Three months in Hanoi and my visa was running out. Sue had arrived, my classes were ending… time to take a break. Laos is the nearest neighbouring country and so with very little knowledge of where we were going we made the necessary arrangements and in the late afternoon of November 27 flew from Hanoi to Vientiane, capital of Laos.
The flight via Laos Airlines lasted about an hour and a half. We flew over the amazing knife-edged jagged peaks of northern Laos as the sun neared the horizon, landing at sunset. We quickly navigated our way through the modern airport and immigration and had a taxi arranged for us at the central booking desk in the airport lobby.
We kept seeing signs for ‘Seagames’, but we were miles from any ocean. It wasn’t until days later we realized the name stood for South East Asia Games. It also took us awhile to find out when they were taking place; as it turned out we were just in time for the first games which were taking place before the official opening on Dec. 9.
We had booked a room in a guesthouse a little ways from the town centre so on our taxi ride we saw many sights. Right away we were struck by how orderly the traffic was in comparison to Hanoi. Cars were in lanes, signaled changes and waited at traffic lights. Coloured lights were strung along fences and around trees making our evening drive very cheery. Soon we arrived at our guesthouse, where we were greeted by a smiling young man at the reception desk and got some directions for restaurants in the area. After freshening up we set off for dinner. We passed a wonderful smelling street market with many food vendors but chose a restaurant around the corner with an open air deck. We had a wonderful dinner and then went to take a look at Pha That Luang, The Golden Stupa, the national symbol of Laos.
It was wonderful strolling around the stupa in the early evening with no crowds. We breathed the fresh, clean air and admired the splendor of the stupa and surrounding temples. We both noticed how relaxed we felt in Vientiane, surrounded by beautiful Buddhist temples and the smiling Laotians.
The next morning we rose early and returned to Pha That Luang to see it by daylight before the tourist hoards arrived. The gold covered stupa glowed bright in the morning light as we walked around its enormous base. Numerous and various butterflies fluttered about the bushes and birds swooped overhead.
Surrounding the Pha That Luang are other pagodas and buildings, all beautifully ornate and conspicuously posted as ‘No Smoking’ zones.
As we left the grounds we admired one of the decorated tour buses from Thailand.
One of the fun things about SE Asia is finding interesting uses of English. I’ve been making notes of text I’ve seen on clothing and taking photos of signs. Here’s one we saw on our way to downtown Vientiane.
We walked down Thanon Luang and stopped for a rest and a quick look at Putuxay, a huge concrete monument that resembles the French Arc de Triomphe. The monument, built to celebrate Laos’ independence from France, was constructed with American funds meant for a new airport (hence its nickname: The Vertical Runway). Some of the interior decoration is very beautiful but overall the monument is one huge block of concrete. When we returned to Vientiane from our trip to Luang Prabang we climbed to the top, photos of which I’ll post when we come to that part of our journey.
Our first full day in Vientiane we spent explored the city centre, walked along the Mekong River frontal road, stopped for lunch at a small restaurant (where I had my first of the famous Beer Lao – very tasty!) and gazed at some of the many temples (or wats). Late in the afternoon we took a tuk tuk (pictured below) to the Wat Sok Pa Luang where we participated in an hour long instruction in vipassana, a type of Buddhist meditation involving mind/body analysis. We did two twenty minute stints sitting in a Lotus position (both times my left leg went numb) and one twenty minute walking meditation.Wat Sok Pa Luang means Forest Temple and it was just that: beautifully situated in a forest grove on the town’s outskirts. If felt wonderful to be walking in the wooded grounds, hearing the monks chanting their evening prayers.
After returning to the town centre we dined on a balcony; both of us trying Laotian dishes. Feeling very content and relaxed after our first day in Vientiane we caught a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse.