Temples abound in Vientiane
06/29/2016 - 07/01/2016 93 °F
I landed in Vientiane in early afternoon. It was sunny and hot. Vientiane looked more like a city to me than Luang Prabang, which had the feel of a small, provincial town. Here there was traffic, street lights, horribly-complex looking strands of electrical wires overhead, and the feel of a rushing city street. Luckily, most of the sights are concentrated in a central area, so I could walk virtually everywhere I wanted to go.
Just two blocks away was my first sight, the Lao National Museum. It had a few of the jars from Laos' famous archeological site, the Plain of Jars. These massive stone jars were used for ceremonial burials more than a thousand years ago. I really wanted to visit the site, but it was far away from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Too far for a day excursion, it would have required at least one, probably two, overnights. I did not want to take time away from either of the other destinations, so I would have to settle for the museum's examples. The museum had a number of other artifacts, too. There were a few nice statues from the ancient and medieval cultures -- including Khmer style temple carvings. One of the jars was there, plus two were in the garden outside. I have to admit they weren't much to look at individually. An entire plain covered with them would have been an interesting sight, though. The museum had no air conditioning, and was fairly stifling inside. Once I reached the colonial and more modern era sights, I whipped through them more quickly. The communist propaganda on the signs showed through fairly overtly, all but calling the French and Americans "foreign devils."
A curious thing about sights in Vientiane is how early everything closes in the afternoon. Checking my guidebook, there was only one temple I'd be able to get to in time. I was able to navigate Vientiane's grid pattern easier than Luang Prabang's curving street layout. However, once to the right place, I ran into a new problem: which temple was the one I was looking for? Yes, it was a case of What Wat? Almost none of the signs are in English, and the Lao script is unique. There are so many temples, or wats, on Vientiane's streets that you could spend months examining them all. They are very colorfully decorated, and have similar architectural features and styles. I think I found the one I was looking for, but couldn't really be sure. Since Imahd arrived in Laos, I had been amused by the sight of monks on their cell phones, playing games or goofing around. I was happy to finally get a good picture of one doing so. I always try to be respectful and ask before I take pictures of people, and this group of four boys were happy to be photographed.
In general, there were fewer sights in Vientiane than Luang Prabang. I should have probably shifted a day between them, making it four in Luang Prabang and two here. The next morning, it was raining fairly steadily, so I delayed my sightseeing for an hour or so. My fist stop was a fascinating temple, Wat Si Saket. The inside walls were covered in medieval frescoes that were being restored by a team of specialists. It was interesting to examine the ones they'd already restored and compare them to the salt and water damaged originals. One showed a scene of battle between two kingdoms, with spearman, swordsman, and a number of war elephants. I recognized the Burmese style of elephant soldiers, with four platforms (one above each leg) and a central howdah. Multiple signs prohibited photography, unfortunately. Humorously, there were even signs prohibiting photographing from outside the temple looking in. I would really have liked to had pictures of the frescoes, but had to settle with taking a picture of a page in a book they had onsite. An interesting feature of Wat Si Saket is its cloister, a covered gallery surrounding the temple on all four sides. Along the outer wall of the cloister are thousands of niches, each with a small, bronze Buddha. Larger statues sat, cross-legged in a row in front of the niches. It was probably the nicest Wat in Vientiane -- or at least the most historically interesting.
Laos' sights close down for an hourlong siesta at noon, so I found an air-conditioned restaurant to relax with a cold drink. I was in my usual travel mode of skipping lunch. Next, it was about half a mile walk to the city's most bustling Wat. Here, monks accepted donations inside the temple and would, in turn, perform a blessing on the donor. I saw gifts of food, decorative baskets, even a flower-like arrangement of 1,000 Kip bills (about 13 cents in Lao currency). The streets surrounding the Wat were full of vendors selling potential gifts to temple visitors. Outside the temple, colorfully-painted, larger than life statues of deities and mythical animals were spaced within the temple compound's walls. Behind the main temple were the crumbled ruins of a 5th century temple, still venerated by a golden sash wound around its fire-darkened stones.
The last two sights of the day had to be reached by tuk-tuk. These come in various sizes, and are essentially a small passenger trailer welded onto a motor scooter. The first stop was That Luang, or the Great Stupa. This is a stupa rather than a temple, so it is a solid monument, not something you can go inside. It was huge and painted in gold. This meant it was not as impressive as Myanmar's Schwegedon Pagoda, which is actually gold plated. Nevertheless, it is a venerated sight, and actually appears on the Lao currency. Visitors and worshippers circled its expanse, taking pictures or leaving offerings.
From there, it was a dusty, 45-minute ride to the Buddha Park on the outskirts of town. Although a modern construction, this collection of dozens and dozens of varying sizes of statues from Buddhist mythology was a treat for the eyes. Some were massive, multi-level ones that you could climb inside. Some were gigantic Buddhas or creatures, others were man-sized, or smaller. They are arranged in groupings, and it was fun to wander amidst them taking photos. The gray or white stone from which they were carved was weathering aesthetically in the damp climate, giving them an ancient appearance. Although 45 minutes in tuk-tuk, sucking in dust and exhaust is not a pleasant time, the park was one of the highlights of Vientiane, I felt. I had originally planned on taking a taxi there, but sightings of these are rare in Vientiane. So, I had to settle for a tuk-tuk.
By the time I arrived back in town, all of the tour offices were closed for the day. I had planned on booking an excursion for Day 3, but got back too late. This meant my final day of sightseeing in Vientiane would be relaxed, and less intense. It included a quick perusal of the Morning Market (nowhere as impressive as Luang Prabang's Night Market). I followed this up walking to the Victory Monument, a towering pagoda-like construction that brings to mind France's Arc di Triomph. Much to my surprise, you can climb to the top of it for a view of Vientiane. There was a nice panoram of the city from atop it. I checked out a centuries-old, brick and stone stupa, That Dam. I also wandered along the riverfront, which Laos is slowly developing as more tourists come to Vientiane. I was thinking that it was a low-key way to end my sightseeing in Laos. So, just to make things interesting, a torrential downpour hit Vientiane as I wanted to venture out for dinner. Riding a tuk-tuk through flooding streets was a thrilling and humorous way to end the visit. I think I will remember Laos' wats the most, even after the name of what wat disappears from my memory.