21/02/09 - 22/02/09
First stop Vientiane - capital of Laos. After a few hours queueing to get through immigration (and it was Saturday so meant I had to pay more for my visa) I finally made it into the heart of Vientiane. It was early afternoon, scorching hot and dusty, but already I preferred Laos' capital to Bangkok. Much quieter for one thing!
I headed to Saysouly Guest House, because I'd heard the owner there would be able to help me out with the next part of my trip. It was a nice enough place, close to the Mekong river, but not far from the rest of town either. I didn't really know what to do with myself for the rest of the afternoon, so I wandered around the nearby Wats (temples) and chatted to some novice monks. They are always up for practising their English with the foreign tourists, particularly the female ones, I've discovered!
Beautiful blossoms :)
A common site - random tuktuks outside attractions such as this Wat.
Wat Mixay (I think) - it was a holiday when I was there, hence the flags.
I love these towers, particularly the dragon ornamentation :)
Mekong riverside bars - not too lively in the day, but a great place to go for dinner and a drink in the evening.
After that little sightseeing jaunt, I decided to catch the Yensabai traditional dance show at the Lao National Theatre, down the road from where I was staying. It was an enjoyable performance, though the venue felt more like a school hall than a capital city theatre. I liked seeing all the different costumes and dance styles. Each dance told a different story or was from a different cultural group in Laos.
After the show I headed to the first riverside bar I could find. It was dark, but the whole riverside was lit up with fairy lights and candles. The place I found had low tables and cushions to sit on and was pretty quiet at first, though a large Lao family soon came to eat. Their children livened up my night a bit, as they were crawling around and playing games around me. I had no idea what to order, so the waiter suggested I order this thing where they brought me a charcoal burner with some meat, veggies and noodles and I could boil them in the pot myself. Good choice, as it was yum! Have no idea what the actual name of it was though!
Also ordered my very first Beer Lao, which comes in a massive bottle and took me about 2hrs to drink, but was well worth it. I'm not a big beer drinker, but Beer Lao was good ;)
The next day I decided I'd do some more sight seeing, and rented a bike for the day so I could reach further afield. The first place I headed to, and the furthest away, was That Luang.
That Luang is basically the most important monument in Laos - it was built in the 16th century on top of an earlier Khmer temple, and Buddha relics are believed to be kept there. It was destroyed in 1828 by the Thai invasion, but later restored by the French.
I arrived there just as a busload of Thai tourists turned up (oh no, not another Thai invasion!)
Lovely roofs from a nearby temple - That Luang originally had temples on all sides, but I don't think they are all there anymore.
I got a wee bit obsessed with finding all the different dragon statues where ever I went - actually I think they are Nagas, but whatever...
Then I cycled down to Patuxai - the Arc de Triomphe of Laos. Also known as the vertical runway, because the Lao built it with money given to them by the Americans to build an airport!
I didn't stay long here, as I couldn't find anywhere to chain the bike, so I didn't climb to the top. Instead I went to Talat Sao (Morning Market) and looked around the shops for a bit to fend off the boiling sun. I ate lunch next the That Dam (the Black Stupa). This stupa in the middle of a roundabout, looked a bit sorry for itself - the Thai invaders stripped all the gold from it and it has since been left to the weeds.
Then I cycled to Wat Sisaket, though I only ended up seeing the outer buildings. I stopped to chat to a young monk and take some shelter from the sun. He taught me a few words of Lao, and I helped him practise his English, and showed him photos of home that I keep on my iPod. Of course, I was very careful I didn't inadvertently touch him - the Buddhist monks aren't allowed to touch women. They can't even give their mums a hug!
I cycled past the palace, which you can't go inside, and stopped again at Wat Ha Phra Kaew - the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is where the one in Bangkok should be! Guess what, those Thais stole that too! Starting to feel quite sorry for the Lao people. Have to say I much preferred this temple - it was simple and understated. It didn't have the over-the-top gold glare of the Bangkok temple.
Afterwards I'd decided I'd had enough of the temples and heat, and took refuge in the Lao National Museum. Yay, air conditioning! I was actually quite impressed with their ancient history displays on the Plain of Jars and Champasak, and they even had a dinosaur display! It mainly consisted of a large colourful wall mural - deeply inaccurate I'm sure - but they did have some sauropod fossils that had been found in Southern Laos. There was also a well-presented exhibition about the first Dutch visit to Laos in the 17th Century, which was partially funded by the Dutch (can't remember exactly what organisation). I didn't like the modern revolutionary stuff though - the displays were very dated and some didn't have English translations. And there was no air conditioning in those rooms!
I finished my day with a spa treatment at Mandarina Spa, which was great although I spent the entire time trying to work out if my therapist was male or female... Never did get to the bottom of that one!