well, we happened to be passing a cement factory at that very moment,
so Mr Ki took John’s request literally and explained that the factory processed the limestone from the local karsts. Apparently it was considered to be second grade cement, with Chinese cement considered the best quality and Vietnamese cement considered the lowest quality. Hmmm. Not quite what John had meant, but kinda interesting nonetheless.
A little later we drove past Nam Ngum Lake, the biggest lake in Laos. There was a roadside fish market nearby and Mr Ki explained that the Lake is famed for large fish and the area is famous for its dried fish. Apparently the dried fish is a valued present for family and friends in other parts of the country. Even though some of the information was interesting, it was clear Mr Ki hadn’t quite grasped what we wanted from him. It was only later that I read that this was actually an artificial lake / reservoir that had been created when the Ngum River had been dammed for a hydroelectric plant. The electricity generated from this plant supplies most of the country and is also exported to Thailand.
Mr Ki seemed to run out of things to say soon after that, and none of
us wanted to push the issue. It was really quite disappointing, as good group leaders and local guides (as we’ve had in the majority of our other trips) have really helped to increase our engagement and understanding of the local culture. It’s something we really value, and was sorely lacking on this trip.
Even though Laos is one of the most forested countries in this part of Asia, most of the hillsides we passed were bare of any old trees, and I found this quite sad. I assumed these hills would have once been covered in hardwood trees like teak and mahogany, but were now invaded and colonised by bamboo forests as far as the eye could see. We also passed vast rubber plantations that were being tapped for latex.
The Hmong villages we passed had coconut and banana trees surrounding the houses, and dusty mango trees along the road. I also kept seeing a tree with striking yellow flowers in most of the villages we passed – apparently it’s called a golden shower (yes I quietly sniggered!) or purging cassia tree… and the bright yellow flower is the national flower of Thailand.
The road was bumpy,
and this lulled me to sleep until we stopped for a toilet break two hours later. Andrew and I opted for our usual road stop drink – small cans of Nescafé iced coffee. I had the espresso, while Andrew tried the robusta for the first time, but found it too bitter. The coffee went well with the massive bag of shortbread biscuits we’d bought at the bakery in Vang Vieng.
Two hours and a couple of small naps later, we entered the traffic of Laos’ capital city – Vientiane. It seemed to be a sprawling but pretty low-key and laid-back city. After crawling through traffic for about an hour, we arrived at our hotel.
Our rooms at the Family Boutique Hotel weren’t ready, so we quickly changed into lighter clothing, stored our luggage, and walked down the road to Benoni Café for lunch. The menu was of a fusion nature, but with enough Lao dishes to keep us happy. I ordered the khao piak sen (Lao chicken noodle soup), while Andrew had the khao soi (yellow egg noodle soup). This Lao khao soi was quite similar to the khao soi in Thailand, but without the coconut milk based
broth… so it was a cleaner taste, but just as delicious! I loved my chicken noodle soup very much… despite the large cube of coagulated blood (!) that was hiding under the noodles. I merely fished it out and kept right on slurping! 😊
Mr Ki took us on a brief orientation walk to get our bearings. We passed That Dam (the Black Stupa) at a distance – it’s a beautiful old 16th century stupa covered in plants and grass. Despite being unceremoniously plonked in the middle of a roundabout, I took a liking to it and wanted to take a closer look in the next day or so. It also became a landmark for us, signalling that we were a block away from the back road to our hotel.
We walked past a few beautiful colonial buildings, stopping in front of the grand gates of the blue-grey Presidential Palace. The building looked decidedly French-influenced, but was designed by a local architect and not built until the 1970s. The Palace marked the beginning of Lan Xang Avenue, which holds the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe that we would be walking to after visiting Wat Si Saket
across the road.
Despite having the same temperatures, Vientiane seemed to be hotter and more humid than Vang Vieng. And despite knowing we were visiting a temple, I couldn’t bear the thought of walking around in long trousers, so I had worn a dress. As a result, I had to ‘hide’ behind a tree in the outer courtyard and slip on leggings to cover my knees before I could enter the temple. This caused no end of amusement to the female cleaners who were sitting nearby… I couldn’t be certain that I didn’t accidently flash them! 😄
Wat Si Saket is the oldest still-standing temple in Vientiane. When the Siamese Army razed Vientiane to the ground two centuries ago, and raided and burnt their temples, this was the only temple spared (because the army was using the complex as their headquarters). However, there was still a lot of fire damage. Similar to temples in Thailand, the main prayer hall is surrounded by a very serene cloistered courtyard containing a collection of unrestored Buddha statues. I loved that the statues were of different shapes, sizes and vintages. However, what I liked most about the space was that the cloister
walls had small alcoves with two tiny Buddha statues in each. Mr Ki explained that they represented the duality of life – day and night, good and evil.
We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the main prayer hall with the large gilded Buddha statue, but we could admire the murals on the wall that had survived the fire. An International team (funded by Germany) is providing the expertise needed to conserve and restore the complex. One of the outer cloister walls (with the alcoves), and some murals in the prayer hall, show the results of the restoration. Apparently they’ve used advanced restoration technology to confirm the original designs and colours. We’ve seen so many ancient temples in Asia restored dreadfully and repainted in hideous tones, so it was nice to see this work being done properly. I really liked this temple, probably mainly due to its symmetrical architecture and the fact that the colours and tones were muted and calming. There wasn’t a single bright neon colour in sight. 😊
Wat Si Saket is a popular temple for weddings and wedding photography, and there was a shoot going on in the cloister. As some of you might
know, I like to photograph weddings around the world, and when I asked for permission, the couple willingly posed. It was very obvious that they were very hot and sweaty under their layers of finery and make-up, yet they were so gracious with their time. There was another bride-to-be being made up and adorned with jewellery in the outer courtyard. She was also happy to pose for photos. The Lao are very friendly and truly cordial people.
The Buddhist temples in Laos seemed to contain art and iconography that I haven’t seen in other Buddhist countries. The depictions had many more female representations, and these were sometimes more erotic than I would have thought acceptable in a Buddhist temple. It finally made sense when Mr Ki explained that many elements of Hinduism still lingered in Lao Buddhism.
By now the sun was sizzling and even the small trees along Lan Xang Avenue didn’t offer any relief. We walked to the Patuxai monument (which literally translates as the Gate of Victory), which is in the style of many such similar monuments the world over. It’s dedicated to those who lost their lives in WWII, and in the fight for
independence from France. The monument sits in the middle of the avenue and is a four sided symmetrical construction. The lower sections of the monument are bare, and the top parts are decorated in traditional Laotian motifs including Buddhist symbols and Hindu deities. It was already quite busy when we got there, but we managed to get some relatively ok photos, especially of the ceiling inside. We meant to return to get some better photos and to climb the seven storeys to the top viewing platform, but never did so.
That was the end of Mr Ki’s time with us, and we caught two jumbos (similar to a Cambodian remork, a motorbike with a covered trailer containing facing bench seating) to the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE). As its name suggests, it’s a non-profit organisation that aids people with mobility-related disabilities, and it runs a visitor centre which is both an education centre and charity shop to raise money.
Laos has the horrible record for being the most bombed country (relative to its size). Between 1964 and 1973, the US is estimated to have dropped two million tonnes of explosives on Laos, and unexploded ordnances (UXO) swamp
the landscape. Cluster bombs in particular continue to injure and kill many people in rural areas. COPE is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos.
We watched a video about the work of international and local teams who check for and clear the countryside of UXO. COPE also helps to educate rural families on the dangers of using the bomb materials for scrap metal – they repurpose it into household items – and a recent increase in demand from tourists for jewellery made from UXO hasn’t helped matters!
The centre has a peculiar use for old prosthetic limbs and UXO material – the main COPE sign on the building is ‘written’ in old prosthetics, and there’s a sculpture of a mother and child made of UXO metal. Inside there’s a chilling art installation of hundreds of cluster bombs hanging from the ceiling. The room is also full of used prosthetics arranged in unusual ‘arty’ configurations. It was quite bizarre.
I had hoped to buy stuff from the charity shop, but sadly they didn’t have anything we found appealing. Interestingly, the author Colin Cotterill (whose books I started reading before the trip) had
donated many of this books to support the charity. I really love the work that COPE does, and I really loved that we could support them with donations. However (and I feel mean saying this), the visitor centre and charity shop could have been improved on so many levels. If we return to Laos for any particular length of time, I would love to volunteer at COPE.
We returned to our hotel to check in and rest until our group’s farewell dinner. We later gathered at reception and walked down to Khop Chai Dieu on the main street. The restaurant is set in a large old colonial mansion and it looked lovely. We sat at a balcony table that overlooked the lively street, but the night had turned quite breezy and was colder than we’d expected.
Given the standard of food had been pretty high at most restaurants we’d been to in Laos, it was disappointing that the food wasn’t as fabulous as the surrounds implied. Andrew and I shared a red curry with chicken and a stir-fried morning glory (water spinach) with garlic… and it was leagues below the same dishes we’d shared at the small Oasis
Restaurant in Vang Vieng two nights earlier. However, very happily, the khao niao mak muang (mango with sweetened coconut sticky rice) dessert I had was delicious. The sticky rice was pandan-flavoured, and it was the perfect mix of slightly sweet with a hint of saltiness. It wasn’t as sweet or moist as versions of the dessert I’d had in Thailand and Australia, but it was well balanced and tasty.
After dinner most of us agreed to visit the Night Market by the Mekong as suggested by Naa. The Mekong marks the border between Laos and Thailand, and I had been interested in seeing it. We arrived as the Night Market was wrapping up, but it was still a nice enough walk along the promenade with the lights of Thailand across the river.
It was our last night with the group, but most of them were continuing their travels together in Vietnam… so it was only a goodbye for Chris, Dave, Andrew and myself. It had been so lovely travelling with such a lovely, easy going and amiable bunch of people. However, we had been very disappointed with Naa’s group leading skills and her manner of running an Intrepid
group. She would rate close to the bottom of the pack of the 15 or so Intrepid group leaders we’ve had so far.
On a related note, and to absolutely solidify my feelings about Naa – she got us lost on the way back to the hotel that night. When we left the Mekong promenade, I could see the red and white communication tower I’d mentally marked as the closest landmark to the hotel, but Naa started leading us the other way. When it became obvious that she had no idea where we were and had to ask passers-by, Philipp looked up the offline map on his phone and guided us back. While waiting outside our hotel for the others to catch up, Naa sent a group member ahead to tell us not to despair, we were close to the hotel now. Ahem. She hadn’t even recognised the street our hotel was on! I had no words. I’d normally not have worried much about something like this, but three things – 1) I was absolutely over Naa and her inept ways by now; 2) I’d pointed out a possible way back from the river that she ignored; and 3)
I was seriously busting to use the bathroom!!! 😲 😊
We said a quick final goodbye to everyone outside the hotel before I scurried to the lift and sprinted down the hallway to our room. I think I scared the people in the room next to us with my noisy running and frantic swiping of the room door security card! 😄
Andrew and I have two more days in Vientiane before our holiday ends, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing more of this unassuming but charming city.
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