VIENTIANE WHEN IT SIZZLES
Vientiane. It sounds like one grandiose European name. Then again, it conjures some tacky copycat city. Thus brought my ambivalence in visiting the capital of Laos. Frankly speaking, I wasn’t frothing in the mouth with excitement. Not this leg of my trip, at least. It was something I had to do to “complete” my Laotian adventure. There must be something about this city that made it the capital, instead of the more preferred Luang Prabang. And I was set to find out.
My Vang Vieng bus dropped me in front of the imposing Laos National Cultural Hall, just across the National Museum (along Thanon Samsenthai), I retrieved my backpack and decided where to go. I honestly didn't know where. I had a couple of hotels to check out, but somehow, it didn’t feel right taking a taxi just finding hotels. I'd rather not risk a runaround. A caucasian guy in dreadlocks asked me for some direction. Didn’t he notice my huge backpack and Lonely Planet on hand?
An hour later, I settled in a relatively pricey (for a backpacking trip, at least) Haysoke Hotel. Room 244 was medium-sized, with a family bed. The split-type airconditioning was new, but needed a better thermostat control. The bathroom was spotless. The walls a tad too thin to hear the Israeli couple arguing next room. The door opened to a common veranda on the second floor where other tourists gather to mingle. All for $15. There were no cheaper nor more expensive rooms in this hotel.
Here’s the rub: They actually charge $18 per room. For some reason, I was given a discount. Maybe they liked me. I am after all one bundle of joy. While waiting for my room ready being fixed, I relaxed at the foyer, it must have taken them15 minutes. I noticed the flurry of backpackers charging in to inquire about the rates. A French couple carrying a warehouse of baggages came by twice. $18! No such luck. I did that myself. The other hotels in the area had their cheapest room at $80! And this wasn’t London’s Oxford Circus nor Madrid’s Gran Via. Instead, think Banawe (street) in Quezon City - with small restaurants and medium-sized buildings. I smiled in spite of myself. Another German couple inquired. $18. An American surfer-looking dude made his way in. $18! They weren’t kidding. Must be the Asian connection why I got the discount. Or could it be I didn't look like I just crawled out of a hole? I can only guess.
After a refreshing shower, I walked along Setthathirat Road. I found a silk shop and bought myself a map at 25,000 kip. A couple of blocks west heads towards the Mekong. I noticed the streets alternately labeled in French (rue), Thai (thanon) and English (road). I made my way to the backpacker street of Rue Fa Ngum which runs along the great Mekong. Backpack guesthouses littered the sidewalk. This was where I was supposed to go, but the taxi driver asked for 40,000 kip - $5 - for the ride, saying it was “far”. Intuition told me otherwise. I knew I was right because the moment I turned away from him, he followed me to the next block with an offer 60% cheaper. I am not fond of people who take advantage of tourists. I’d rather the earth devour me than deal with such opportunistic gargoyles. In fact, the Fa Ngum riverside was just 4 blocks from where my bus stopped! I saw Joe’s Guesthouse (a highly recommended Lonely Planet fixture). Mixay Temple. Wat Mixayaram. There’s the Ong Teu Temple beside Sangha College. Sticky Fingers. Once again, I was beside the great Mekong, which has obviously brought life and development to the rest of Indochina. I’m always humbled in the presence of this great river. There were rows of restaurants and make-shift stalls along the banks. Further south of the Mekong is a dry patch of land called Don Chan Island which has more restaurants serving Lao and continental menu.
Unable to withdraw cash from Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, I tried looking for ATM machines in the "big city". Though I still had a considerable amount of cash on hand, as I wasn’t even halfway through my travels, I needed to provide a budget for my Vang Vieng detour, which wasn’t part of the original allotment of expenses. I saw several machines but they were either close or out of cash! It was Sunday, and the rest of Vientiane- from fountains to ATM machines - hibernates. Davao City came to mind. I relayed this to a charming Lao lady with whom I bought my onward bus ticket from, and she replied with a very infectious giggle. She said, “Vientiane is very relaxed and many establishments indeed close on Sundays.” True enough, institutions like temples, stores, museums, money changers were closed. It was like Good Friday in Manila. But then it's just another typical Lao Sunday.
SEX AND THE CITY
I came across an adorable park along Setthathirat Road with benches surrounding what should be the Namphou Fountain. But yeah, even the fountain rests on a Sunday. I noticed a falang (foreigner) and his Lao girlfriend. Unlike Thailand, this sight is not a fixture in Laos. `The locals frown on such “fraternizing”. Their laws prohibit foreigners from having sex with local girls, not that such activities would get broadcasted. It is a grievous offense meted with harsh punishments, and I don’t mean an overnight stay behind bars.
I approached a tuktuk to take me to the city’s main temple - Pha That Luang. He asked for 80,000 kip which seemed exorbitant. After a few haggling, we agreed on 50,000 kip ($6.25) return which, looking back, was still too much, since it is only about 2.5 km from where I was. A taxi ride from the city center to the Wattay Airport (4 km) should only cost around $3. Upon reaching the massive grounds, I was in awe. I’d been around hundreds of temples and I should be jaded, but a thing of beauty never fails to inspire.
The temple ground was a vast expanse of red cobble-stones. The three-layered gilded stupa rises up from these grounds, shining proud and mighty. I was mesmerized. I knew I had to visit because the temple shuts down on Mondays. Pha That Luang is a national symbol, the country's most revered religious monument. From the temple, I hiked the nearby temples beside Pha That Luang - Wat That Luang Neua to the north and Wat That Luang Tai to the south. Then I asked my driver to take me back to Patuxai Park, which is 2 kilometers west from the temple. I contemplated on walking, but - heck! – I paid for this ride!
To be continued...
Laos National Cultural Hall
Vientiane Map - The arrow traverses the majestic Lane Xang; the southern end has the Patuxai (#7), while the northwestern end has the Presidential Palace. 4 is the Lao National Cultural Hall.
Wat Xieng Nyeun
Wat Ong Teu. Thank you very much to my Lao friend who corrected me on this one. I appreciate it.
Wat Ong Teu
Namphou Park and its hibernating fountain
My 50,000 kip tuktuk ride.
Waiting at the bus station.
Pha That Luang - the national symbol and the most important religious monument of the country.
Wat That Luang Neua
Wat That Luang Tai
Capital of Laos PDRPopulation: 234,000English Paper: Vientiane Times, which is government-run and not easily accessible everywhere
To our Lao friends:
Some names of temples have probably been mixed up. I would be grateful if anyone can correct them if they are misnamed. Thanks.
Random Expenditures: see next post