Shore Expeditions to Laos starting with Vientiane
We got back to Camomile on 2nd January heavily jet lagged and both with heavy colds so plans changed (as they do) and we decided to postpone our trip. We spent 5 days in the hotel going back and forth to the boat scrubbing the hull, cleaning the prop, servicing the seacocks and antifouling the keel. I took the sewing machine back to our room and re sewed, again, the mainsail stack pack and repaired the sun canopy, it was great working in the air conditioning. Camomile was launced on the 7th January in time for James to arrive on the 8th. Between the three of us we spent another 2 weeks mending all the things that had broken in our last few weeks before our trip to the UK, fitting all the parts Bill had brought back with him, scrubbing the decks, re attaching sails and generally getting her ready for sailing again. It wasn’t all work, the marina is next to the ferry port for Pangkor Island so we jumped on the ferry and had a day on the island.
Finally we were ready for our holiday (don’t say it!) and on Monday 20th January we flew to Vientiane the capital city of Laos. James flew to Vietnam at the same time. I had managed to get a good deal on Air Asia with 2 one way flights costing only £45 each. I had booked us in to the Day inn hotel for 3 days.
We had an early flight so by lunchtime we were out exploring. We found a lovely cafe just around the corner from the hotel called Joma which sold lovely french baguettes, quite unexpected. The Lao National Museum was located just a short walk from where we were so we headed there first. It was founded to highlight the revolution of the 1970s and is located in a French colonial building built in 1925 as the French Governor’s residence. In 2007, the United States donated a grant to help develop the museum. The museum presents the history of Laos, highlighting the Laotian people’s struggle to free the country from foreign occupiers and imperialist forces but has a slight overtone of propaganda.
We contined on to find our first Wat. Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 on the orders of King Anouvong. Si is derived from the Sanskrit title of veneration Sri, prefixed to the name of Wat Saket in Bangkok, which was renamed by Anouvong’s contemporary, King Rama I. Wat Si Saket was built in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture, with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, rather than in the Lao style. This may have kept it safe as the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane in 1827 used the compound as their Headquarters and lodging place. It may now be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The French restored Wat Si Saket in 1924 and again in 1930.
The cloister walls surrounding it houses more than 2000 ceramic and silver Buddha images. The temple in the middle houses a museum and features some very old murals on the walls. We spent about an hour marvelling at our surroundings.
Across the road is Haw Phra Kaew, a former temple. The interior now houses a museum and a small shop. Haw Phra Kaew was built between 1565 and 1556, on the orders of King Setthathirath. When Vientiane was seized by Siam (now Thailand) in 1778, the temple was destroyed. When it was rebuilt by King Annouvong of Vientiane in 19th century it was again destroyed by Siamese forces when he rebelled against Siam to attempt to regain full independence of the kingdom.The temple was rebuilt for a third time by the French in the 1920’s during colonization of French Indochina which is the building that exists today. We couldn’t help thinking with all these rebuilds whether we were looking at ‘the original broom’ theory.
The carving around the walls and doors was exquisite and again the walls were lined with buddas. As we walked around some young monks appeared and allowed me to take their photo.
We walked back to the hotel passing the palatial presidential palace built for the president of Laos, who is also the general secretary of the Laos People’s Revolutionary party, although it’s only for receiving foreign dignatories because he chooses not to live there.
After our early start we were tired so we enjoyed a meal in the hotel then an early night.
Bill takes up the story.
After the hot and humid climate of Malaysia it was pleasant to wake up feeling chilly for once. We breakfasted in the hotel and decided to make it another walking tour day of some more prominent city sights so we headed off north east past Dum Stupa (don’t ask) to Lane Xang Avenue the main drag of government buildings passing Patuxai, a triumphal arch to commemorate kicking the French out and built with materials donated by the USA for the purpose of laying a new airstrip thus earning it the nickname of the vertical runway.
As it was still hazy at 9.30 when we got there we decided to climb it later and carry on with a fork right along Avenue 23 Singha to reach Pha That Luang the iconic golden Buddhist stupa. Since its initial establishment, suggested to be in the 3rd century, the stupa has undergone several reconstructions as recently as the 1930s due to foreign invasions of the area. It is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol.
The squat yet delicately minareted groundscraper has a charming and powerful if slightly weathered presence which held us captive for a circuit of its cloistered quadrangle and,while Sue laid an orange flowered posy for her mum at the shrine, I watched the coach tours frogmarched around this treasure and realised how lucky we are to have that little extra time to savour these precious places.
To the compounds south east lies a temple not mentioned in the guide books but which for it’s delicate decoration and elegance stole the show with beautiful freshly painted ceiling frescoes sheltering small groups of chanting orange robed monks called to prayer by an ancient bell. Nearby a massive golden reclining Buddha is incongruously crowded by everyday life just beyond the gates. Market stalls, kids playing with their pet kittens and beating each other up while their mothers try to sell souvenirs.
Back to the Patuxai via a nice cafe and a climb through several levels of tourist shopping was finally rewarded by a lovely view of the city in all directions.
8 kilometers since we set off that morning got us to the Scandinavian Bakery in time for a very late lunch followed by a short pause back at the hotel before the next installment.
Those of you who know me will also know that markets are not really my thing. Make it a night market by a river and I start thinking mosquitos pickpockets and muggings. The Vientiane one is located in the city’s southerly park which lies along the banks of the mighty Mekong river. The road along the top of the levee is closed to traffic in the early evening and the whole area becomes a social event with families and individuals promenading the length of this city centre green space whose figurehead monument of Chao Anouvong gazes across the river to Thailand with a hand of friendship extended while, unsurprisingly bearing in mind the history of this place, keeping his sword in his left. The whole area buzzes and nowhere more than among the dozens of stalls nestled down behind the embankment. There was the normal tat on many of the benches but also real gems including some fine displays of local artwork, stunning fabrics and a selection of various cheap gadgets that even got my hand in my pocket. Other than that, if you are a dress size 6 or under you could get fitted out for about £3. Great value particularly if you barter and shop around.
After a short walk to the fountain in the European quarter for a tasty curry we made our way back to the hotel and I finished off the day with a nice soak in a hot bath. What would have felt like madness just 48 hours before soothed away the aches of the day’s walk before snuggling down to bed under the extra blanket Sue thoughtfully ordered from reception that morning.
Having covered the main sights we decided to take the tourist office’s recommendation and visit the Buddha Park some 27 kilometers to the east of the city and about 7 beyond where the road becomes a dirt track by the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong to Thailand.
We had been warned that a public bus would only take us as far as the bridge because the road beyond is so bad and we would then need to hire a tuktuk to take us the rest of the way.
Undeterred we walked the couple of kilometers to the bus station to be met by a cross between a junk yard and a human cattle market. We went in search of the number 14 bus but never made it because, no sooner had we entered the seething mass of shoulder height humanity, than we were latched onto by enthusiastic taxi drivers explaining to us in broken English why we should not take the bus.”the road iss velly bad” it was like running for the touchline and being dragged to a standstill. In the end we succumbed and agreed to pay for a taxi which made quick work of the 20k stretch but then took the same time to complete the tooth rattling, bone jarring, spine compressing 7ks. We had paid an exorbitant £15 for the return trip but I have a feeling that the drivers suspension mechanic would be the ultimate winner here.
Never mind, the park entry was a mere 40p each and we entered the site of about an acre to view a bizarre collection of Buddhaesque statues focusing on a sort of giant pumpkin shaped object with a tree shaped spire protruding from its top. Sue gamely entered through its mouth to ascend for a photo. When she had been missing for some length of time I realised that the climb might not be all that straightforward so followed her in. The interior was labyrinthine and full of strange statues and figures regarding you with their blind grey eyes. A bit spooky even in daylight but worth the scramble for the view of the park and the Mekong beyond. Not a bad trip out but not really a must see I think.
That evening we ate a lovely Japanese meal at Sabaidee Sushi just around the corner from the hotel who’s own menu was limited and a bit pricy for the offer. We had also decided to take breakfast the following morning at the Scandinavian Bakery nearby the Namphu fountain in the European quarter for the same reason plus we could buy some fresh bagguets to eat on the bus trip to Vang Vieng that day. We had booked this leg with a local agent S&M Airbooking, also near the fountain, for the same price as the public bus but including pickup from the hotel and presumably excluding being wrestled to the ground by taxi drivers as we got on.
At the appointed hour though all that turned up was a four wheeled tuktuk and I seriously thought I might be spending the next three hours clinging on for dear life to avoid being gratuitously flicked out of the back. Happily it soon took us to a full size coach with recliners whose only drawback so far, other than the average age of the other backpackers on board being about thirteen, is its icy airco. Our coach rolled out of Vientiane across the huge flat floodplain of the Mekong towards Vang Viang for more adventures.