Sunday, April 28, 2013

Vientiane..A Sleepy Dragon

I continued my journey south to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It was a short bus ride. Yipee!
Tourists had given me a variety of descriptions of Vientiane. Some described it as a sleepy city, others said it is a communist capital with nothing to see. Me, I found it to be a peaceful city. No high-rises, just a collection of villages where people tend to their own daily activities, no traffic congestion. There is no rush for modernization. I love this! One expat I talked with described it perfectly "Vientiane is a dragon awakening from his dream." The city is moving on its own pace, slow and steady. I wandered along the Mekong River on my first day in Vientiane. There is a great park and exercise path along the banks of the Mekong. I was excited when I noticed the park has installed exercise equipment that is free to use! Yes, free for the public! You know I will be back in the morning to try this stuff out! (It wasn't very good, no weights which is what I am missing.) And of course bring my own equipment, resistance bands. I love the looks on the locals faces as these see me with all these exercise bands! They point and walk up and try them out. One man wanted to try everything. My lack of Lao and his lack of English made for a funny morning. He got really confused when I used the squares on the ground as a exercise ladder. My fancy footwork confused him and I laughed. A retired physicist from the USA joined me to check out my bag of goodies also. It is a great conversation topic.

Three aerobics classes were ongoing in the park. I sat down to watch. Suddenly, a couple people and a cameraman come over and drag me out to the class. I joined in and got a little sweaty. It was fun and I laughed as they filmed my moves. I rocked it! Not really! They all gave me a thumbs up and asked my name and home country. I replied and asked where they were from. Seoul, Korea! I smiled and hoped I did not just do a news story about fat Americans!

I wandered back to my hotel and got lost. I didn't think I needed a map. Guess I was wrong. I ended up lost. I wandered and decided to follow some Chinese tourists...they were headed somewhere. I was excited when I arrived at the That Dam (Black Stupa). This was within a couple of blocks of my guesthouse.
Locals believe this mythological structure was once inhabited by a seven-headed dragon (now dormant) that protected the city from the threat of the Siamese. Another tale says gold once graced the surface  and was taken when the Siamese army ransacked Vientiane in 1828. It is a quiet sight with no visitors. I shot some photos and then started to walk down a street only to be told by a guard that I was not allowed to walk down the block. I asked why and the guard said no and pointed. I looked at his chest and realized it was the US Embassy. I wondered if this was due to the increased threats to the USA from North Korea, the recent bombing in Boston or if it was always patrolled with guards. I was surprised because I remember Lonely Planet had a biking tour that said I could go down this street. Guess not now! I bowed my head and said "Saibadee" and waved goodbye.

Vientiane has a few must see locations and I decided to relax and enjoy the city. I was going to stay over the weekend because that is when you really get a feeling for the city. Since I was staying a little longer and was close to the American Embassy, I decided to use this opportunity to get some extra pages added to my passport. The 5 pages I had was not going to be sufficient for the next 10 months of travel. I went online and made an appointment for 8 am, completed my paperwork. I was ready to visit more sites in the morning.
I started with a stop at the Presidential Palace. There was not much to see. Tourists are not allowed on the grounds and the President does not reside at this residence. As I turned around I saw the Patuxai Monument. I walked Avenue Lang Xang to get a better view.  Some will compare it to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Maybe from a distance. It was built in remembrance of those that fought for Lao independence from Siam, Japan and the French. And it was built with money given to Laos by the USA for an airport landing strip. For this reason, it is nicknamed the vertical runway. 

I also visited a few of the famous temples.  Each was different but they had their similarities. Wat Si Saket was the oldest surviving temple with a cloister surrounding the temple with over 2000 Buddha statues. Haw Pha  Kaew  was once a royal temple and is now national museum of religious art. Wat Si Muang is a temple that is most frequently used by the lay people. This one was interesting because it was home to a copy of the Emerald Buddha. The townspeople come to this temple to make a wish or request to Buddha. There is a small metal version of the Emerald Buddha that sits on a pillow. The person lifts it off the pillow three times as they mentally ask a question/request. If their request is granted, they return to the temple and make an offering of coconuts, bananas, flowers, incense and candles. I witnessed several offerings. I really wanted a photo but I felt it would be disrespectful in a temple.

It was getting hot and I looked at my map. I decided to walk out to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Center.  I knew they showed documentaries about the bombies and I needed a break from the afternoon heat. I arrived and toured the center and then watched the award winning documentary Bomb Harvest ( The movie was great as it followed the lives of MAG (Mine Advisory Group) trainees as they learn to remove and detonate the UXO. The site also has a center where wheelchairs and artificial limbs are made, a gym for disabled individuals and rehabilitation center. I was saddened as I passed several people entering with a missing limb. I even tried to stand and walk with a prosthetic leg. Those of you that know me realize that probably did not go well. It was so hard! Thank goodness I have all my limbs!
I returned to my hotel to cool off before dinner, the 99F weather was killing me! I have embraced the Latin siesta during this heat. Naps are great! Just like the good old days when I wanted to go home after lunch, now I can! Ha, ha, ha!

I planned to rent a bike to explore the villages of Vientiane. Then I saw the hotel bikes and decided to walk. One of the other guests told me it is better to walk because you can go in the shade. On a bike, you are just stuck in the hot sun. So, I walked to Pha That Luang which is the most important national monument in Laos. It is a symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty.
As I was wandering the grounds, I met a young man, Cuong, from Vietnam. We started talking. He was traveling Asia by motorbike! I told him he was my hero! We shared stories from the road. We bonded quickly over our joy of travel. He told me where he was going, Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park). I was also so we eventually decided to go together. He would drive his motorbike and I would navigate.

Cuong and I had a few adventures getting to Xieng Khuan. After a stop by the Loas police and questions where we were headed, roads with large potholes, random cow encounters and a few wrong turns and we arrived at the Buddha Park. We had fun posing witht he statues and laughing at our adventures. We had no fear as we enter the mouth and into the depths of hell, earth and finally heaven. We climbed to the top and arrived in Heaven! Woo hoo! It was a fun adventure with my new friend. We said goodbye at the end of the day and parted ways.  

I am leaving Vientiane tonight on a sleeping bus. Oh yeah, that means I need to take some sleeping pills so I get a good rest and there will be some interesting stories. Travel days are always the funny days.  I may get a Lao sauna and massage if time allows. I will update all of you when I get to Paske. Peace and Love to you all! 


  1. Thank you sleepys coupon. I am having an amazing adventure. This was the best decision I have made in my life. I hope you travel to the destinations of your dreams.