The bus journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, takes about ten hours. Luckily, we don’t go by bus. It’s fine for young whippersnappers with excellent bladder control, but us oldies take the short flight instead and make a pledge to plant loads of trees later.
On our way to the airport I have time to reflect on how drivers here don’t lean on their horns like they do in Vietnam and Cambodia. Everyone seems to give each other space. This is when our own driver isn’t sharing his views of the Chinese which, in common with everyone else who expresses an opinion, aren’t positive. The Chinese seem to have replaced Russians as the world’s most reviled tourists.
He also tells us that many people in Luang Prabang have difficulty sleeping during the rainy season, laying awake in fear that a nearby dam will burst and flood the area. Their fears aren’t unfounded. In 2018 one of the many Mekong dams collapsed, resulting in much destruction and loss of life. People here blame the Laos government for allowing the Chinese, and anyone else who asks, to build dams all along the Mekong. Construction standards are said to be those more commonly associated with the erection of temporary structures.
Back to the fluffy stuff
So I’m at the Ansara Hotel in Vientiane, drawing a picture of a duck for the lady on reception. Next to it is a drawing of a double bed. Now I draw an arrow leading from the duck to the pillows and add a large X next to the duck. In this way I communicate to the staff the fact that my wife is allergic to feather pillows. “Ah!” she says, and gets on the phone to housekeeping. “We’ve got a right one here,” is what she possibly says next.
There’s a highly recommended jazz venue in Vientiane with the unlikely name of the Jazzy Brick Bar, but we find that both it and the entire block it stood in have been demolished and replaced by gravel. So we choose a rooftop bar with a perfect ringside view of the smog on the busy Rue Setthathilath. We order Pad Thai and watch a disappointing chimney fire in a building across the street.
I estimate that we haven’t endured ferocious heat to look at a Buddha for at least a day now, so today we make amends by seeing thousands of them. First, we visit a sort of Buddha theme park on the outskirts of Ventiane and right next to the Mekong. It’s home to more than 200 concrete sculptures of Buddhas, Hindu gods and a giant three-storey pumpkin that invokes James & The Giant Peach. The park is certainly… different. I’d recommend it if you have an abiding interest in Buddhas or sculpture, and particularly if sculpted Buddhas is your thing. As with almost any tourist attraction anywhere, early morning is best.
We take part in a Baci ceremony
This is something Carol arranged through Trailfinders. It’s a centuries-old ceremony – pre-dating Buddhism itself – involving chants, prayers, the sprinkling of marigold, an elaborate display of flowers and banana leaves, and the tying of white thread around our wrists. The thread symbolises ‘peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community’, and it’s customary to wear it for a minimum of three days.
The ritual, conducted in the home of a relative of our guide, is utterly fascinating and the people conducting it warm and friendly. We both feel privileged to have taken part and wave goodbye whilst looking forward to a future of peace, harmony, good fortune etc.
After the ceremony we visit Wat Si Saket, a temple containing – and I’m glad I didn’t have to count them – 6,840 Buddhas of different sizes and material. It never fails to astound me just how key, how absolutely central, the figure of Buddha is to people of that religion.
Rubbed up the gong way
Outside the temple we chance upon a large and very old gong. A guy is repeatedly rubbing the palm of his hand up against the bulbous bit in the gong’s centre, creating a deep and sonorous tone. The moment he stops, the sound fades. I have to have a go, of course.
I rub and rub, but can I get a noise out of it? Not a squeak. I feel like I’ve failed in something important. Meanwhile, I’m getting strange looks from people who weren’t there to witness the first guy making it sing.
Some more shots from Vientiane:
*See here for an explanation of why the Vientiane war memorial has this nickname
Making a meal of breakfast
- Take our seats in the near-empty restaurant
- Asked how I’d like my egg cooked. Answer fried, please, over easy
- Put toast on so that it’s ready for fried egg
- Toast ready far in advance of fried egg
- Leave it a minute, toast now cold, put second slice on
- Toast ready. Still no egg
- Egg arrives! It’s seriously undercooked, like it’s been momentarily shown to a frying pan
- Send egg back. Toast now stone cold. Consider third slice…
- Egg arrives. It’s perfect
Today’s our last day in Vientiane. It was only a brief stopover, after all. We could enjoy a bit more time by the pool but instead it’s decided that we pack up and get to the airport pronto as we don’t want to be late and miss our flight despite it not being due to take off until, like, many hours from now.
Carol expresses a mild sense of panic at the airport. ‘There’s nothing happening! Nobody’s here!’
‘That’s because we’re a year early for our flight,’ I say. Ah well, better safe than sorry.
So it’s goodbye Wattay Airport, farewell Vientiane and laters, Laos.
Next up: Bangkok or Bust