Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Southeast Asia (page 2 of 5)

That Dam: Vientiane’s Imposing and Mysterious Stupa

There’s no need to be in a “stupor” over a nondescript brick “stupa” in central Vientiane—especially when that stupa has an interesting story to tell.

Standing guard over the town’s center on Chantha Khoumane Road (opposite the U.S. Embassy) not far from Talat Sao, the imposing and mysterious That Dam (pronounced tawt dahm) is one of Vientiane’s more noticeable landmarks steeped in local legend and folklore.

Now overgrown with moss and weeds with its bricks crumbling from age, this ancient landmark is also known as The Black Stupa (which means that dam in Lao). There are two myths associated with the stupa, which have fed the imagination of locals. It is believed that the stupa was once coated in a layer of gold; however, the gold is said to have been carted off by the Siamese when they invaded in 1827 leaving this black stupa (the black stains evidence of a fire) behind to remind Laotians of this terrible act.

On the other hand, many Laotians believe the stupa it is inhabited by a dormant seven-headed dragon (the mythological Naga) who tried to protect them from the armies of Siam when they invaded Laos (but, obviously not protecting the gold).

Myths and legends aside, it remains a curious and fascinating sight in Vientiane where all that is precious in Asia does not necessarily have to glitter in gold. Today, the old black stupa—its crumbling spire creating an ominous impression against an azure sky—fuels one’s imagination evoking bygone eras and ghosts from Laos’s past.

Laos National Museum in Vientiane – A Little Short on Artifacts, but not on Scope

You’ve been in Vientiane for a day or two and you’ve already been to That Louang, Patouxai, Wat Sisaket and Wat Pha Kaew—where to next?

If it’s too hot for any outdoor sightseeing or the skies have opened up with a torrential downpour and you want to fit in one of Vientiane’s “must-see” attractions instead of sitting in some café and drinking coffee and eating a baguette, you might want to check out the National Museum across the street from the Cultural Center.

Housed in an old colonial structure (built in 1925) that was once the French Governor’s mansion, the Lao National Museum (which was once known as the Lao Revolutionary Museum) might not have the trove of artifacts you’d expect for a national museum; however, the museum makes up for it with some rather interesting exhibits.

The Rock

Can someone please tell me what kind of rock outcrop this is?

This rock formation is located north of Thakek on the way to Savannakhet; there are a few other similar formations, but there are no mountain ranges in the immediate area. I was lucky to snap this photo from a the moving bus I was on from Vientiane to Paksong.

Thinking back to 1983 when I was student at Illinois Valley Community College and taking both a geology and a geography class with Mr. Smunt, I am going to go out on a geological limb here, (or should I say plateau?) and say that this looks like some ancient volcanic cone. Does look like some basalt there. I got an A in both classes but I might have been daydreaming the day Mr. Smunt talked about volcanoes.

Any geologists out there want to chime in with their expert take on this unique rock formation.

And yes, you can read about The Rock, Grilled Chicken Feet and a Ferry ‘Cross the Mekong at All Things Laotian–your one stop blog that is your gateway to your Laos adventure.

Waiting for the ferry

Waiting for the ferry across the Mekong in southern Laos near Pakse in July 2007.

And who’s the little boy in the back wearing the blue shirt? It’s Bia!

Check out more photos of Laos and commentary on my upstart and exclusive Laos’ blog All Things Laotian.

Souvenirs or Kitsch?

Souvenirs or kitsch?

You be the judge.

Vientiane from the air

I’ve got a backlog of photos that I took on my last trip to Laos in December-January that I am still going through and posting here.

Not exactly the best aerial shot of Vientiane (on the left) but you get a good idea of how wide the Mekong is in some spots. That sandbar at the top of the photo–Aon and I walked out there back in 2008 and could walk right up to the Mekong.

At the bottom left is the Wattay International Airport.

All Things Laotian

My blog All Things Laotian is up and running. I’ve blogged a lot about Laos here but I wanted a special blog devoted exclusively to Laos including, but not limited to culture, food, and travel.

Help a school in Laos

I am starting a campaign to help a small school in Laos near the house that Aon and I are building in Paksong. It is also the school where Bia attends.

This is a two-room schoolhouse, but as you can see it is overcrowded and has no electricity or running water.  The school is very cold and drafty in the winter and very hot in the summer. The desks are old and decrepit and the benches the children have to sit on are dilapidated and rickety.

If students need to go to the bathroom, they have to go outside the school because there is no bathroom. The students  go either behind the school or in one of the rice paddies that surround the school.

There are just two teachers and it is obvious, at least from this photograph, that the two teachers have their work cut out for them, especially what they have or don’t have to teach with. In Bia’s classroom, the children range in age from  five years old to around six or seven. The other classroom is for older students.

I visited the school one morning this past January–Jeremy Aaron and I walked Bia to school. As a teacher myself, my heart went out to the two teachers who teach at this school.

I would like to start a campaign called “Adopt-a-School” where we can help less fortunate school children around the world who lack a proper school to attend or such things as books and other school needs. Maybe a school can “adopt” another school and have fundraisers to raise money for these schools or instead of monetary donations send pencils, erasers, notebooks, and other school supplies. Teachers can come up with lesson plans to teach students about these countries and have students come up with special projects.

People always talk about how the world has become more of a global community and that it takes a village for this or that. Well, it also takes a school and lots of them. Of course, that goes without saying when it comes to really investing in our future with our schools and teaching our children in them.

Some of the children cannot even afford pencils or paper.

Bia hard at work on one of his lessons.

What can we do? What can you do?

When Dinosaurs Roamed Laos

There’s much to see and do in Laos-whether you visit historic and charming Luang Prabang in the north, enjoy eco-tourism in Vang Vieng, marvel at the Plain of Jars, or behold the Khmer beauty of Wat Phou in the south. In between, there’s plenty of sightseeing from historic temples and museums to vestiges of colonial French Indochina in Savannakhet, Thakek, and Vientiane.

However, there is one interesting attraction that might surprise you among all the cool and neat things you can see and visit while traveling in Laos: The Dinosaur Museum in Savannakhet.

That’s right, a dinosaur museum in Laos.

Located just down the street from the Thai Embassy (that gets a lot of business from farang on visa runs from Thailand), the Dinosaur Museum is one of Savannakhet’s more interesting places to visit and worthy of a visit.

Housed in a colonial-style building, the museum, which opened in 2000, features a modest collection of dinosaur bones and information on the four kinds of dinosaurs—found at five sites in Laos—that once roamed this part of the world: Saurpodes/Sauropoda (a well-known genera; this classification includes the genus formerly known as Brontosaurus), Theropode/Theropoda (a genus that includes the mother of all dinosaurs and the star of stage and screen—T-Rex), Iguanodon (which means, Iguana Tooth and was noted for a spike on its thumb), and  Psittacosaurus (Greek for “parrot lizard” and is notable because it is the most species rich dinosaur genus—at least 10 extinct species have been recognized from fossils found).

The museum’s humble beginnings can be traced back to 1936, when French geologist Josué Heilman Hoffet, while researching a geological map of lower Laos, discovered deposits of fossilized bones in the region of Ban Tangvai, 120 kilometers east of Savannakhet, including a large femur and a small spinal vertebra of a dinosaur. Before his untimely death in WWII, he had collected numerous dinosaur bones from the same area. It wouldn’t be until the 1990’s though, when a joint Lao-French palaeontological team rediscovered Hoffet’s original dinosaur site as well as uncovered substantial new dinosaur remains in the area. Further joint field research the following year and again in 1992 revealed the well-preserved remains of the bones now on display in the museum.

Now before this becomes a paleontology lesson and all this specific dinosaur information is lost on you, the museum is really cool to check out, whether you are a dinosaur buff or not. And as the Laos Lonely Planet guidebook points out, “the curators’ unfailing enthusiasm is infectious and they’re willing to use their limited English or French on you.” The guidebook got that right; as soon as I started pointing out some of the fossils to Jeremy Aaron, one of the curators, sensing my obvious interest, gave us a VIP tour of the museum. If there are not too many visitors, one of the curators might even sit you down in front of a computer (like one did with Jeremy Aaron and I) and have you watch a video on one of the expeditions to recover dinosaur bones.

And if you do go, make a small donation (besides the modest entrance fee of 5000 Kip); it would be nice to see this museum expand their exhibit of dinosaur bones as well as fund more research.

The museum is open daily from 8 – 12 and 1 – 4.

On the streets of Savannakhet — Lao Chaleun Movie Theater

I wonder what this movie theater in Savannakhet must have been like in its heydey?

Built during the French colonial period, “Chaleun” is Lao for “prosperity”. Note the facade, which is in the Art Deco style that flourished around the world between 1910-1930. The theater is one of the main attractions on a walking tour of Old Savannakhet.

Interestingly, and not to mention sadly, there are no movie theaters in Laos these days not even in the capital, Vientiane.

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