Friday, March 6, 2009

Vientiane: Home of 10,000 Buddhas

Sawngthaew rides can be "more intimate" than bus rides and a great way to interact with locals, an expat guesthouse owner in Vang Vieng told me. He was recounting a ride he took to Vientiane years ago, where he witnessed a gaggle of village women get taken for their gold jewelry by a group of bean-game con men.

"Of course, it could just be boring and uncomfortable," he added.

Our sawngthaew ride from Vang Vieng was certainly intimate – perhaps slightly boring and uncomfortable – but no bean-game con men got on board. A sawngthaew is essentially a covered, open-air pick-up truck outfitted with two padded benches. In the back of ours, over the course of the four-hour journey, various characters got on and off: a monk with a slide-top cellular phone and a pack of menthol cigarettes; a farang in camouflage cargo shorts and his Thai girlfriend who wore hot pants and a pair of oversized sunglasses; an older woman with a baby and a blue plastic bag of tamarinds; a young man with bleached hair and a blingy bracelet; three schoolgirls in matching black-and-white uniforms; a stern-looking boy in green military fatigues; a middle-aged man who wore a dusty blue-and-white Adidas track jacket, a pair of knockoff Oakley's, and a white-patterned ball cap with an embossed dollar sign and a faux Major League Baseball emblem. At one point there were 16 people in the back, two in the front and the driver.

About an hour into the ride I opted for some sun and some breeze in my face, and ended up clinging to an iron bar on the roof of the truck for about two hours, unable to reclaim my seat. The red and yellow of communist hammer-and-sickle flags were ubiquitous along the road as we passed, and were passed by, convoys of green tarp-covered Chinese transport trucks. We had to change vehicles outside of Vientiane when the sawngthaew broke down, and we rode in a tuk-tuk the rest of the way into the city.

Vientiane sits just north across the Mekong River from Nhong Kai, Thailand, and its riverfront strip is a lively mix of French restaurants, business buildings and reggae bars. At first sight the city is hardly picturesque, but we soon found it had a character all its own, its people friendly and welcoming, and its streets pleasantly navigable.

We settled into a guesthouse in a quiet neighborhood a little bit out from the river near the National Stadium. The guesthouse had large rooms with vaulted ceilings and walls painted institutional green, and the beds were little more than elevated planks with tired mattresses, but we managed to sleep nonetheless.

The next day we headed out for some sight seeing. We first visited the 458-year-old Sisaket Wat near the city's center. The wat has a museum that houses Laos' largest collection of Buddha statues – 10, 136, to be exact. Some of the statues have been unearthed and rescued from construction sites and road projects, and many of them are damaged and burned relics from the Indochina War. The museum's curator, Mr. Soy, welcomed us to the wat, tying colored-thread bracelets to our wrists and wishing us good luck, good health and happy lives.

Mr. Soy told us about a man who visits the museum every day and cares for a particular, non-descript Buddha statue, which he believes is the Buddha. The man burns incense for the Buddha, keeps it covered with an orange cloth and leaves it little presents. Mr. Soy didn't know why the man felt that this Buddha was the one, but he said the man has been coming to the museum for years.

Later in the day, on our way to the massive memorial golden stupa north of downtown, we stopped off for an ice cream at a small roadside restaurant and ended up playing Chinese poker with a group of young locals, a couple of whom spoke quite good English, which is a rarity in Laos.

At the stupa, bands of Asian and Western tourists, led on by the monotonous drone of their tour guides' rambling, milled about the main square, snapping obligatory photos before dribbling back into their party-theme painted VIP buses on the way to the next cultural highlight – a phenomenon I've come to call "checklist tourism."

That night we found the Anou Cabaret, where a live band complimented stiff and tentative table service while singers crooned and the lead vocalist belted country western tunes in broken English. An informal ballroom dancing contest – waltz, salsa, tango, samba, fox trot – concluded with award certificates for the winners, and afterward simple improvised line dancing opened up to the public. Aware that we were the only farangs in the joint, we stayed seated.

It was in Vientiane that I began to theorize that there must be a massive industrial bakery somewhere deep in the jungle in Laos, churning out these little baguettes that have been on almost every menu we've seen in the country thus far. I picture the bakery operating 24-hours a day, employing brigades of scooter-driving kids who shuttle the light chewy loaves around the country.

On our last day in the city, we spent six hours at the southern bus station waiting for our bus to Savannaket, a small crumbling colonial town halfway to Si Pan Don (4,000 Islands) in southern Laos. At a small restaurant near the bus station we ate a quick meal of fried chicken – more bones and gristle than meat – with a bowl of rice and some clear broth with watercress floating on the oily surface. The waitress, pretty and bitter, sulked the food to our table; a towel was draped over her shoulders and her hair – in the middle of a dye-job – was pinned above her neckline. On the television a Thai soap opera played, in which a victim haunted his killer, while a half-dozen patrons sat glued to the screen. Two lethargic fans oscillated on the wall above our table.

At the station, I gave a small, shy boy a baseball I had been carrying since I left Denver, and we rolled the ball back and forth between us across the tiled floor of the terminal. My traveling companion, Jen, took out her green Frisbee and began tossing it to the locals. Soon, our little corner of the station was a pocket of gaming frivolity. A Thai boxing match played on the lone television, young men exchanging baht at the bout's conclusion. For dinner we ate cheese and, yes, baguette sandwiches, while dusk settled on the departing buses.

1 comment:

  1. Who is the we ? I think I missed that.

    Missing the states yet ? eh not missing much. No gaudy US peoples for you.

    take it easy, have a beer.