JAR IN A MUSEUM
It would be my last day in Vientiane. It was also a Monday where, like their Sundays, for some reason, temples and some other establishments close shop. I felt I had to find time to visit the Lao National Museum along Samsenthai Road, just across the Lao National Cultural Hall. I was not absolutely crazy visiting a museum who isn’t famous for great artifacts or displays, but I knew they keep a jar taken straight from the enigmatic Plain of Jars. Since I wasn’t able to visit the Plain of Jars, I figured it would have to suffice for now.
LAIDBACK MUSEUM AS WELL
It was 8:30 AM when I found myself in front of an old colonial building. Painted in white from wall to wall, there was a simple garden of flowering plants and shrubs facing the gated building. I stood there thinking how it doesn’t look like a place tourists from the world over came for a visit. Then again, it really isn’t! I took the few flights of stairs towards the shut door. I reached for the door knob and turned it, pushed it forward. No go! It was past 8:35 and they were still shut. They were supposed to open 35 minutes ago. Ah, laidback Laos! LOL. Oh well. I didn’t want to waste my time waiting for something so uncertain. I left.
FOODFEST OF MISUNDERSTANDING
After checking out the menu at a restaurant along the same road (Samsenthai), I picked fried rice with chicken, which was 12,000 kip ($1.50 or PhP67.50). The waitress wrote it down on a piece of paper. But I changed my mind. I told her to change it to fried chicken with vegetable and rice (10,000 kip or P56.25 or $1.25), pointing to the photo on the menu. I busied myself flipping through Thai celebrity magazines, much like our OK and Yes Magazines. The Lao and Thai culture are so explicably related, even their tonal languages are understood by either party. In 15 minutes, my order came. I was surprised to find both orders on my table! Bwahaha. This was going to be a minor feast of sorts. Did I look that hungry to be getting this much? I didn’t want to argue anymore so I tried enjoying both. The cumulative amount wasn’t much anyway- 22,000 kip or Php123.75. Can you believe how cheap food is? I’ll post those meals in a separate food blog, lest I’ll get another set of private email messages from my shy blog-friends Karen, delasoul and Minnie. ;-)
FRIENDSHIP BRIDGES: THE ROADS TO UDON THANI AND MUKDAHAN
With a hearty breakfast behind me, I ventured walking the length of Samsenthai Road. My goal: the Talat Sao (Morning Market) Bus Station. I have been asking around for a private tuktuk hire that will take me straight to the Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) and back. This is a far 24 kilometers southeast of Vientiane; the same road that heads towards the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge 1. Those who desire to enter north Thailand usually takes this bridge through a bus that will take them to Udon Thani, Thailand. There is a second bridge, called Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge 2, located about 400 kilometers from Vientiane, beside the city of Savannakhet. This second bridge recently opened late 2006. It crosses the great Mekong to the Thai city of Mukdahan. This was the one I was planning to cross to Thailand with - the road less taken. What can I say, I can be crazy sometimes!
Now going back to my leisure walk through Samsenthai, I knew that I would have to go west and then turn south somewhere to get to Lane Xang. From there, it’s easy to find Vientiane’s uber-mall, the Talat Sao Mall, imaginatively named after the morning market. Just behind the mall stands the Morning Market (talat sao) and the North Bus Station which services trips to the north, as well as the Friendship Bridge (which is about 30-31 kilometers away).
As usual, I wanted to walk through an unfamiliar route. I turned left somewhere and walked along a mainly mid-income to upper-bracket residential area. There were nice hotels and houses far removed from the wallowing poverty of Laos. The route I took was a convoluted passageway that eventually took me to Lane Xang. From a distance, I could see the Patuxai to my east and the Presidential Palace to my west. I crossed the street and found the mall then headed further south until I reached the market. There was chaos around me. This must be one of Laos’ most congested areas. After several queries from market vendors and police officers, I found the bus terminal. Someone pointed me to a medium-sized, non-aircon ordinary bus that was waiting for passengers. Bus number 14!
AN AMERICAN GENTLEMAN
I was trying to reassure myself. If I were to get on that bus, I would have to find the Buddha Park on my own, then hope that I’ll be able to get ANY vehicle that will take me back to Vientiane later in the day to catch my evening bus out of the city, and on to the southern city of Savannakhet. This thought disconcerts me. What if I had to wait for hours just to get another ride back to the city? Oh well.
I asked the people inside the bus: “This? Go Buddha Park? Xieng Khuan?” I realized that the use of a complete sentence in such cases only confused the locals so “barok” (broken/fragmented English) was best employed.
It was an aging American gentleman who answered my question with a curt, "Yes, it is". The only other falang, sticking out like a sore thumb. He was seated right at the front seat. He had uncombed matted wavy blond hair that may not have been washed for 3 weeks. He was gaunt, almost emaciated; with a high crooked nose and a thick bush of moustache that badly needed a trim. His eyes the lighter shade of blue, earnestly sizing you up much like I was. He was decked in a faded yellow sleeveless undershirt and tattered jeans that's seen better days. His sinewy forearm had overgrown hair. He must be in his late 60’s and looked like one of those homeless New York unfortunates. For all I know, he could be an eccentric millionaire.
On a commuter bus.
THEY LIKE ME. THEY REALLY LIKE ME – PART 2
Once confirming that this Bus number 14 was indeed on its way south, I went up the bus. It was almost full and there were no available seats. I was ready to stand during the whole 1 hour ride, but trust the “kindness of strangers” to work its magic. A busty Lao lady in her late fifties took heart and offered me her seat! I was embarrassed. I am an able bodied traveling guy and I was being offered a seat by a lady! Wouldn’t it be rude to refuse? The dilemma was short lived. She asked the other commuters from a nearby seat to compress so she could sit by the edge. I was grateful for their kindness, I must have loudly told them “thank you” several times.
ANOTHER BUS TERMINAL
My seat was uncomfortable. It was a small make-shift seat in the middle of the aisle, just at the back of the driver. The back rest was even smaller, and my feet were raised along the level of my shoulders. I was gonna see this through. This was a goodwill chair, after all. After 40 minutes, the bus pulled up at a huge terminal with equally huge buses. This was the terminal for the border-crossing buses. Most of the passengers from my bus got off leaving me and a few others behind. From there, the bus went further south until someone tapped my shoulder. This was my stop - the Buddha Park, aka Xieng Khuan.
From outside, it didn’t look like much. Tall trees jut out from a dry terrain. There were no huge buildings of note, no welcoming marquee, no overboard signages. This was barrio. And this was middle of nowhere! I saw the ticket booth and paid 5,000 kip for the entrance; another 2,000 kip for the use of camera. I wanted to get myself a coke and water coz the sun was up. I knew I would need them while checking out the park. To my surprise, their coke and bottled water were expensively priced at 8,000 kip each ($1) when they should only be in the vicinity of 3,000-4,000 kip. It was 2.5% overpriced! I excused myself and saw a shanty at the other side of the street. I wasn’t sure if they have what I wanted. There were no shelves or goods on display. I asked anyway. True enough, they sold coke and water – at only 3,000 kip each!!! I felt smug as I held my prized softdrinks, tucked them safely inside my backpack, then entered the park.
Except for a blond girl leaving the scene, the whole park, located just beside the Mekong, was otherwise deserted. I was in awe of the whole spread of gigantic statues. These were made of cement. Most of the pieces needed maintenance, scrubbing, etc., but the accumulating moss and vegetation lent drama and more mystery to the already bizarre spectacle of images that combined Buddhist and Hindu deities. There was a warrior pulling a giant locust with a rope; an impressive reclining Buddha that spanned half the diameter of the park; an 8-armed Vishnu figure holding a head; a school of monkeys dancing around a goddess; a battalion of soldiers holding their crotches a la Michael Jackson, et cetera. Near the gate stood a pumpkin-like house, its entrance is an open-mouthed monster.
The sprawl of the Buddha Park situated beside the Mekong River.
THE PUMPKIN HOUSE
I entered the front of house and found myself inside a dark alleyway that goes around. Inside is a circular wall that lead to a central room, with a window small enough, my head wouldn’t fit. There were smaller statues on display. I reckon, this must be the other pieces that didn’t quite make the cut! The founder must have deemed them inferior compared to the monstrosities on display outside. (Please read the previous post for a little historical background of the park and its eccentric founder.) This isn’t such a good place for the claustrophobes.
At the other end from the entrance, a little flight of steps will take you to a 2nd floor and, finally, to the top deck where a view of the whole park as well as the Mekong can be enjoyed. It was spectacular! I just sat down from up there and soaked under the mild sun, drinking my prized coca cola, feeling relaxed and grateful to be there.
The way down was difficult. Not only coz I have a minor issue with heights but also because the way back to the stair was very steep and was located very close to the edge. Jeez! I was scared! Once I made my way down, I went from one statue to the other. I met 3 visiting monks, tourists themselves who spoke no English, but we were nodding like friends. They were busy taking photos as well.
After seeing the park, I walked the other end to check out this part of the Mekong. I went to the riverside and dipped a finger in the murky waters. Once again, my rendezvous with this great body of water. Across the river, I could see its Thai counterpart - Udon Thani. From that side, there were bigger establishments, more houses, antennas reaching to the heavens; a far cry from this sleepy side of Laos. And I am so grateful for little blessings like that.
Having seen the place, I headed back towards the gate, then crossed the street. There’s hardly any vehicle passing through this place. The road was not asphalted, the kind that gets too muddy when the rains come. I must have been lucky for when I got to the other side, I saw an oncoming bus. Although I couldn’t read the sign or the bus number, I hailed and got in! “Vientiane?” I asked the 3 passengers, as well as the driver. Makulit ako during these trips. I needed to make sure I was going the right direction. Affirmative. I took the seat beside the door. There was no rush here. I was still feeling smug – from having visited this park outside my itinerary; smug for having bought myself cheaper drinks. In fact, I was in bliss drinking from my bottled water as my bus made its way back to the capital!
The Pumpkin House, one of founder Luang Pu Bunleau Sulilat's masterworks.
Entrance to the three-storey Pumpkin House.
|The Reclining Buddha|
|Seem to say, "Stay away from our crotches."|
Tuktuk ride, private hire, return, Vientiane-Buddha park - $18.75 or 150,000 kip or PhP843.75
Commuter bus from Talat Sao bus station that will pass through Buddha park – Look for Bus number 14, it will only cost you $0.50 or 4,000 kip or PhP22.50. Since this is a local commuter bus, a bus leaves the terminal every 15 to 20 minutes during the day. I couldn’t find any schedule that says what time it stops operating but 6-7 PM would be a safe bet.
Lao National Museum, Vientiane – opens 8 AM - 12 noon, 1 - 4PM, admission: $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP56.25 (Lonely Planet needs to update their prices). Like most museums, cameras are not allowed inside.
· Fried chicken with vegetable and rice – $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP56.25
· Fried rice with chicken – $1.50 or 12,000 or PhP67.50
· Commuter bus from Talat Sao (Morning Market) to the Buddha Park – $0.50 or 4,000 kip or PhP22.50 one way
· Gifts: a blouse for my mother - $6.25 or 50,000 kip or PhP281.25
· Gifts: souvenir shirts, Talat Sao (Morning Market) - $2.50 or 20,000 kip or PhP112.50
· Gifts: souvenir shirts, farther away from the market - $2.13 or 17,000 kip or PhP95.63
· Gifts: key chain - $1.87 or 15,000 kip or PhP84.30
· Buddha Park entrance - $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP28
· Buddha Park camera charge - $0.25 or 2,000 kip or PhP11.25
· Buddha Park coke in can or bottled water - $1 or 8,000 kip or PhP44.50
· Store just across the park, coke in can - $0.38 or 3,000 kip or PhP16.90
· Store just across the park, bottled water - $0.38 or 3,000 kip or PhP16.90
· Lao National Museum, entrance fee: $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP56.25
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Postscript: More photos from the Buddha Park in this post below: