Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vientiane & Vang Vieng, Laos

On October 16, we flew to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to meet with my good friend from grad school, Curtis Yee, who flew in from Hong Kong on October 17. Curtis is a fast traveler, so we hit the ground running not 30 mins after he landed. 

Mango smoothies all day, every day. 

The streets of Vientiane.

Crazy above ground wiring.

First, we visited the Laos National Museum, which was in quite a state of disrepair. The displays looked like they hadn't been updated, dusted, or maintained in decades. However, it was interesting to read about the long and sordid history between Laos and the US and France, both of which committed terrible war crimes during French colonialism (1893-1953) and during the Laotian Civil War in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Several of the photo captions spoke of "US imperialists and their puppets," which was unintentionally amusing, though disconcerting.  

We took so many tuk tuks.

We then went to visit the temple Pha That Luang, which is so important that it is featured on 4 Laotian banknotes (1000, 2000, 20000, and 50000 kip).

50000 kip banknote featuring the temple Pha That Luang in the background.

Marc was bothered by the fact that it was not perfectly aligned on the corners.

I wore a modesty skirt, since my dress was too short.

We stopped by an indoor/outdoor market, Wat Si Saket, and a crazy large night market with an amusement park.

Curtis in the indoor part of the market.
Marc at Wat Si Saket.

A fuzzy photo, but imagine these red stalls going on for a good 3/4 mile.

The next day, we took a trip out to Buddha Park, which is a statue park about 25km outside of the city. It was built by a priest-shaman in the 1950s who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism into statues that were ornate and mostly bizarre.

Three story high sculpture that is like a giant pumpkin, where you enter through a demon's mouth.  

Strange serpent statues inside the pumpkin.

While perusing the park, we heard someone playing a flute and walked over to investigate. I said aloud, “I wonder who is playing the flute,” and immediately a guy popped up from behind a fence to show that he is playing the nose flute (the penny whistle theme song from Titanic, of course).

Large reclining Buddha.

We then jumped into a van that took us to north to Vang Vieng (6 hours-ish). Quite the dizzying car ride, but the views are nice and it's good to catch up with Curtis. We arrived in the evening, and decided to all get massages. Marc and I cannot handle the roughness of Asian massages (too much deep tissue and hitting!), but Curtis toughed it out. We made our way to the hotel which is across the river in a rice paddy field. It is quite nice until we turn on the lights... cockroaches! Everywhere! Eww. We changed rooms and luckily this one only had a few fleas.

Picturesque views hiding the truth of cockroaches.

The next day, we had a full day of caving and inner tubing on the river. We started out by visiting Tham Phu Kam cave. We walked up to the pathway to the caves and it is a steep ascent through some brush to the entrance of the caves. It is a beautiful, natural cave with sunlight filtering in from a hole near the top of the cave. We didn’t quite know where to go, so we ended up slowly wandering around (slippery because of the water and mud). If we turn off all the lights, it is almost pitch black. We ended up just making our own pathway around and out of the cave, since there is no clear path. In the center of the cave is a small yellow tent with a Buddha.

Ok ok, this isn't my photo, but this is what we saw!

We then took a tuk tuk to the second cave, Tham Jang. I’m glad we did this one second because it is much less impressive--though somehow more famous. There is a long stone stairway to the top and inside it has crude lights strung along the paved path.

Our next destination was Vang Vieng (north of Vientiane), which is famous for its river tubing scene (in french: descente de rivière en bouée). They take you in a tuk tuk to a point upstream and you tube down, usually taking about 1.5 hours. There are bars along the way where you can stop and drink. Apparently it was a druggy hippie haven back in the day, but after one too many drunk drowning incidents, the scene got tamed down.

The tubing started at what appeared to be a large frat party at a bar. It started to rain so we hung out for a while before deciding to just chance it in the rain. The part of the Mekong river that we were tubing was quite calm, so it was more of a lazy river, with a few faster sections. We had planned to stop and check out a bar downstream, but realized that all of the bars are at the beginning and so ended up just floating peacefully.

That night we walked around town and my heart was melted by the numerous stray and scraggly looking dogs. I purchased meat kebabs and started a small following of sad looking pups. Laos definitely could use more animal shelters/hospitals.

Next stop, charming Luang Prabang!

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