Laid back in surprising Laos

By William Foreman, IOL, December 5, 2004

Vientiane, Laos -- A slow, thumping drum beat summoned about 15 Buddhist monks wrapped in orange robes as the sun began to rise, and they gathered at a massive gold stupa called Pha That Luang - the most important national symbol in Laos.

It was 6am and I met up with the drowsy, but smiling, monks as I began a one-day tour of Vientiane, the Lao capital that wraps around a bend in the Mekong River - one of the world's great waterways.

Vientiane is a flat, dusty city of about 133 000 people that's so laid- back chickens peck and scratch along the roads in the town's centre. The city is the hub of the region's poorest and most isolated country, gripped by a creaky, often uptight communist system.

But Vientiane - which means Sandalwood City - is full of surprises for travellers expecting to find a shabby, depressing city stuck in the 1970s. By wandering the capital for a day, visitors can see bustling markets, quirky museum exhibits, beautifully restored temples, cyber cafes, pubs, steamy noodle shops, pizza joints and friendly people who never seem to stop smiling.

The best way to get around is to hire a three-wheel taxi, called a tuk tuk, for about $10 (R60) a day.

I started my day of rambling at Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. The huge, gold-gilded monument with a cluster of pointed stupas looks like a square missile launcher surrounded by thick, tall walls. The main stupa in the middle is 45m tall.

Stupas were originally built to house a Buddha relic, and legend has it that Pha That Luang holds a chunk of the Buddha's breastbone brought here by Indian missionaries in about the 3rd century BC. But some excavations suggest the monument - featured on Laos's official seal - marks the spot of a monastery.

As the sun rose at 6am, the drum beat called the monks to the stupa and they lined up single file and began walking through neighbourhoods of rundown, squatty wooden homes with corrugated steel roofs. The air was thick with one of the common smells of the developing world: people burning the previous day's trash in small fires outside their homes.

Women in long traditional skirts stood by the roadside waiting for the monks with bags of bananas, plates of dried fish and baskets full of sticky rice. As the monks filed by, the women placed the food in their alms bowls and knelt down as the holy men chanted for a few minutes before moving on to the next home.

I broke away from the Buddhist parade as it passed a crowded morning market just a few blocks west of Pha That Luang. The market has rows of fruit and vegetable stands, and your nose is bombarded with smells: salty dried squid, steaming fragrant rice, piles of fresh mint and charcoal fires under bubbling pots of soup broth.

Vendors sat behind large piles of pumpkins, cucumbers and bright red chillies, calling customers with the soft, nasal sound of the Lao language.

After an hour wandering the market, I headed over to central Vientiane for breakfast. Along the way, I passed an odd mix of low-rise architecture. Drab concrete storefronts were next to colonial-style buildings with verandas and tall shuttered windows - leftovers of five decades of French rule. Many were crumbling, but some had been skilfully restored.

One of Vientiane's main landmarks is the Fountain Circle, an area packed with Western restaurants and guesthouses popular with backpackers. I stopped at a guesthouse to have a cup of strong coffee, fruit salad and warm, crusty French bread.

The rest of the morning was spent at the Lao National History Museum, a few blocks east of the Fountain Circle. The museum is housed in a weathered white two-storey mansion with faded blue shutters that was built in 1925 for the French governor.

The museum features everything from dinosaur bones and sandstone sculptures of the Hindu god Shiva to machine guns and black-and-white photos of guerrillas fighting US-backed troops before the communists came to power in 1975. Most exhibit labels have English translations and refer to Americans as the "US imperialists".

The French are also portrayed in an unflattering way. A large, undated oil painting shows a French soldier throwing a boy down a well as another prepares to hit a woman with his rifle butt as he rips a child out of her arms. A village burns in the background.

After the museum, I had a light lunch at one of the noodle shops that seem to be everywhere in Vientiane.

I had the popular dish foe - rice noodles with slices of beef served with a plate of fresh mint, lettuce, bean spouts and lime wedges. The vegetables are mixed into the soup along with sugar, fish sauces and chilli powder.

Afternoons can be sweltering in Laos, so I decided to tour the shady Wat Si Saket in central Vientiane. Built in 1818, the wat, or temple, is surrounded by a wall. The wall's interior features thousands of niches that contain silver and gilded-clay Buddhas.

Across the street is the Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple built in 1565 that's now a museum for religious objects. The museum displays some of Laos's best Buddhist sculptures.

During the afternoon's peak, I tried to stick to air-conditioned places. I checked my e-mail at one of the many cyber cafes in central Vientiane, and I got an hour-long massage for $4 (R23). I also browsed the neighbourhood's numerous antique and silk shops.

As the sun began to set, I went to a restaurant on the Mekong and watched the burning orange orb sink below the tree line on Thailand's side of the river. I dined on beef with red curry sauce, a spicy minced chicken dish and a Vietnamese salad with clear rice noodles. It would have been perfect if I didn't have to share the food with a swarm of persistent flies.

I ended my day with some pub crawling that took me to the British-style Samlo Pub, just a few blocks from the river. Stereo speakers blared Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs.

The day began with drums - a Buddhist alarm clock for monks. It ended with a Western pop tune. Perfect symbols for the broad spectrum of experience in this sleepy, often surprising rivertown.

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