A Buddhist Pumpkin and a Manageable Capital City

I have no idea what the link between pumpkins and Buddhism is but it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate an autumnal gourd, 3 stories high, filled with depictions of heaven and hell. Confused? Don’t worry, so were we.


We were just outside the capital Laos, Vientiane, visiting Xieng Khuan, the Buddha Park. Lovingly created, there are a whole manner of mythical folk from Buddhist and Hindu mythology. A 30m long reclining Buddha took a well deserved relax next to a 3 headed elephant; a head with 4 faces facing different directions, topped with 3 similar heads including a skeleton one which also had octopus arms; and of course the 3 storey high pumpkin. The girls absolutely loved pretending to be gobbled up by the pumpkin’s monster mouth, racing around the outside of “hell”, “earth” and at last reaching “heaven” and climbing onto the top. On the top we got a great view of the park beside the Mekong, over its fast-flowing monsoon-swelled waters was Thailand. Steve and I squeezed though a tiny hole at the top of the pumpkin to see the inner sanctum of the celestial realms. “Hell” was unsurprisingly rather scary, but more health and safety wise than anything else, with just one bare flickering bulb at the bottom of the very steep irregular steps. 


Our route through Laos took us from the far south almost always within a few kilometres of the meandering Mekong river, until we got to Vientiane. Two days drive south of Vientiane we had squeezed into the gardens of a guesthouse in the town of Tha Khaek. The scenery outside town was full of rice paddies and towering limestone karsts. The karsts are riddled with caves, in one of them you can take a boat all the way through in the pitch black for 7.5km. Deep caves are not the girls favourite places, so we kept to the shorter more accessible ones. 

 

After parking outside the closed village school, just 3 simple classrooms, we trekked a short distance through the forest and jumped from rock to rock over a stream to get to the Tham Xieng Liap cave. Seeing that Lucy would have to wade through almost waist high brown water, we chickened out on going to see the Buddha statues at the end, and admired the stalactites we could see from the entrance.


A few kilometres away was the cave of Tham Xang, leaving the truck just short of the rickety wooden bridge amongst the rice paddies, we walked to the cave through the village. As water buffalo wallowed in muddy pools; recently harvested rice dried in the sun; and a group of Grannies at the temple waved Lucy over to coo over her blonde hair. She and Alisha in turn greeted them with “Sabaidee” with their hands pressed together with a slight bow, prompting lots of appreciative clucks. We have found that travelling with children, especially a blonde one, in Asia a really fun experience. It is a bit like travelling with a minor celebrity. The most unlikely of people pop out of their houses to say hello or smile and wave. We have joked that Lucy is our “secret weapon”, whenever we need paths smoothed, out she comes with a sweet smile and suddenly officials couldn’t be more accommodating.

An Asian tourist at Angkor Wat taking photos of our “secret weapons”.
After the messing about in caves it was time for some long drives. As the sun started to sink over the Mekong, we saw a likely spot to stop for the night, a little track down to the waters edge just beside a bridge. Perfect we thought, until emerging from the bushes at the start of the track onto the little peninsular we saw a truck with an orange tarpaulin over the top. What?! We don’t see hardly any overlanders for months and months and suddenly we found Dragoman (a commercial overlanding company, similar to the one we met on) having the same bright idea as we do for a night spot. Thinking it was bad form to crash their Mekong sundowners, we headed off down a side road to find our own spot nice beside a rice paddy.

 

After another long drive, we came to the outskirts of Vientiane and stretched our legs enjoying the delights of the Buddha Park. We headed away from town to find a peaceful spot to do some jobs and for the night. The villages seemed to go on forever but eventually the road turned to dusty gravel and we found a big patch of grass beside the Mekong. With only fields opposite and no houses nearby it seemed a lovely spot. A couple of hours later after a hot and sweaty truck clean, I was looking forward to a cup of tea admiring the sunset, when two guys pulled up on a motorbike. Lots of smiles and “Sabaidee” all round, all very friendly but eventually they got their message through to us via gestures and a friend on the other end of the phone, who also didn’t speak much more English. They were happy for us to hang out for the day but they didn’t want us to stay there for the night. A shame, as it was a lovely spot, we never found out who they were or why we couldn’t stay. As we waved goodbye, it left us with less than half an hour before the sun set to find a good spot for the night. We had seen a backup spot about 25 minutes away, a quiet spot in a huge gravel pit just off the empty motorway. Not the most scenic spot but the last rays of the sunset was gorgeous, it’s just a shame we didn’t watch it over the Mekong with a cup of tea as I had planned.

 

Vientiane might be the capital of Laos but compared with the big Asian cities we’ve been to recently, like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and even Phnom Penh, it seems like a sleepy backwater and I like it even more for that. Although those other cities came with an undeniable energy, it was hard to enjoy them at times because of the frenetic nature of the traffic. There is nothing fun about exploring a city on foot with 2 kids when you are constantly in danger of being mown down, and that’s when you are on the pavement. Vientiane was far more relaxed, smaller-yes; less vehicles – definitely; but better road manners too – some cars even slowed down so we could cross on zebra crossings. Wow! It all made for a pleasant change. 

 

We had found secure parking for the truck downtown and had decamped to a guesthouse for some peace and air conditioning. All through South America we slept in the truck for our short stays in capital cities, here in Asia there is little respite from the heat. At night we always have all the windows open all night, which is great in the peace of the countryside but not so good for noisy big cities. Steve found a room with an amazing balcony with a view over the neighbourhood, well worth the 6 flight stair walk to the top floor.

 

Apart from checking out the city, our main reason for coming to Vientiane was to apply for out Myanmar visas. We trotted off to the embassy first thing on Monday morning, it was all pretty straightforward as we have had to engage a guide already for our drive through Myanmar. Waiting for the visas it gave us 3 more days to enjoy the city. 

 

Vientiane seems a unique mixture of French colonial architecture and town planning with its wide boulevards; modern Asian investment, especially from China, with mirror windowed offices; Buddhist Wats; and just a touch of Soviet in the government buildings. After all our years in Moscow, we are very familiar with the latter style and kept on pointing out the nostalgic touches of communist style. The People’s Republic of Laos to give it its full title may still be communist in name, but like China and Vietnam, capitalism seems to rule. Although to a far lesser extent than its near neighbours. The national flag is always seen alongside the hammer and sickle, I thought that symbol had died with the breakdown of the Soviet Union so it seems strange to see it on a mobile phone shop.



The rest of the time in Vientiane was spent exploring its historic Wats (Buddhist temples). My favourite was Pha That Luang, a golden stupa, which supposedly contains a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Still with its scaffolding up from its recent painting, it glowed in the sunlight surrounded by dark grey rain clouds. Elaborate structures made of plants, marigolds and wax were brought to the temple as thanksgiving. We had lots of time to enjoy its beauty and observe its worshipers arriving as we got stuck under a shelter with the sparrow-releasers (people often release small caged birds as part of their prayers here) and other devotees for over an hour as a thunderstorm ranged around us. The heavens literally opened as we watched many beautifully dressed ladies with a straight silk sarongs and a diagonal scarf draped over one shoulder, make a dash out of their cars or tuk tuks carrying their elaborate offerings. We never found out if there was a particular significance of the time or date for so many well off elegant ladies to attend the temple.



We visited the COPE centre, which provides artificial limbs and medical assistance for people who have been injured by UXOs (unexploded ordnance) left over from the Vietnam war. Even though Laos was never officially at war with the US because the Ho Chi Min Trail passed though Laos and there were many supporters of the communist forces here, Laos has the sad distinction of being the most heavily bombed country ever. Unfortunately the legacy lives on as people are still being blown up by the small but powerful “bombies” that didn’t go off 40 years ago when they were first dropped”

 

Our last day was taken up with more mundane activities like driving miles out of town to get a new back taillight to replace the one smashed in the accident we had in Cambodia; restocking the food in the truck; and picking up our Myanmar visas. After another warm but wet soaking in the rain, on the way home from a delicious Lao dinner, we were ready for our last night in the air conditioning before we hit the road north the following morning.

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