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Published: November 12th 2009
Wat Sisaket - Vientiane
Only Wat in Vientiane to survive sacking by Siam in 1827.
We hated to leave Luang Prabang, but there are more adventures ahead for us. The choices for transportation between LP and Vientiane, the capital, are a 45-minute plane ride or a 12-hour (more or less) trip by public bus. Let's guess which one we opted for.... Were we back-packers we would have opted for the latter, because about 2/3 of the way we would come to their favorite place in the whole world: Vang Vieng. VV is an absolutely gorgeous location on the Nam Song River, a natural paradise amid soaring karsts (limestone sentinels), however it has become a hamlet of never-ending guest-houses and bars (mostly bars) where endless loops of Friends play on the TV's, Happy Pizzas are de riguer, and the favorite sport is tubing along the river. Tubing, as I understand the ritual, involves floating in enormous truck tubes until being reeled in at a riverside bar, where Beer Lao is served by the bucket and the reward for buying is a zip line or some other amusement. I'm probably the only blogger on this forum who has not been seduced by the attractions of VV, but then again, I'm probably one of the few bloggers who is
Wat That Luang
Most Important of Vientiane's Wats
over 30 - WAY over! As we flew over the road headed there, I thought “I would never have survived 12 hours on this road that, from the air, looked like a piece of crinkle Christmas ribbon after you've pulled it between your finger and a scissor to make curls. I would have needed industrial strength Bonine - and if I'd conned Bruce into doing it, he would probably be a widower.
Vientiane, Capital of Lao Democratic Republic
Arriving in Vientiane we were met by our guide Phet and driver Tule, who would be our companions for the next four days. They took us on a spin around the city where we took in 3 major sites. First stop was Wat Sisaket, the only Wat to have survived sacking of the city in 1827 by the Thai (at which time they seized the Emerald Buddha, which today they so proudly display in the Royal Palace in Bangkok). There are over 6000 tiny Buddhas in niches of the Wat and its portico, mostly in pairs to honor a mother and father. Next, as the sun was beginning to set, we were dazzled by the golden splendor of Wat That
Luang, the most important Wat in Vientiane. It is surrounded by 30 stupas (funerary edifices), representing the “30 Perfections” of Buddhism. Nearby they are building a huge and beautiful Thai-style Wat which will be the world headquarters of Buddhism. Lastly we went to the Patuxay Monument, an Arc de Triomphe-inspired Victory Monument commemorating the Lao independence from France in 1944. Unfortunately not inspired quite enough. One nickname for it is “the vertical runway”, because it was reportedly built In 1969 with money donated by the US to buy cement to build an airport for the capital. The saving grace of climbing the 200 stairs to the top was a lovely view of the city.
Off again. This time in search of lovely scenery to make up for missing that sullied by the backpackers of Vang Vieng. After a few hours of flat but interesting scenery, past the site being readied (wanna place bets?) for the SEA Games, scheduled to start in 27 days, and with a stop at a Wat which houses one (of many) sacred footprint of Buddha, we turned off he main road headed south along the Mekong, to a place reminiscent of some scenery in the
Loosely styled after Arc de Triomphe - very loosely. With Lao embellishments.
American West - giant karsts rising out of the flood plain.
A Restful Respite
By early afternoon we arrived at Hin Boun - a tiny hamlet along a good road - then down a long drive to our guesthouse, Sala Hin Boun, on the banks of a small stream, appropriately enough called Nam Hin Boun ("nam" the Lao word for river). Its raison-d'etre is a recently exploited (for tourism) cave which runs completely through a high karst, through which flows a clear river. On the other side are villages for whose residents the stream represents a shortcut of 20 minutes by boat instead of a 3-hours trek to the outside world. After a dodgy night's sleep on a Lao-hard matress, no A/C, and mosquito netting our only malaria protection with the open windows (but we enjoyed the atmosphere of it), we set off early the next morning to make the cave run. In the rainy season, navigating the cave is no problem for the 20-odd-foot-long flat-bottom wooden boats, but we are (luckily) now in the dry season and the trip sometimes becomes a portage. This is not the place to come with candidates for Biggest Loser; when the boat
Home of Buddha Footprint
Hand-painted murals line the Wat.
holds locals, they take 6, Americans they take 3 For most portages they made Bruce get out, but let me stay. Yeah, Weight Watchers!
Damn the Torpedos - Full Speed Ahead!
Now comes the fun. About 50 feet past the cave entrance, you are now in pitch-blackness. The helmsman and the bowman each have a headlamp powered by a waist-mounted battery and the boat is powered by a gasoline-powered motor. As soon as they are clear of the rapids rushing out the entrance, they gun the motor. There we are, flying through the pitch blackness, full throttle, with the two boatmen turning their headlamps from side to side, the one in the rear judging the sides of the cave, the one in front checking for shallows and boulders. When we start scraping ground, it's time to get out of the boat in ankle-deep water, slide the boat over the rough spot, then hop back on. The cave is more than a mile long and I'm sure these boatmen know every inch of it. The ceiling appears to be from 30 to 100 feet high and the walls 50 to 200 feet across. We were alone in the cave
in the morning, but on our way back we passed about 15 boats coming toward us like so many fireflies in the night. Some had other tourists; most had village residents taking their wares to market - a basket of ducks, a bamboo pole supporting two cloth packs of goods - or returning from a visit to a nearby village. On the far side of the cave we walked a mile or so to visit the hamlet of these trans- cavernal (I just made up that word) people. The village we reached had but 20 houses, some of rudimentary bamboo and thatch, others a little more substantial. The adult residents were mostly at work in the rice fields; the school-age children at school in a neighboring town (children as young as 12 or so often ride mopeds to school); so as usual we were met by small children and pigs, chickens, ducks, and dogs. There is no electricity in the village and with the high karsts all around there are probably precious few hours from sunrise to sunset. They tap oil from a sandlewood tree to make torches after dark.
After a picnic lunch of fried rice and Lao's
View from top of Patuxai Monument
answer to Twinkies we made the return trip through the welcomely cool cave. Back at the entrance (or exit, depending on which way you're headed) I treated myself to a plunge into the refreshing limestone-milky stream, fully clothed down to my shoes and socks! We moved into a different cabin for the night - one with a thicker mattress and even screens on the windows. We will still use the mosquito nets that hang above the bed, though. Don't want to have any unpleasant surprises from this trip!
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