Tuesday 24th December: Visiting the diminutive blue lagoon near Tham Chang Cave , Vang Vieng

Morning begins with the rooster’s crow long before dawn.

Nonetheless I refuse to begin the day just yet.

Instead I settle my head into the pillow & turn my face away from the window.

With the light now streaming  into the room around 6:20 am,

feeling a tad defeated I sit up,

plump up the pillows,

press my back into the plumpness,

gather up a pen & press it onto the page to encourage a flourish of ink & ideas

& so catch up on my self-imposed Journal Writing until Ben wakes.

Both now refreshed, showered & ready for a day in Vang Vieng, we join Hermann at the meeting table on the front porch & order our breakfast : scrambled egg with baguette,  and  muesli & yoghurt.

‘What a treat,’ I say.

‘I love this place,’ says Ben.

And I totally agree; what a  charming foreign place to just ‘be’ who we really are, or most ‘want to be.’

Breakfasts finished,  we determine to go for a stroll ‘uptown’, so to speak.

First the shoes need to be gathered …

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before a myriad of sights awaits our tinted lenses …

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along with the insistent pounding of heavy-weighted machinery driving a concrete foundation block deep into riverside soil at a construction site, a process that seems to have been going on long before – &  since – we’ve arrived …

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and the continual marveling of our place in the midst of such majesty…

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schoolyard simplicity…

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and universal engagement in thoughtful ingenuity (something that assuages the sense of guilt I feel  for adding to the plastic waste each & every day of my travels ) …

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Ben buys himself a necklace & a delicate painted vial sporting the image of two naked ladies (a trinket he later adds, with pride,  to the collection of treasured  items on the mantelpiece at Diadem Street) …

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Happy with these  purchases we then return to the guesthouse to wait for Hermann, Nes & Joanne (the vet) to join us for our walk to the Tham Chang Cave & the promised smaller blue lagoon in the grounds of  the Vang Vieng Resort  (the other youngsters having already gone tubing, & caving elsewhere, at first light).

Considered by many as Vang Vieng’s most important cave, Tham Chang (or
Jang) became the home for migrating people, who settled near the town’s
southern Meuang Xong Village to raise vegetables. The locals stumbled into the
cavern during a civil war, while seeking refuge deep in the forest. Because its high
location offered perfect views of Vang Vieng, the entire village moved there to sit
out the war, and [ became] named their haven, Tham Jang (Hang Around Cave).

Years later during the colonial era, the locals returned to cultivating the nearby fields and
would bathe in the cave’s basin, where the water was so cold they said it could
freeze your legs to a firm stiffness. They then adjusted the cave’s name to Tham
Chang, which means “unable to move”, leaving locals no choice but to “hang
around”.

En route, the naturalness  of the place  as we follow the river road south of Meuang Xong Village, confronts us at every step …

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before  we pay the entrance fee at the gate of Vang Vieng Resort and cross the bridge over the Nam Xong . It’s at the suspension bridge oour attentions shift from the soles of the feet to the kneecaps …

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as all around us the exquisite beauty of the place shines …

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and reflects from pristine surfaces …

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Across the bridge we find well-organised, aproned women creating culinary treats from fruits …

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and Nes shares some of the grapefruit sections she purchases for a  few kip …

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It’s a really pretty & carefree place, though the walk up to the Than Chang Caves requires us to negotiate a rather steep set of steps;

requiring numerous stops to regain our composure;  to capture our breaths (though officially I’m supposedly capturing a moment  in time; for posterity).

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Eventually,  after reaching the final landing at the top,  we find the caves are lit part way

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but I choose not to follow the designated pathway any further into the darkness. 

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Instead I wait at the mouth of the cave where the view across the expanse of countryside reveals the rickety suspension bridge …

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then  visit the little shrine on the next level up …

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before Ben joins me…

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Though not quite as adventurous as Roly in my attempt to plank in spectacular places …

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I do capture the synchronicity of Western men’s legs when placed in the resting position …

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and mark the spot behind which  Ben & I – separately – visit for some secluded, & eminently more natural,  happy room relief …

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before descending the remaining steps & making our way carefully down the mountain –

some sections being  somewhat steeper

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or seemingly more spectacular than others –

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so as to make our way round to the lagoon …

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And I’m certain, if we’d visited in summertime, I’d have let go of the rustic ladder & dipped more than a lily-white toe into the opalescent blueness of the lagoon.

Monday 23rd December : In Vang Vieng

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As we cruise towards the outskirts of Vang Vieng we divert from the traffic travelling along Highway #13  &  hang a left across a wide cleared gravelly area,  a stretch apparently used as the Lima site 16 by Air America –   an American passenger & cargo airline covertly owned & operated by the C.I. A. – from 1950 to 1976, so as to supply & support covert operations in SE Asia during the American War ( otherwise called the Vietnam War ). Nowadays sections are  utilised for a smattering of food stalls & an open-air marketplace.

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Having reached the other side we swing around & drive along another smaller dirt road for a bit,  then head for the main street of the town, taking a left turn at Pan’s Place to arrive at the Khamphone Guesthouse just a short distance down  from the corner.

I immediately recognise it as the  place I’d stayed at before; in a room with my Intrepid traveling companion from Melbourne, tucked away in a back corner.

I even recognise the same owners from four years ago; but their young boy is now a capable busy toddler rather than a babe-in-arms.

And because the streets really have no names –  only places of interest – our hotel/ guesthouse address is given as Ban Viengkeo, Vangvieng District, Vientiane Province.

Though it’s really a split guest house, a business  that essentially has  a dual address being that it has both sides of the street covered with a variety of different sized rooms, though probably – I’d hazard a guess – all with the same rustic-style bathrooms that spill water from the shower straight down onto the toilet.  

003 This time we’re allocated an overly-large ground-level room, just a spit away from the main desk & dining area;  down a wide secluded hallway so there’s no lugging of heavy backpacks up & down awkward stairways or even across the roadway like tottering upright turtles balancing ‘en point’, as during the  2010 stay.

However, though there’s a very large window on the wall beneath the air-conditioner,  there’s no immediate view.

Nonetheless when standing shoe-less on the front patio, the view is magnificent: the mountains looming like ominous rugged rain clouds from a horizon of rooftops at the western end of the street;  a hot air balloon adding a dot of colour & mystique to the adventurous nature of the place.

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To settle us in to the Vang Vieng we’re taken for an orientation walk a short way along the main street of the town & then down an unnamed street past a variety of shops,  guesthouses & tourist agencies advertising kayaking & tubing adventures for the young or young-at-heart.

(http://www.flickr.com/photos/aussie_ian/3311489017/ … 2009)  

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Of course there’s more than a handful of lithe young Lao women hovering outside massage businesses, waiting for bodies to rub, push & crack; also more than sufficient jewellery shops displaying the full gamut of silver & bead wear in all shapes,colours & sizes to catch the tourist eye while aiming to capture more than the equivalently-valued tourist kip.

Well-oriented & set free to roam at will,

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Ben finds the right store & chooses a silver ring , Cambodian-influenced,  &  moulded to the shape of a Kmer-style  ‘bust.’  

He even  bargains for a satisfactory price.

Needless to say after weeks of wear the silver disappears &  copper begins to stain the base of his finger. It’s only then he feels cheated.

In the meantime he locates some light socks – two pairs for 10,000 kip – & it’s not long before a fancy, orange jacket catches my eye; one with sufficient bling to raise a teenage eyebrow; and with the bulkiest plastic zipper & metal pull tag for future arthritic fingers to zip & unzip with more-than-enough ease.

I like it enough to bargain down to 60,000 kip with the help of pointer fingers that sketch the questionable numerals on a glass cabinet because words are not enough to determine & clinch the deal.

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Carrying our new-found booty we negotiate the rocky lane-way to the river where I notice a sizable change to the landscape.

River view lodgings have sprung up on the island like rows of look-alike Bali huts along Kuta ; or, perhaps even more so, the booths on Brighton Beach …

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I’m sure there’s also additional suspension bridges traversing the Nam Song River, & certainly a brand-new pier designed to accommodate those who want to be close to the river for a sunset viewing.

But instead of choosing this spot later in the day, we go to the Kangaroo Sunset Bar for our pre-twilight drink & whatever happens to follow to mark the fuzzy end of the day.

Firstly we climb down a rickety stairway to use the downstairs toilet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI take a photo of the dodgy foundations in case we need it later for insurance purposes though we’re relieved to return safely upstairs & take a seat on one  section of the raised platforms where drinking booths have been manufactured using timber, rubber & cloth: plump red cushions  arranged around clothed bamboo tables.

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A different traveler obliges, so we don’t have to resort to another egotistical ‘selfie’ …

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And Ben perfectly captures my mood …

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even on his own camera …

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all while developing his own special angle on things …

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Over time the sunset doesn’t disappoint; even though there’s not a single cloud in the sky as the red ball almost-too-quickly disappears into the  mountains …

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leaving the children to wonder where the orange balloon has gone!

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And us to later wonder whether the hot-air balloon trips are really safe here in Vang Vieng when they don’t seem to gain sufficient height to escape hitting power poles & rooftops …

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Our dinner group is reduced to seven as the youngsters again prefer to sample the street food on offer: the chicken or peanut butter pancakes cooked on a sizzling skillet by a patient young woman quite adept with a squirt of oil & a metal spatula as she spills the prepared mixture & adds the requested extras to the required /anticipated level of perfection.

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Nonetheless needing to satisfy more refined tastes we’re joined at dinner by the young vet from California (though of Korean descent) who’s been with us since Vientiane, as an approved  traveling guest.

She suggests we share  one of the large bottles of Lao beer on offer & I’m more than delighted to oblige.

We sit around a chunky table, close enough to talk as a group about theatrical productions, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars & SYTYCD; & about ABBA gaining worldwide approval following their success at Eurovision in 1974, the year before Ben was born.

It’s a nice gathering & the food balances out a nice evening spent with friends-for-the-duration-of-the-trip.

Back at the guesthouse I spread a relaxed body across the width of a King-sized bed, & settle in for a good night’s sleep.

Needless to say, the bars of Vang Vieng stay alive & pumping into the wee small hours of the morning as young backpackers find their own drug-riddled heaven on earth, & in the world’s most unlikely party town; where young Lao men & women work from 6am to 1am every day for 500,000 kip (£41) a month & hate it; where, in 2011, at least 27 travellers died and countless more were injured because the once-tranquil farming village has become a seething epicentre of backpackers behaving badly.

Abigail Haworth writes an article for The Observer (Sunday 8 April 2012):

“God no, you don’t come to Vang Vieng for the culture, like temples and stuff,” laughs a 19-year-old Australian called Louise, who is dancing to a Flo Rida anthem with a beer bottle in each hand at one of the many riverside bars. “You come here to get wasted.” Half an hour later I spot Louise vomiting over her sparkly flip-flops before passing out. Got it.

About 10 years ago, the pastime of riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the meandering Nam Song river started to gain word-of-mouth popularity. In the past three or four years, the scene has exploded. Ramshackle wooden bars opened along the river banks, enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do.

Blowing off steam is one of the more grandma-friendly ways to describe Vang Vieng’s backpacker appeal. The riverside FU BAR, where the Indian IT workers are hooting with laughter as they jump into the water fully clothed, is more direct: a giant sign explains that the name means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. It’s also more accurate. At around £1 a litre, Lao-Lao is so cheap it’s served in beach buckets [&] Lao-Lao has an alcohol content of around 45%.

Drugs are plentiful, too. Nearly every restaurant offers “happy” pizzas and “magic” shakes or teas laden with marijuana, opium and mushrooms. Most places advertise such fare on sandwich boards right outside. And many travellers are high not only on booze or drugs – a euphoria pervades the riverside bars and clubs that has more to do with the complete absence of rules or responsibilities, a kids-in-a-candy-store incredulity that you can go wild here and nobody will stop you [in a non-stop party town].

In fact it appears what Vang Vieng sells more than anything else is ‘JOY,’  amid an illusion of total freedom. But there are many dark sides to what is happening. And the joy has been somewhat-recently partially-tamed. Though the Laotian authorities may have once done nothing because they had vested interests in the river bars, we learn the present Laos Government has reacted swiftly to end the scenes of irreverent debauchery, & death.

Now …

Laotians are hardly teetotallers – they home-brew Lao-Lao and down it in vast quantities on special occasions. Smoking opium is part of traditional culture, particularly among hill tribes such as the Hmong. But the culture is modest and conservative when it comes to human relations. [And Laotians are] offended by the sight of Westerners walking through town wearing nothing but board shorts or bikinis.

“In Laos we cover up our arms and legs.”

And parents certainly don’t want their toddlers & teenagers copying foreigners.

But still:

Laos was on the hippy trail in the 1960s. The capital, Vientiane, boasted the world’s largest legal opium den, attracting overland travellers via Afghanistan and India. That petered out with another foreign invasion, the US carpet-bombing campaign during the Vietnam War  [and ] it took a long time to restore the natural environment and rice-producing economy after the war ended.

Yet the people began to do their bit by starting organic farms by the Nam Song.  As tourists started to trickle back into Laos in the 1990s they built guesthouses for foreigners who wanted to volunteer as mulberry pickers & vegetable gatherers on 30 acre farms.

Then, in 1998, someone made a fateful purchase : inner tubes for the volunteers as a cheap & ecological way to see the river.

 Tubing became so popular that locals started up a business co-operative to rent out tubes, which now comprises over 1,500 households. Many shareholders are now caught in a classic tourism catch-22. They’ve become too dependent on the income tubing generates to stop the business, but they’re paying a much higher price than they expected for its success.

“It’s a complicated dynamic. Rural life is hard. Everyone wants the economic benefits of tourism – of course we do. But we shouldn’t sell our souls to get it.”

Perhaps hot-air ballooning ( US$80 for half-hour ride) is being considered as a far better way to achieve some sort of tourist high; though surely an equally-dangerous way to search for your soul.

Take me to the temples instead.

Monday 23rd December: Wats of Vientiane to the Fish stalls near Vang Vieng

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Beyond breakfast of fried eggs, bread & banana at the Xaysomboun Hotel in Khounboulom Road, we take a two-hour sojourn along Thanon Setthathirath to check out part of the city as yet unexplored, & to finally organise for the photographs stored on my full memory cards to be transferred to a DVD so as to free up space for new memories.

Luckily we find just the right camera shop to do the job just a few doors down from the Joma Bakery.  So while the job is being done for 30,000 kip, we pop in to the Bakery (of course)  for a mug of Lipton tea  plus yet another slice of yummie chocolate brownie (I’m addicted ).

With the job done & now my camera fully responsive to my touch we head off to see what we can find.

It’s not too long before we happen upon four beautiful & intensely compelling temple complexes (though I can’t  be totally certain I’ll now attribute each photo to the correct wat) :

  • Wat Mixay 

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  • Wat Ong Teu Mahaiwihan ( Temple of the Heavy Buddha, which is according to the Lonely Planet guide, ‘one of the most important in Laos,’  originally built in the mid-16th century by King Setthathirat & believed to occupy a site first used for religious purposes as far back as the 3rd century.  It houses a large, bronze Phra Ong Teu Buddha image : the largest Buddha in Vientiane; & a bell tower that I dare to climb).

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  • Wat Hai Sok (a most serene place positioned beneath the wide-spreading canopy of a somewhat venerable tree)

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  • Wat In Paeng (with its beautiful gardens, rock sculptures, Buddha images and rock columns depicting Mon and Khmer cultures).

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Being able to spend time exploring these temples makes the Vientiane experience the more enjoyable by far. And it’s probably the reason I like to return to places & think it wise to never let one’s thoughts about a place be formed only by singular initial  impressions. It also helps to accommodate the acceptance of change in one’s life; & change is certainly something Vientiane has been forced to accommodate in concrete terms.

With map in hand – & Ben believing in my capacity for correct orientation – we turn down Rue Chao Anou, cross Rue Hengboun & journey a block to Boulevard Khounboulom, stopping to pose for a photo beside a kerbside Lao post Box along the way.

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We then turn right at Rue Samsenthai, passing the Lao National Culture Hall on the right

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& the National Museum on the left –

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neither place deserving of Ben’s attention or interest at this hour as much as the Cheese Lova Pizza sign across the footpath –

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–  before hurrying toward the hotel for a much-needed happy room stop & the  gathering up of our luggage ready for the 9:45 check out .

And though there’s possibly plenty more pleasures we’ve missed I’m certainly pleased I’ve had the opportunity to see more of  the sights of Vientiane than I dared ever to do on my previous visit.

Our backpacks bulging & positioned near the collection point, we sit with Hermann on plastic lilac lounges in the hotel lobby & discuss the politics of war; the intervention of the Americans via the C.I. A & its military forces in world-wide skirmishes far beyond  its borders, always to the detriment of smaller nations; & being of Swiss origin he has much to say – as he does of most things – about the involvement of his country, & the Jews, in global monetary matters.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon our private bus is packed & waiting outside. Before I hop aboard I gather a handful of mandarins from a passing vendor’s cart & pay the required amount of kip.

They’re quite pippy but the juiciest fruits I’ve tasted for quite some time; & Hermann is happy I have enough to share.

On board  our Laos guide, Mr. Ky, sits beside me en route to our lunch stop. We fall into conversation as we leave the suburbs of Vientiane behind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd as we make our way along Highway #13 –  stopping firstly to deliver one happy traveler to Wattay International Airport for her flight to connect with the long-distance boyfriend –  he talks about his eight-and-half-year old daughter who attends the International School in Vientiane; who is ‘so much taller than her peers – so much so that she’s been asked to join in volley ball teams with teenage player  – &  certainly ‘clever beyond her years.’

He says his wife works for Laos Airlines – in a position that proves very helpful when he needs to adjust/ alter  flights – ‘for his job survival’ – with precious little time to spare  throughout  a very busy work schedule that involves mostly  time spent in the Intrepid office & somewhat less time on the road (or in the air) –  though he much prefers talking with people, in situ; and he again reminds me of his duty & application to assisting his extended family such that he works very hard, & even moonlights as a tailor.

The road is two-laned, & sealed, though less than perfect in sections in spite of the fact it traverses a mostly flat landscape before being greeted by the limestone outcrops that signal – much later in the afternoon – we’re approaching Vang Vieng, the small and tranquil village  nestled on a bend of the Nam Song River.

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Then it’s into the bus, skirt round the town’s only roundabout  & off again as the road winds its way through villages that cling like limpids to the hillsides.

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The  one remaining stop for the journey is at the roadside fish market (talat), stalls that extend as a ribbon of colour on both sides  of the roadside,   &  just a spit away from the river near  Huay Mor, about half-an-hour out of Vang Vieng.

We get out of the bus & cruise by the stalls taking photographs of a great variety of dried fish …

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take a peep through to the river …

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and marvel at the sight of  buffalo skin strips … with hairs still attached … without being tempted to taste…

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Then its in to the bus again & onwards till the mountains loom in the distance

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and the proximity to Vang Vieng more than excites the eyes.

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Sunday 22nd December: Culture, progress & preservation in Vientiane – Part 2

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPositioned but a stone’s throw from the Mekong River in a provincial city that’s surely risen again & again from its ruins, Wat Sisaket is a Buddhist temple  built by Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang Kingdom.

Though steeped in early Bangkok-style architecture, it still seems to be mixed with its own unique style.

Once used by the armies of Siam as their Headquarters and lodging place – when they sacked Viang Chan (or its more French derivative, Vientiane) in 1827  –  it’s been restored by the French in 1924;  & again in 1930; &  may now be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane.

I think the place is beautiful beyond description …

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It features a cloister wall housing more than 2000 tiny ceramic & silver Buddha images;

with hundreds of seated Buddhas dating mainly from the 16th and 19th centuries.

Made from wood, stone & bronze, more than 6,8oo Buddha images of various sizes & postures  are located throughout the complex;

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even many broken ones thrown together behind a pad-locked gate

as unforgotten reminders of the sacking of the sacred complex & the surrounding city.

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Before we enter the actual grounds of the temple complex we gather round to take in further snippets of cultural knowledge.

Apparently, according to our local guide,  it takes monks twenty-four hours of praying to make each image sacred.

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‘And in former times the people they put gold as the base. Gold, the yellow colour, represents what the Buddhist people call turmeric – a kind of root, and is a good one of  traditional medicine to make the skin softer & to solve the problem inside.

And this way Buddhist people expect to be healthy.

Then real silver is put over the top. Silver was Laos money in the past before the French controlled the country & designed paper money to replace the silver coins. So Laos people expect to be wealthy as well.

Now healthy.

And wealthy.

Because Buddhist believe that after they die they are born again; so they do these  things now  so everything come back; all the affections for something we did come back very fast, so as there’s no waiting for the next life to make things happen …

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And the monks study … in the former time … in sanskrit, particularly philosophy; this was the  language many scholars consider  had a big influence on South east Asia kingdoms of Java (Yava),  Thailand/Siam (Shyama), Cambodia (Kambuja), Sumatra (Samudra) & Indonesia.

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And the temple was the main place for education for the religious men;

but sometimes, because more than 90% of the people in my country lived on the land as subsistence farmers, there needed to be another place when they needed to call for rain for their crops to feed their families.

So the people make rockets – traditionally, by stuffing gunpowder into elaborately decorated bamboo – to shoot up into the sky to anger the gods enough they’ll seek revenge by sending down the heavy rain  before the farmers set off to work in the rice fields – & this then is very hard work in the rainy season though it’s salvation for the farmers.

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This is celebrated as the Rocket Festival, or Boun Bang Fai.

And the rocket designed to carry prayers to the rain god during Boun Bang Fai, is known as a Hang or Meun-Saen.

Nowadays in Vientiane, Boun Bang Fai is organized in the outskirts of the city of avoid damage to property and help keep participants safe.

The most famous events are held in the surrounding villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern &  Pakhanhoung.

From there we stroll along Lanexang, arrange for the fair exchange of US$250 & US$100 respectively for myself & Ben; supposedly gaining sufficient kip to help cover our costs throughout our remaining days in Laos.

I pay Nes the 10,000 kip owed, & now have the required local money to pay 5000 kip to climb Patuxai (the Victory Gate dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France) …

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which proves to be a marvelous & novel experience,

affording amazing views of the surrounding avenues & parkways

as well as providing brilliant photographic opportunities for eager tourists

(though I have no available space on my memory cards – & therefore no usable camera in my hands at all, needing to rely on Ben’s initiative & other sources to gather reminders of what I’ve done & seen).

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Though we both proceed up the wide winding staircases & explore the six levels of the monument –

built using  cement intended for a new airport  (therefore earning the nickname  ‘The Vertical Runway’) –

only I brave the seventh final climbing section via a spiral staircase …

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to emerge beyond the five towers  representative of the five Buddhist principles of

  • thoughtful amiability
  • flexibility
  • honesty
  • honour and
  • prosperity.

Meanwhile Ben waits below & drifts like a fox about to pounce on the huge array of tourist paraphernalia on offer at the souvenir shops.

After returning to ground level & joining with our fellow travelers we’re loaded onto a tuk-tuk & transported to the COPE Centre.

Here the viewing of a video in a darkened theatre proves to be a moving experience.

We see

  • how family lives have been ruined by the unforeseen explosion of previously unspent ordinances in family homes when unknowingly being added to cooking fires or in-ground ovens.
  • how Laos was used for the sloughing off of unused bombs following raids in the Vietnam War though the country was neutral & not involved in the fighting. In fact the USA dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War than all the bombs combined, dropped by every country for the entire duration of World War II.

In fact according to ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ website <http://thekindnessofstrangers.co/the-arm-a-leg-project-cope-vientiane-laos-mar-13/>:

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

To make things worse, the types of bombs dropped are known as cluster bombs. Bombs that open mid flight to release smaller bombs within it, killing indiscriminately.  And of these bombs, it is estimated that 30%,  some 80 million, are still in the Laos farms and countryside waiting to explode.

Outside

Most of our fellow travelers purchase ice-cream cones or perhaps smoothies from the attached refreshments bar while I remain inside in a corner of the gift shop …

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attempting to choose – from a multitude of a various types, designs & colours –

a hand-crafted decorative sample of memorabilia that’s to be hung from a doorknob back home in Diadem Street.

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All transactions completed we walk like straggling cattle to the Morning Market

( now rebuilt since I last visited as the new Talat Sao Mall, at the eastern corner of Avenue Lan Xang  and Khu Vieng Rd …

& of note at this point is that the Lao word “thanon” on street signs is translated by “rue”, “avenue” or “boulevard”, in many cases without any apparent logic) …

passing open-air pet stores offering a range of caged puppies, rabbits & birds; & noting many more extensive building projects underway.

We’re told by Nes that Talat Sao is the largest covered market in Vientiane.

Once inside we find there’s a vast selection of handicrafts, woven fabrics, jewelry, antique ornaments, electronics and household goods for sale.

And because this is as close to a department store as you will find in Laos, expats, locals and tourists alike congregate in such huge numbers.

I find it overly claustrophobic though it does offer a degree of air-conditioned comfort.

Perhaps it’s unpleasant having to manage the rather clumsy escalators rather than perusing everything on street level as in the Russian Markets (Psah Toul Tom Poung) in Phnom Penh.

And I certainly DO  love that place!

So after arriving at the central Thai-style food court on the third floor of this stuffy building I realise the place is not for me, nor for Ben;

so we retrace our steps, exit the mall with a sense of great relief  & head off towards the Joma Bakery (at the Namphou Fountain Cafe franchise  positioned in Rue Setthathirath), intending to purchase  a light meal.

To go with the croissant (8,000 kip) & Lipton tea (11,000) that I order from the smiling Larnoy who stands expectantly behind the cash register,  I add the fruit salad selection (15,000), sit outside at one of the airier tables –

while Ben devours his Cinnamon bun (18,000) between an occasional slurp of Lipton tea –

& eventually share the wrapped left-overs with an old lady who’s positioned herself begging at the doorway.

Leaving more than satisfied with my actions – though with a rather bemused son in toe – we head down Rue Pangkham & towards the river.

Previously, in 2010,  the “promenade” beyond Quai’fa Ngum was somewhat disappointing as the whole area was being dug up and replaced with a huge expanse of concrete.

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Most of the water in the Mekong River had been diverted well away and could hardly be seen at all.

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What mostly met the eye were lorries, bulldozers and lots of mucky looking mud and gravel.

But today the Mekong River spreads out before us in all its glory as we explore the foreshore walkways, all apparently constructed to provide a sunset viewing space for the hundreds of people who arrive  expecting to see the sun set with due magnificence over Thailand.

Nearby in the newly constructed Chao Anouvong Park stands the majestic statue of the highly regarded King Anouvong built in 2010 (though obviously after I’d visited ) during Vientiane’s 450th Anniversary so as to commemorate the King’s noble contribution to Vientiane during his reign.

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As far as the naming of the park goes,

Chao Anouvong was the last king of the Lao Kingdom of Vientiane.

During his era, he struggled to fight against the Siamese invasion of Vientiane.

In the end, he was unsuccessful and was captured and the Kingdom of Vientiane was forced to surrender to Siamese rule and ceased to exist.

Because of his persistent attempts to defeat the Siamese forces, Chao Anouvong is considered a courageous hero who fought for Vientiane until his death.

After we peruse the foreshores in brilliant sunshine, rather than walk another step in the heat we pay 20,000 kip to travel two blocks to the Black Stupa in a tuk-tuk we hire from near the children’s playground where families gather for picnics in rather dismal shade.

Having then walked the short distance back to the hotel I find the washing that’s been hung across the windows in full sun since early morning is completely dry;  & at no additional laundry cost other than what Mother Nature provides to a  western facade.

Later immersed again in the group, we return to the Mekong sunset viewing area

&  sit in a line with cameras poised – though none better than Hermann’s – waiting for the golden orb to  move towards the horizon,

splashing an ever-more-beautiful golden beam across the surface of the water as it descends.

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Behind us in the forecourt area talented youths deftly juggle soccer balls on feet, ankles, knees, backs &  thighs;

even over & under looping legs as they sit like upturned turtles;

or lie on their backs like stranded beetles while a crowd of infatuated youngsters gathers to marvel at the quick-fire tricks.

Later, hour-long aerobics classes also prove to be a popular activity on the concourse at 6pm, for 3,000 kip

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Josh & Roly join in, & we watch the fun for a while  (even try & copy a few moves from the sidelines) …

before moving through the busy night market in search of a light jacket.

Although there’s more than an ample selection to choose from, nothing impresses with enough pizzazz to tempt me to part with the necessary kip.

Instead we move through the young crowd of shoppers & head off towards the Fountain &  the pre-arranged dinner meeting at the Nam Phu Restaurant with our fellow travelers, stopping off beforehand at Joma Bakery for an excellent chocolate brownie & oat biscuit topped with choc bits.

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Arriving early at the Fountain, Ben orders a Banana & Honey Smoothie & sips as we wait for the others to join us at 7:20 for dinner.

Though the live band plays recognisable renditions of  Beatles & BeeGees numbers, my ‘first-to-order’ fried rice offering is rather unimpressive (possibly because I need to wait till everyone’s dishes arrive before my plate appears).

Yet Ben is very impressed with his Baked Chicken Breast in Mushroom Sauce that’s accompanied by steamed broccoli, chips & garlic bread, so that’s a bonus.

I pay 35,000 kip & leave most of the meal on the plate.

Ben does his best to pay for the Smoothie ordered earlier, plus 60,000 kip for the chicken;

then we leave the group & head back to the hotel with Ben having little idea where we are though we’ve traveled the route numerous times.

I guess he’s totally reliant on the fact – & accustomed to the idea – I’m the experienced traveler who remembers such details.

Sunday 22nd December: Culture, progress & preservation in Vientiane – Part 1

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So we’re now in Vientiane,   the capital of the tiny landlocked nation of Laos that was, during the 1960s,  logistically worthy of  US attention  as a potential domino in America’s battle against global communism.  

Laos – and particularly Vientiane – has such a checkered, painful & disruptive history, including wars with the Burmese, Chinese & Siamese that resulted in many renowned structures ‘being burned to the ground’ –  though each time  being rebuilt in its original form by ‘ following original plans’ …

A French colony from 1893 – when the  so-called Paknam incident  forced King Chulalongkorn to give up all claim to Laos on the flimsiest of historical pretexts – it became torn apart by civil wars & then invested with intrigue & secrecy.

According to Footprint Travel guides at <http://www.footprinttravelguides.com/asia/laos/about-laos/the-french-and-independence/>

… France occupied the left bank of the Mekong and forced Thailand to recognize the river as the boundary. The French Union of Indochina denied Laos the area that is now Isan, northeast Thailand, and this was the start of 50 years of colonial rule.

Laos became a protectorate with a résident-superieur in Vientiane and a vice-consul in Luang Prabang. However, Laos could hardly be construed as a ‘country’ during the colonial period …  but a territorial entity within French Indochina.

The French were not interested in establishing an identifiable Lao state; they saw Laos as …  a subservient part …  of Vietnam, serving as a resource-rich appendage.

Though they had grand plans for the development of Laos…  none of them came to anything.

“The French were never sure what to do with Laos”, Stuart-Fox writes.

Unlike Cambodia to the south, the French did not perceive Laos to have any historical unity or coherence and therefore it could be hacked about and developed or otherwise, according to their whim.

In 1904 the Franco-British convention delimited respective zones of influence. Only a few hundred French civil servants were ever in Vientiane at any one time and their attitude to colonial administration – described as ‘benign neglect’ – was as relaxed as the people they governed.

To the displeasure of the Lao, France brought in Vietnamese to run the civil service  …  but for the most part, the French colonial period was a 50-year siesta for Laos. The king was allowed to stay in Luang Prabang, but had little say in administration. Trade and commerce was left to the omni-present Chinese and the Vietnamese. A small, French-educated Lao élite did grow up and by the 1940s they had become the core of a typically laid-back Lao nationalist movement.

[Then in March 1945] Japan ousted the French administration in Laos …  [though] the eventual surrender of the Japanese in August that year gave impetus to the Lao independence movement [ known as the Lao Issara].

France refused to recognize the new state headed by Prince Phaya Khammao – (hereditary viceroy & premier of the Luang Prabang Kingdom) – and crushed the Lao resistance though this gave rise to much internal rivalry when King Sisavang Vong sided with the French who had their colony handed back by British forces.

He was crowned the constitutional monarch of the new protectorate in 1946 while the rebel government took refuge in Bangkok.

  • In response to nationalist pressures, France was obliged to grant Laos ever greater self government and, eventually, formal independence within the framework of the newly reconstructed French Union in July 1949.
  • Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the Issara movement had formed a government-in-exile, headed by Phetsarath and his half-brothers: Prince Souvanna Phouma and Prince Souphanouvong. Both were refined, French-educated men.
  • The Issara’s military wing was led by Souphanouvong who, even at that stage, was known for his Communist sympathies. This was due to a temporary alliance between the Issara and the Viet Minh, who had the common cause of ridding their respective countries of the French.
  • Within just a few months the so-called Red Prince had been ousted by his half-brothers and joined the Viet Minh where he is said to have been the moving force behind the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Laos by the newly-formed Lao National Assembly.
  • The Lao People’s Democratic Republic emerged – albeit in name only – somewhere inside Vietnam, in August 1949.
  • Soon afterwards, the Pathet Lao (the Lao Nation) was born.
  • The Issara movement quickly folded and Souvanna Phouma went back to Vientiane and joined the newly formed Royal Lao Government.
  • By 1953, Prince Souphanouvong had managed to move his Pathet Lao headquarters inside Laos and with the French losing their grip on the north provinces, the weary colonizers granted the country full independence. France signed a treaty of friendship and association with the new royalist government and made the country a French protectorate.

Thereafter,  following intense American interest & subsequent guerrilla warfare:

The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos was proclaimed in December 1975 with Prince Souphanouvong as president and Kaysone Phomvihane as secretary-general of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (a post he had held since its formation in 1955).

The king’s abdication was accepted and the ancient Lao monarchy was abolished, together with King Samsenthai’s 600-year-old system of village autonomy.

And although there’s so much more political intrigue, I’ll leave the history lesson at that for the moment …

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We’re staying at the Xaysomboun Hotel, in a tastefully-decorated Twin Bed Deluxe room priced, according to the glossy brochure we gather from the reception desk, at 250,000 kip; with breakfast included in the price of the room.

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Though it may otherwise appear sumptuous, our bathroom is a constant pool of water. This is caused by the continual seeping of water from the toilet hose. Nevertheless I do manage to fill the tiled cubicle with washing. It  hangs from every piece of silver railing; using every available clothes hanger I find in the wardrobe , until it’s necessary to suspend some bulkier items from the architrave to catch the action of the air-conditioner. Come morning I transfer it all to the curtain rod so as to catch the brighter action of the sun as it shines onto the wall of windows; & hope – remembering the unfortunate dislodgement of the rod & furnishings at the Bluebell Hotel in Hanoi – that  it stays securely attached to the wall in spite of the additional weight.

While the floor may be awash with water the shower head proves to be dismal in effect. Water spreads wide & the flow is sparse, making it a time-consuming & tedious exercise to wash my hair. Yet the result is fine, & I’m otherwise refreshed & clean.

Last evening we’d walked with Nes to the same restaurant I’d visited before with the previous tour group: the Kop Chai Deu in Rue Setthathilath. And though four of the youngsters had taken off to the streets to find an array of exceptional street food, the remainder of the group had dined on very satisfactory offerings in a separate area in the upstairs section, my meal  washed down with a cool Lao beer.

Now rested, dressed & ready for the day we slip downstairs in our shoes & take a pre-breakfast stroll towards the nearby supermarket hoping to buy large bottles of Evian water in readiness for a warm thirsty day.  When we realise we’ve only large denominations of US dollars in our pouches we return to the hotel guided by the close scrutiny of the hotel map hand-out & the eventual spotting of the rear section of our high-rise hotel.

Breakfast is quite basic & limited for our tastes: fried eggs, slices of baguette & one remaining banana we must share; items we gather from the bain marie that’s set in the corner of the dining area; the one attended by a unitary uniformed staff member who doesn’t quite notice the lack of bananas.

We decline the offering of well-brewed tea.

Afterwards we gather with our group on the purple lounges in the downstairs vestibule, chat  about our free time exploits & prepare for the Orientation Walk.

I ask our Lao guide if I can record his talks as we set to exploring the city & he agrees with a warm wide smile,  possibly remembering what hard work it is to keep a woman happy; on a daily basis.

We head off en masses & cruise past the nearby That Dam Stupa, the Black Stupa that becomes our most recognisable ‘homing’ landmark when going for a city stroll :

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‘ …  it’s the way of the Naga; he come up from the land to protect Buddhist people of  my country. Normally there’s a big hole [like a well] for the Naga to emerge, where they then build the stupa. The original small stupa  is inside. It’s a gold one. But after the country no more war, like finish everything, people try to cover the gold one. In fact the King order the people to build the brick stupa to cover that one. Then after centuries of erosion this is why the colour change to be black & it is now called the Black Stupa.

And to pray to the Naga for good memory of naga, Buddhist people try to leave everything, like a flower, candlelight, or burn stick incense & then pray to the Naga to protect people in my country. Normally they do it on the Buddhist Full Moon day in mid November, in the evening before sunset when a hundred or so fire balls shoot up into the sky from the naga during the celebration of  Buddhist lent (or the end of vassa: three months long period of a kind of fasting)… like a secret gift of Naga …

For example, in 2001 there were reported 3,000 fireballs, the festivity of 2004 was disappointing in this respect but in 2008 the illumination was excellent; even last year it shot up into the sky more than two hundred balls over five hours; that’s why everyone in Laos accept the power of the  naga & celebrate with festivities along the banks of the Mekong; by floating something like flowers & burning candles on the river to apologise for all the bad things they may have done… asking the naga that lives under the river to protect all the people throughout the coming year by floating beautiful illuminated boat processions and offering the river sweet gifts …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘otherwise the dragon/snake images of Phaya Naga, serpent-king of underworld, is the best guardian for Buddhist temples in my country’ …

One particular naga  loved to crawl around the mountains right in the place where Mekong flows today. This outstanding naga still continues to travel her usual route – now underwater, and spits flames wherever it goes – as all respectable dragons do; making of these fireballs after obtaining a blessing from Buddha for local people – regular periods of rain. As the rain ends, Buddha returns to Earth from heaven and Phaya Naga greets him with fireballs.

I’m interested & curious enough to do a little research:  

&  find the following information at  

http://www.omg-facts.com/Science/A-river-in-Thailand-randomly-shoots-red/50111#gPpIUJKM0gJHLjmf.99

About 70 – 100 km downstream from Vientiane, capital of Laos, the Mekong River does something really strange. At night, the river produces red fireballs that rise up into the air and disappear without making any noise. The balls are usually small, but some have been observed to be the size of basketballs …

People from the area confirm to witnessing the fireballs their whole life and that their parents and grandparents did too. So far there is no scientific explanation for the phenomenon …

Exploring the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic –

a small city currently set in a capitalist economic context under the rule of a communist regime, though now embarking on a far-reaching & highly-visible path of urban transformation that’s perhaps more cosmetic than the result of any political movement reflective of  radical change   –  

our next stop  at around 9:15 is for a photograph of the bright yellow Presidential Palace that’s positioned at the junction of the wider Lane Xang Avenue and Settathirath Road …  ( ‘a well-guarded palace,  like the White House;’ & most recently occupied – since 8 June 2006 – by President Choummaly Savasone;  & for the previous eight years by an aged Khamtai Siphandon).

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I look back  towards Patouxay Monument – structure quite reflective of the style of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris ( & not surprising given the French connection)  …

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and note that things haven’t changed much at all.

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Strolling to the corner of  Thanon Setthathilath and Thanon Mahosot,  with no kip at all in either of our money pouches – & only US$50 as our smallest-valued note – we determine to borrow 10000 kip from Nes’s kitty to pay for both our entries to  Ho Pra Keo (Altar of the Emerald Buddha) which is, according to our guide:

‘the big house of the Emerald Buddha; the oldest one, the original form of Buddhist temple which survived from the war.’

Originally built  in 1565 by King Setthathirat –

‘the one who married a Cambodian princess & was gifted a real gold Buddha by the Cambodian king to protect his daughter, the first Queen of Laos ‘ –

as a royal chapel and repository for the celebrated statue of the Emerald  Buddha –

‘though it’s really just a replacement green jade object which the Laotians had taken from Northern Thailand in 1551′ 

we’re told  the 62 cm jasper statue remained in the temple until 1778, when the Thais invaded and recaptured it, taking it off to Bangkok. 

The temple was afterwards destroyed  during the Thai sacking of Vientiane throughout 1828-1829, rebuilt in 1936 by the French when they were ‘given the opportunity to rebuild everything in my country,’  and restored to its present state  in 1993.

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Once inside the compound yet ‘before we explore inside,’ we’re  instructed by our local guide that photography is prohibited inside the temple, though permitted as we walk around outside;

‘ why is the house so big for something that is so small? It’s because it belonged to the Laos King  to house the sacred Buddha that’s now in Luang Prabang; the timber door is the original one, carved by a different teacher; the dragons acting as guardians of the people who come to worship; the elephant with three heads means my country is divided into three parts : the north is Luang Prabang; the central is here in Vientiane; the south is Pak Xeng (Pakseng) next to Cambodia. Each part controlled by the King, but King under the French …’

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Having wandered shoeless & hatless through the temple –

‘observing all the small gold & silver Buddha images the people choose in a former time’ –

then enjoying the short stroll around the pleasant gardens before exiting the grounds, we need to borrow a further 10000 kip to visit Wat Sisaket, again a  place I’d visited previously though it still holds a significant degree of charm & interest.

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Of interest is that formerly regarded by the French as an ancient kingdom not terribly worthy of being preserved, apparently in 1902 Vientiane, the administrative capital of French Laos, consisted of about a hundred Laotian huts, some Chinese shops and a few pagodas in ruins.

Yet now viewed as a possible ‘tourist destination,’ things have dramatically changed – though not always positive in effect:

A tranquil, small city which fascinates visitors with its laidback riverside atmosphere and an improbable concentration of
national and cosmopolitan institutions as well as pagodas, monuments and colonial buildings, Vientiane is now undergoing dramatic urban development.

The government’s decree issued in 1997 on the preservation of cultural, historical and natural heritage, reflecting the desire to use heritage to encourage patriotism and nationalism, was ironically violated by the government itself when some of the last remnants of  the foundations of the city wall dating back to the 14th century, as well as several colonial buildings, were destroyed.

William S. Logan, Colin Long, and Roz Hansen, “Vientiane, Laos:
Lane Xang’s capital in the age of modernization and globalization”
in Logan (ed), The Disappearing ‘Asian’ City, p. 51.

                                                                                                                                  <http://www.iias.nl/sites/default/files/IIAS_NL57_2829.pdf&gt;

Saturday 21st December: Vinh to Vientiane (Part 2)

I  fix my eyes on the beauty of  our surroundings as we move into the heart of Laos.

It’s a heartfelt place.

And its people are good at heart (di chai),  supposedly quite generous ( chai kuang)  & deeply sensitive (though well in control of their emotions : chai kaeng).

I assume this is so because I’ve checked out something interesting at :< http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/undp/understandingCulture.htm>

Laos are truly a people of the heart.

The list below from the Vientiane Time article (December 9-15, 1994)

shows how many expressions include the word ‘chai’ or heart.

A culture with so many shades of meaning based on the heart

is a deeply sensitive culture…

-to understand is to enter the heart –khao chai
-to be glad is to Feel good at heart –di chai
-to be angry is to feel bad in the heart –chai hai
-to be sorry is to have lost the heart –sia chai
-to have empathy is to see the heart-hen chai
-to feel upset is to be unhappy at heart –ouk chai
-to be sensitive (touchy) is to have a small heart –chai noy
-to be stingy is to have a narrow heart –chai khap khaep
-to be startled is to drop the heart –tok chai
-to be absent minded is to have a heart which floats –chai loy
-to hesitate is to have many hearts –lai chai
-to be worried is to have a sick heart –bo sabai chai
-to be content is to have a serene heart –sabai chai
-to be without worries is to feel cool in the heart –chai yen
-to be generous is to have a large heart –chai kuang
-to have a heavy heart –thouk chai
-to be happy –souk chai
-to be easily persuaded is to have an easy heart –chai ngai
-to be decisive –chai det
-to be bitter to the point of revenge is to have a black heart –chai dum
-to be charitable is to have a festive heart –chai boun
-to be generous is to be big hearted –chai nyai
-to be impatient is to have a hot heart –chai hon
-to be patient is to have a persevering heart –chai ot thon
-to be honest is to have a pure heart –chai bolisud
-to be brave is to have a daring heart –chai ka
-to be timid is to have a cautious heart –chai boh ka
-to control one’s emotions is to have a strong heart –chai kaeng
-to die is to have your heart torn apart –chai khart

Yet I perhaps know because  I’ve  happily (souk chai) traded countries for a time so as to travel – quite contentedly (sabai chai) – in the shadow of  the Annamite Cordillera while others I know have  only walked in the valley of death,  chai kart.

And I’ve written of such other journeys; &  otherwise come to know that truth does not reside in the words – or the photographs – but behind the words &  in the tiniest details of every image: those that were unknown & unseen at the time of original capture but which later become so meaningful to the observer, courtesy of the mindful revelations of Roland Barthes while perusing selected photographs of his own mother.

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Yet truth is always at the heart of the matter.

After all it’s been suggested by the Buddha:

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.

Still,  perhaps as if to wake me from such sun-drenched reveries  

my heart torn apart contemplating the imminent death of a long-time friend, one who’s considered moo tai at every new phase of the moon; 

and yet with thoughts shifting toward the serenity of a present state of being – 

while  some mountains may remain hidden by a pall of mist  that settles on them like the opaque wing of a butterfly to its thorax, the tips of others seem to chip at the sky like jagged teeth into ice  the closer we get to the Sala Viewpoint (where words & details seem irrelevant compared to the overall grandeur of the place) …

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Back in the bus, & sitting alongside our local Laos guide like new-found friends sharing treats in a school playground, while the scenery may roll by with points of interest to ensnare my attention …

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we engage in stretches of conversation as the mountains rise higher.

‘All Laos men have to look after the lady. It’s a very hard work if you have one,’ he says.

So, as in many cultures, it seems it’s a man’s duty to be responsible for his ‘woman’ and to provide for her physical and spiritual welfare.

Yet apparently it’s easier said than done.

Nonetheless, acceptance is also the Laos worldview. Things are as they are and should be.

And there must be ‘no challenge’  when you live as part of a culture that’s influenced by Buddhist thinking;

when in the next life the shoe might be on the other foot (so to speak).

Bo penh nyang,’ he says (apparently meaning either ‘no problem’ or  ‘never mind;’  or even perhaps ‘I forgive & forget your action’).

The response thammadha is also steeped in Buddhist philosophy.  Fundamentally, it means acceptance of one’s fate – that one is born, grows old and will die.  But it is also used in more day-to-day situations to mean ‘average,’  ‘the norm’ or ‘proceeding as usual.’

So beyond the revelation of personal ideas & cultural practices, in an equally mundane & eminently patient way our guide accepts his fate, carries on as usual & adds, ‘It’s 45 mins of downhill travel to the lunch stop.’

Though downhill is the direction many Western men may take without – & sometimes with – a good woman by their side,  regardless of proposed schedules it could equally be said – to be true to the essence of this place –  ‘There’s always an interruption in Laos.’

And today it’s man-made.

Around 45 kms from Ban Lao – & without seemingly causing the utter disruption of free-flowing traffic on the mountain (given the determination of some to progress forward into the day, regardless of hardship & degree of difficulty when on one side of the small ‘two-lane road’ is a sheer drop into the valley below & on the other an unforgiving mountain side with very little room in between  –  the driver of a timber truck is obviously having trouble negotiating a tight corner when twisting around through a particularly uphill rise; the wheels of the truck spinning in deepening grooves, & loose gravel being flicked about in clouds of dust.

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Yet men are eminently clever at many things. Besides being ‘jokers’ & ‘story-tellers to their heart’s content’, sometimes becoming ‘problem solvers’  moves straight to the top of the list.

And though men may mostly go their own way and not interfere with the affairs of  others, they’re not beyond a spot of collectivism in Laos.

So a mate  –

possibly of  the moo linh variety (short-lasting, mutual advantage ) rather than the moo tai  that evolves from being  life-long friends, through thick & thin –

finds a large rock, sets it behind the wheel to act as a chock; keeps moving it into place  after each grinding of the wheels, till the tyres eventually get a solid grip.

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Progress is gradual.

Success is seen to be imminent.

Eventually, given the opportunity to pass the now-almost-no-longer-stranded truck, our driver carries on as usual, plants the foot  & heads toward  Thang Beng & our lunch stop.

Yet, if there ever was such a store as a Laos Bunnings in the region – perhaps to cater for the practical desires of men – I guarantee there must’ve been a recent sale on lolly pink paint …

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And given Nes is still guiding us through the mountains, pink seemingly abounds.

Settled into our lunch spot … a large open plan roadside restaurant  – the place serves the best fried rice I’ve tasted so far, possibly because it’s fresh local steamed rice that’s grown, harvested, threshed and husked in the villages where it’s grown …

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Ben also enjoys his omelette & rice. However most of the group try a more traditional pork dish that’s scooped into the mouth on dollops of sticky rice.  

We take to the road that leads away from Thang Beng, take a turn to the right at Vieng Kham  & head north-west towards Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

The road is straighter for  longer sections at a stretch. Thus the speed is fairly constant over a reasonably satisfactory highway compared to what’s been experienced so far. Still there is the occasional bump to wake me from possible slumber so as to catch sight of a section of the  Mekong River that seems to be keeping us company as we approach Nam Kading  …

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 then as we cross a bridge

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before losing sight of it until it emerges later in all its majesty (to our left) as we pass a variety of roadside market stalls

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selling turnips & bunches of corn & sugar cane, en route to Paksan where we stop for our happy room break.

An additional two-and-a-half hours of travel in a mostly-straight line – a journey that becomes reminiscent of many a trip taken on  many a road through Australian bush lands as the sun pursues its well-timed path toward the horizon –  gets us to Vientiane after travelling for a massive twelve hours.

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It’s been a long day. One that’s been anything but thammadha, the norm.

‘A second Beer Lao for the day is surely deserved,’ I say.

Saturday 21st December: Vinh to Vientiane (Part 1)

hi res Breakfast voucher 001 With breakfast coupons in hands we head off down the wide winding staircase.

We meet up with a tired-eyed Kate waiting on a lounge chair in the foyer.

‘Is Roly still sleeping?’ I ask.

‘I presume so. Though probably in a hospital bed. And possibly with a drip in his arm,’ she says with an exhausted sigh.

Being somewhat single & alone in Vinh – with very little on offer (according to Lonely Planet) except a visit to Kim Lien, a 16 km ride to Cua Lo Beach, a taste of pho ga from the stalls at  the Central Market,  a stroll through Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Museum  before checking out the sludgy green moat at the Citadel –  is obviously too difficult for her to bear. Offering some degree of emotional & physical support, we amble across the bland front courtyard towards the large open dining room, with Kate revealing – through a battery of sobs – that Roly, unable to stem the cyclical vomiting, had been transported to the local hospital in the early hours of the morning, after waking Nes & arranging for a local taxi.

Breakfast is therefore spent consoling a fragile Kate, especially as she fears being left behind; with only a maze of instructions delivered to her by Nes as directives from Intrepid management, about pick-ups & the return trip to Hanoi by bus.

‘My God, no wonder you’re rather beside herself; one journey along the road we’ve traveled is enough for any traveler, let alone  a motion-sickly-one at that.’

‘Nes says we have no choice really; we must leave the tour  unless Roly agrees to journey on with absolutely no support for his decision. And if he chooses to go back to Hanoi I have absolutely no idea who is supposed to be taking us; & in what; or even when. And if Roly worsens, I have no idea what I’m supposed to do here in Vinh.’

(Obviously she doesn’t have a copy of the Lonely Planet – Vietnam at her fingertips).

Nonetheless, though one plans as many things as possible  when traveling, one never quite seems to adequately address the possibility of dealing with an unplanned medical emergency when in the backwaters, & especially when about to enter a time-capsuled Laos.

Yet the position this young woman finds herself in seems rather an invidious one given that it flows from an hierarchical decision.

Rather subdued we load our baggage into the bus intending to drop by the hospital, for Nes & Kate to check on Roly’s condition.

When we stop at the hospital gates just southwest of the central city park, Roly is there standing with his doctor. With a congratulatory smile he shakes Roly’s hand, delivers him to Nes, then  hands the paperwork to Kate.

Kate appears bewildered, though visibly relieved. Then striding forward to stand at the entrance to the bus, a much-improved Roly determines he’s venturing on to Vientiane. At  least. The journey – either way – being considered  equivalent in distance, yet possibly not in surface tension.

Oh heck. Perhaps he’s not aware the road ahead  sits well within the bounds of the ‘same, same, but different’ terminology that signifies the Vietnamese  – & perhaps even the Laos – way of experiencing things.  ‘Cause what lies ahead is a curving mountain path that may prove to be equally overwhelming in its relentlessness. 

Still, perhaps the well-travelled-Hermann’s directive to swallow the few ‘magic pills’ he allocates to Kate will help to sedate him enough to suppress the problem, to a degree.  

And as it turns out, they do.

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Meanwhile, though Roly’s mostly a whiter shade of pale, it’s grey as we leave Vinh; still the streets of the town are wide & smooth, so there’s nothing concrete – or even ‘bitumen-based’ – to hinder our forward progress towards the border; or even to set a motion-sick body into convulsions.

We pass what I assume to be Heron Lake at around 7 am; but it’s deemed not worthy enough for a snapshot at this hour; for it only reflects the greyness of the sky. Even the stilted pavilion suspended near the middle seems derelict & forgotten.

Then Kim Lien, the village where the childhood home of former president Ho Chi Minh is to be found …

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is signposted as being 8 km distant as we pass a proposed sporting complex. Still there’s no time to divert; to dally awhile with history & politics.

Driving by & beyond the signpost scaffolding that arches over the roadway (perhaps marking the town limits in what I’ve come to realise is the typical Vietnamese style) …

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the traffic appears less dense though is still littered with bikes, buses & trucks travelling in multiple spasmodic lanes of choice, all determined by the state of the road & the urgency of travel. Yet, each traveler’s journey is honoured & respected by other drivers or riders such that there’s much swerving to avoid any collision; or the honking of a horn to announce the intention to pass, all – I suspect – in accordance with tradition rather than rule.

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The road narrows – so as to wind its way through a smaller town, or village, with dwellings or shopfronts almost fingertip-touchable from the bus window as we pass – then opens out to great expanses of water-soaked paddy fields or vegetable crops before we take a left turn across a long bridge then enter the more mountainous Frontier Area  ( as signposted) …

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and onward (for a total of around 100 relentless kms) toward the Nam Phao/Cau Treo border crossing, along the way  passing ox-driven carts, hillside tea plantations …

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the occasional corn field, lone cyclist – or pedestrian -clad in jacket, scarf & non la; even a carefree-curious-milk-laden dog; everyone & everything going somewhere – or  nowhere – with a purpose.

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The final sections traversing the waist of Laos wind  beside a sand-silted river as it curves beyond the immediate reach of the convivial activities of roadside villagers. Still the mist covered mountains rise into the greyness , keeping most of their grandeur a secret for now.

But I know a Hovering God has touched this place with His outstretched  finger.

I’ve seen the monumental natural beauty of its Creation before!

Therefore it must endure, if only in my mind.

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Moving high beyond the river the winding of the road through the Border Belt becomes more meandering & treacherous; yet our driver continues to negotiate each & every bend with the ease taken by a lover’s hands when cupping  the curve of  silken buttocks.

And as the sun sneaks a glimpse through the cover of mist  – with more of an insistent glare than a brilliant shine – even the sky seems to be beginning to colour up …

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as the mountains roll down onto the roadway or the land slips away, in the region encompassing the Kaew Neua Pass.

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Finally at the Vietnam border post our passports are stamped and, with Nes’s help we exit Vietnam without undue fuss or official delay.

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though remain somewhat stranded – as non-citizens in a state of  stateless  flux – as we journey another 1 km up the road- past a string of logging trucks -to the Laos border post

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where our 30-day visas are arranged, & any remaining Vietnamese dong changed into kip at a designated booth.

We spend a long & windblown time waiting, due to the amazing number of timber trucks waiting driver clearance.

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Still the mood is relaxed & time (officially) passes in a (typically) unhurried manner as we leave the bus  in the  midst of a seemingly- immovable  cluster of trucks; & walk  ahead along the road  past the official yellow building to gather with others at the little shop where its possible to grab a cold drink (though nobody does); or make a visit to the toilet cubicles separated from officialdom by a wide open divide;   even to pause for a few conservative snaps before our driver  somehow – almost impossibly – manoeuvres the bus through.

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When reconnected with the driver, our local guide, &  our bus,  the journey onward follows a sunlit path above a clear river & beside stick fences & land slips that remind me of similar, strikingly beautiful, New Zealand journeys.

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After 30 or so kms I finally see Lak Sao (or Lak Xao as it’s more officially referred to )  as it sits nestled at the foot of  a majestic kaast.

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– though in a better light than I’d seen the place & its canine inhabitants in 2010  …

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Later I look for a map of the town (on Google maps) & find it resembles the shape of a crossbow –  formed  by the meeting of  Route 8 &  a singular high street,  ‘1E’  – and that it  registers only a market, a gas station, Sonpao Elementary School, Nakhonexay, Vat Oudom Temple &  Souriya Guesthouse (possibly where I’d stayed on my previous  journey).  Yet I guess there’s more to this frontier boom-town than first meets the eye ; one that supports its rapid growth as the headquarters for logging operations that continue to decimate the surrounding forests.

Our local guide – the one we acquire at the Laos border – delivers information from nearer the back seat of the minibus, just out of earshot being that I’m now riding gunshot in the front seat. Nonetheless as he delivers his spiel, the mountains deliver their own mesmerising caldera-like appearance  while stretching their  faces upward to tickle at the sky.

Though perfectly-positioned for perfect snapshots, for a time I refrain from photographs,  knowing I’ve taken so many of the area before. Instead I sit reflecting in the sun’s refracted light; & just take in the experience with both jackets – & scarf  – eventually peeled off.

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We stop at the walking bridge – Nam Theun – pay 2000 kip to use a clean squat toilet in a private home …

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then walk across the wide expanse of  grey-green river that’s curiously lined with ‘bomb’ boats constructed from artillery casings, before curiously watching a Hmong woman weaving a pattern that will eventually be used to grace the hemline of a traditional skirt.

I’d remembered spotting children journeying  from school as I otherwise  followed a different woman across the same stretch of bridge  in January 2010.

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And while the view today is  virtually the ‘same, same’  as I remember,  at this different time of day the colours seem comparatively less vibrant  …

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Revived & refreshed we hop back onto the bus & onward through lush mountain vegetation  to the  lunch stop without ever glimpsing any trace of the Tat Nansanam Twin Cataract waterfall somewhere in the mountains to the north.