Tuesday, June 23, 2009

De-Laosing 2: Home Sickle

My two times in to the country now it has struck me that Laos seems to have a very specialized industry. While it is true that a lot of countries rely on tourism to support them, Laos seems to have carved a very specialized niche for itself: It caters to the Visa run. As the closest foreign country to Bangkok according to maps I may not have looked at too closely, it seems like the number one reason why anyone goes to Vientiane is so they can go back to Bangkok for a while longer yet.

Laos is an interesting country. In people and food it is so mingled with Thailand and the Thais to be fairly indistinguishable, the two people (and languages and foods) sharing common ancestry among the Khmer and later Kingdoms. Vientiane could be a spruced up Thai city in one of the provinces, large but certainly not Bangkok. There is an almost charming feel of having not left...

Ok, so there might be a couple of differences.

One gets to Vientiane from Bangkok one of several ways. Driving, whether in one's own automobile or in a bus (which I did the second time), taking the train from Hualampung Station in the city, or flying out of Suvarnabhumi airport. This also ends the spelling test preparation, make sure you took notes and have studied the words for Friday.

The first time I went I took a 2nd Class sleeper train, which left the station at 8 PM. On a 2nd Class sleeper train you sit on seats normally until you (or the other person you share a berth with) want to sleep, at which point the magic happens. The two seats fold together and get a mattress over them to form the lower berth, and the top one pops out of a compartment on the ceiling. Maybe all sleeper trains are this magical, this is the only one I've been on as an adult. Magic I sadly do not have a picture of.

But I do have a picture of the train so you can get an idea of the layout I'm talking about. Which is really necessary, unless you generally know what a train looks like and having a fairly good imagination. Ok, so entirely unnecessary, but still: Photo time.

Picture Related. Haha.

In that picture you can see a guy from England whose name I forgot in blue, and a hot Canadian who didn't seem particularly interested in talking to me in the red shirt. So, being barred from hitting on the hot Canadian or her friend (apparently Canadians, like Geese, travel to warmer climes in flocks), I instead drank beers with the Brits.

They were a hoot, and the evening passed well. What would ultimately cause my second trip out was the two hours we spent waiting at one stop, doing nothing except...waiting. Daring eachother to walk across the tracks to the 7-11...and waiting more. We were told we were waiting for passengers, which I feel fairly unaccountable unless the passengers were Jesus and Buddha coming back from an all night bender. Given the unlikelihood, I think there must have been another reason unknown to us.

When you pull in to the border town of Nong Khai you then make your way to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (or the Lao-Thai FB, depending on the side), which is exactly what it says on the tin: A bridge across the Mekong river. You get your passport stamped on the Thai side, and then arrange taxi or take the shuttle across the border in to Laos.

The Mekong is not an unimpressive river to say the least, and that picture was actually snapped on the way back to Thailand (in the interest of full disclosure), not having been in a position to get a good picture going across the first time. Once in to Laos you go to Lao Immigration where you pay them 1,500 baht (40 bucks) to get in to the country for up to a month, plus one dollar (35 baht) if you are not there between 8 AM and 4 PM. If you are actually staying a month 40(41) dollars doesn't seem bad, but for three days it seemed somewhat excessive.

You then drive in to the city, and are at liberty. It takes 2 business days to get a Visa, you drop off morning A and pick it up afternoon B, and that was the problem with waiting two hours for Jesus and Buddha's All Night Party Train: We didn't get in before they stopped taking Passports for Visas that morning.

Like many formerly colonial countries Vietnam has a great deal of foreign heritage still left in it. A part of French-Indochina before they gained their independence, they have a great lingual legacy still lingering in their streets and avenues. The palace for the former French representative is now owned by the state, and the street signs come language enabled for your convenience.

Hos in different Country Codes...

My French classes come in handy.

This also comes out in the food. This is the view of Nam Phou, the city Fountain, from the view of Le Provencal, a very lovely French/Italian fusion kind of restaurant right on the fountain square.

And this is a view of the Fountain itself.
Of course, that is not to say that there is not Asian heritage or blood running through Vientiane's streets. As with the other countries in the region Monks walking down the streets are not uncommon, and the temples are also major tourist attractions. Ho Phra Keo is a temple, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, although the Emerald Buddha was taken back (re: swiped) by Thailand some centuries ago and now resides in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. I have been there, I went with Nathan, but unfortunately like many major Buddhist relics it is considered rude to snap pictures of said viridian enlightened one.

Also, a quick primer on Buddhism. If I say 'Buddha', what do you think of. If you answered 'a rotund gentleman, frequently in gold, who does not look like he has ever starved himself let alone done so until the secrets of the Universe were revealed'...

The Good Life

Then I have bad news for you. The fat guys are totally different Bodhisatvas, enlightened ones. The real Buddha is not a chubby grinning man, he is a much more wise looking skinny fellow of an Indian aspect...

Who is not afraid to show off a little bit of nipple. Now Buddha is a big part of Southeast Asia, and they are a little bit less shy about showing him than Christians. Which seems remarkable, given Churches do not exactly shy away from the Iconography. But one of the temples in Vientiane, Wat Sisaket, puts them to shame. It is like the International Headquarters of Iconographical Overload (IHIO? So close to a functional acronym).

Consider the following picture:

Now first off, yes they have dressed that Buddha. One of the ways in which Buddhists (at least in this area) make merit (good deeds for good karma) is to play Buddha Dream House with the statues and clothe them, and leave them offerings (as the bottle of Guiness two posts ago). But pay attention to the nooks behind them: Each one contains two smaller Buddhas, just kind of hanging out. Now take a look at this:

Now imagine the whole temple, every outside wall, covered in the big Buddhas and the small Buddhas in the nooks. Rather than make you try to torture though the math, I'll give you the approximate figures from Wat Sisaket themselves:

In ur templez, Enlightening ur peoplez

10,136 Buddhas all chilling out in one place, staring at one another and hi-fiving when no one is looking. Think they're a little Buddhist?


  1. Dear Matthew,

    You are fast becoming a regular Lowell Thomas (1950's - 60's Newsreel travel documentaries - check them out on the internet).

    Fascinating, educational, terse but satisfying - good fodder for future literary efforts. Thanks for doing such a great job keeping us a part of your ongoing adventure.



  2. Love it! I laughed, I cried, I'm getting spoiled with blogs. BTW, how's the tooth?



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