Slooooooow down. It's Laos.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

First things first. Right now I’m in Laos, country number 27. That’s Laos, pronounced “Lau”. It has just one syllable, and the “S” is silent. It rhymes with every word in the sentence: “How now brown cow?”. Not “Lay-ose”. Not “Lah-ose”. Say it with me: “Laos”. And who are the people who live in Laos? They are the Lao. It’s pronounced exactly the same way (I have not heard a single person hear use the word “Laotian”). The Lao. In Laos. I’m also on currency number 23, the whimsically named “Kip”. It’s another one of those millionaire currencies – one dollar is worth about 8,500 KIP.

Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s move on.

Vientiane, (pronounced sort of like “Vee-en-CHANG”) the capital city of Laos, is perhaps the sleepiest capital city I’ve visited, and was a definite change after the hustle of Hanoi. But more than anything the defining difference between Vietnam and Laos has been the heat. When I stepped off the plane at Vientiane it was like stepping into a sauna. It was laughably, ridiculously hot and humid, and I went back and forth between horror and giggles. I later found out it was “only” about 36 degrees at that point, but having come from a pleasant 25 degrees in Hanoi, it was a serious shock to the system. In fairness, the guidebook did say that April is the hottest month in Laos, and we’re right at the end of the dry season so it’s especially baking.

My hotel was a little ways from the centre of town, but not nearly as far as I thought. In a shocking lapse of accuracy the LP showed the Beau Rivage Mekong about 3 km south of the city centre, whereas it was, in fact, about 1 km north of the city. Ridiculous. When I asked at the front desk about how long it would take to get to town, and gestured in the direction I thought I needed to go, they said “Is that the Lonely Planet map?” and proceeded to set me straight. (Honestly, LP, your maps are crap enough to begin with, could you not at least manage to place things in the right general vicinity, amid your usual maze of unlabelled streets?)

My lovely hotel room at the Beau Rivage Mekong, where I got to unpack EVERYTHING for five whole nights. It’s part of my new plan to NOT cheap out on accommodations in the coming months. $36 USD/night. Brilliant.

Since it turned out I was closer than I thought, on my first morning in Vientiane I walked to the centre of town, and was drenched in sweat within about 3 minutes of leaving the hotel. Like with Hanoi, I kind of expected Vientiane to be a bit French and all, I dunno, charming somehow. What was I to think when the LP uses phrases like “the whiff of fresh-baked baguettes” and “the romantic shuttered villas refusing to drop.” Charmingness, right? Well it was ok, but it’s not like I was slapped in the face with quaint vignettes at every turn.

The centre of town is universally acknowledged to be Nam Phu – a fountain in a central square. When I visited the fountain was dry, and the square was a large expanse of sun-blasted paving stones, with some trees, benches and gardens, but not a soul in sight. I retreated quickly to the Scandanavian Bakery where they had cold drinks and icy air conditioning. There I was lucky enough to overhear a conversation at the next table that turned out to be occupied by two local hashers! This was a really lucky break because I hadn’t received any response to any of my emails directed at the Vientiane hash, so to meet a couple of local hashers in the flesh and get the reassurance I needed about the upcoming runs was fantastic.

After lunch I figured I should really do some proper touristy stuff, so I walked over to Wat Si Saket, another Buddhist temple, but one with a bit of a difference that makes it worth a visit even if you’re sick to death of Buddhist temples. The main temple building is surrounded by shady cloisters whose walls are lined with tiny niches, each holding one or two small Buddhas, with more bigger statues sitting in front. Really interesting, and blessedly shady.

The many Buddhas of Wat Si Saket

After that I made it out the the Talat Sao morning market, but it wasn’t much to look at and my enthusiasm had melted away by that point. I really just needed a rest. This quickly became a pattern for me – get out in the morning for an hour or two until the brain began to fry, and then retreat to the hotel for a few hours during the height of the afternoon heat. I cooled off and relaxed for a little while and then struck out once again for the day’s big event – a run with the Vientiane Bush Hash! It’s a small city – the population is just 300,000 – but Vientiane has two different hashes: the Bush Hash, that runs on Saturday afternoons at locations outside the city, and the Monday Night Hash that runs (not surprisingly) on Monday nights, in more urban locations. Thanks to my impeccable timing, I was going to be able to attend both.

So off I went to meet up at Nam Phu and wait in the blazing sun for the group to gather. Soon enough we were off in a convoy of vehicles to the run site, which took at least half an hour to get to. The area was mostly farmland and small villages with lots of areas of bush as well. And the temperature was really not ideal for running. It was ideal for poaching eggs, or steaming fresh vegetable to tender-crisp perfection. But running? Not so much. Still, off we went, following a trail of shredded paper, which turns out to show up very well in rough terrain.

Hashing across dried up rice paddies with the VBH3

The run was a bit too long for comfort, and I really regretted not taking a bottle of water with me. But it was a really good way to see some of the countryside surrounding Vientiane, an area I’d never have got to as a civilian tourist.

A picturesque bit of dried up lake on the trail. I’m told that in the wet season the water comes within inches of the platform of that building. I don’t know what happens to the little bridge.

The run ended up being an exhausting 8.6 km that took about an hour and fifteen minutes to complete. But there was plenty of cold beer at the end, and we held circle out on the side road from which we’d started, and then we went for more beers at a bar on the way back to town. I finally started the short walk from Nam Phu back to my hotel pretty late, and wandered along the banks of the Mekong river, where there are always lots of small food stalls set up. I picked up a skewer of pork meatballs flavoured with some kind of tangy flavouring, and a ball of sticky rice and egg for just 9,000 KIP (about a dollar). It had been a good, full day.

The next morning I started off by renting a bicycle – 10,000 Kip/day – and that instantly gave me a real sense of freedom. Also, when riding a bike you create your own wind so it was a much more comfortable way of getting around in the sauna. I visited an excellent used bookstore and then cycled off to my appointed Proper Tourist Site of the day, the Patuxai – Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe. Built in 1969, but never really completed, it commemorates the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars

The Patuxai

It was a pleasant diversion, and I paid my 3,000 Kip to climb to the top for the views of Vientiane. Then I climbed back down again and had a nice bowl of noodles from a vendor set up in the shady (relative) comfort under the arch. I also tried a can of coconut juice that was disappointingly not cold enough and much too sweet. Thus fortified, I cycled off to find a series of other Buddhist temples but soon enough I got a bit lost among the unlabelled streets of the LP map. Temperatures were climbing into the “parboil” region, my water bottle was empty, and my enthusiasm was flagging. Clearly it was time for a tactical retreat. I made a quick pitstop to pick up a large bottle of gin, several cans of tonic, and some solid food and retreated to my hotel room With the blinds drawn and the air conditioning working overtime I fired up the computer for a marathon session with the new Dr. Who series. It was perfect.

That evening (when the temperature dropped back down to merely sizzling) I met up with a local hasher for a cold beer and some more street food from the restaurant/stalls set up along the Mekong riverbank. Apparently these used to be much more built up, with decks extending out towards the water. But they are in the process of tearing up and rebuilding the whole riverbank area, so all of these restaurants were bulldozed and have been rebuilt in very temporary fashion while work of land reclamation and heavy machinery continues alongside.

Jim, with the mandatory Beerlao, alongside the Mekong roadworks. That’s Thailand on the other side of the river.

It was a nice evening. We had some traditional Lao food, including green papaya salad (spicy!) and chicken lap, probably the most typical Lao dish, a mixture of finely chopped chicken (or fish, or pork, or whatever) with chilies and green beans and other stuff. It was really good. As was the Beerlao, the only beer and self-respecting Lao would drink. There was also some genuine Weird Food that night, but I think that’s best left for another post.

On my last morning in Vientiane I splurged on a private taxi to take me out the the Buddha Park. It’s an odd sight, located about 25km outside the city, and it sounded like it was worth a visit. The LP said there was a public bus to get there for a mere 8,000 Kip, but I didn’t fancy an hour long ride in a crowded, un-air conditioned bus, so I spent the 220,000 Kip on the private car. It was extravagant, but it’s all part of my new “don’t cheap out” policy for southeast Asia. (This meant that my average daily expenses are in the $80 range, which is frankly astronomical for this area but I simply don’t care.) Off I went in my highly air conditioned taxi, with my driver who would wait for me while I wandered around and then whisk me directly back to the hotel when I wanted.

Buddha Park, known more properly as Xieng Khuan - “Spirit City” - is, as the name suggests, a park full of Buddhas and other Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. It is, in the words of the LP, “a tribute to one eccentric man’s bizarre ambition.” The man was Luang Pu, a “yogi-priest-shaman who merged Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, mythology and iconography into a cryptic whole” (LP) and who supervised the casting of all the sculptures in the park by unskilled workers. They’re all built of concrete, and though some of them look quite old, the whole place was only built in 1958. The area is small, but it is absolutely crammed with odd statues of all sizes, including one gigantic reclining Buddha, and an odd pumpkin-shaped thingy that you can climb inside of, and a small temple sort of structure you can climb to the top of.

The reclining Buddha, and many of his brethren. (As usual, there are a zillion more photos of the park at Flickr, or there will be at some point if the Flickr uploader behaves itself.)

It seemed like the kind of place you could only manage to spend about 15 minutes, but I was determined to get my money’s worth out of that taxi, and ended up having an enjoyable hour there. There weren’t a lot of people around because it was still fairly early in the day, but I did meet a few Lao, some of whom even asked for pictures with me. For the longest time I was the only foreigner there. So enough, I exhausted the sightseeing potential of Buddha Park, but not before I climbed a ridiculously steep set of steps and took the mandatory photo of my feet.

It was really steep, and the higher it got, the steeper the steps were. At the very top they went up about 18” but were only about 3 inches deep. Definitely not up to code.

Back in town I had another nice lunch in a frigidly air conditioned café, and spent a bunch of time trying to sort out my plans for the next week. I also had a half an hour in a print shop, because I’ve implemented a new guide book system for southeast Asia. Instead of buying a paper copy of the Lonely Planet for the region, I downloaded the chapters I wanted from the LP website. They’re stored on my computer and on my iPhone, so I can look at them when I want. This worked reasonably well for Hanoi, though I did make sure to print out the maps because I reasoned that viewing the already-dodgey LP maps on a 2 inch screen would lead to… well I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be good.

When I got to Vientiane I decided to try printing out just the pages about the city, and managed to squeeze 4 LP pages onto one A4 sheet without them becoming too eye-crossingly tiny. These quarter-pages turn into a tidy little notebook that sits in my side pocket and is much quicker to consult than the PDF file. So I’m kind of half electronic and half paper, but I’m still carrying much much much less paper than I would be with a physical guide book. I’ll continue this system throughout southeast Asia, and if I like it, it may be the end of the big blue books forever.

My last big activity in Vientiane was the Monday Night Hash. It was a less taxing run than Saturday, but still had a good amount of rickety bridges, dried up rice paddies, goats and generally Lao kind of scenery. And the hare provided beer, soft drinks and red and white wine after the run, along with a nice spread of western friendly Lao food. It was a great way to end my time in Vientiane, and the local hashers were as friendly a group as I’ve yet encountered.


I’m sure there was more to Vientiane than that, but perhaps not. It’s really a place that encourages you to slow down and not bother too much about things. One sight a day was enough, and having lots of time for unpacking, air conditioning and gin & tonic turns out to be a very agreeable way to spend four days. Now it’s on to Luang Prabang, where I’ll arrive right during the busiest part of Pii Mai – Lao New Year. It’s a weird festival, so make sure you don’t miss that post, whenever I get around to writing it, that is.


FLF said...

Still with you and reading the blog faithfully. Off to Boston tomorrow...

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