Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Vientiane (page 1 of 4)

Picture of the Day: Row of Buddhas at Haw Pha Kaew — Vientiane, Laos

A row of Buddha statues outside Haw Pha Kaew in Vientiane.

Interestingly, this temple is no longer a temple, but it is a museum of Buddhist artifacts. Of course, if you are up on your history of Laos and Vientiane then you know that this temple once housed the Emerald Buddha–yes, the Emerald Buddha now housed in Wat Phra Kaeo (notice the similarity in name) in Bangkok.

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.

Vientiane – Gateway for your Laos Adventure

that_louang_dec_31_2007_009Hugging a bend along the Mekong River as it winds south between Thailand and Laos, Vientiane first appears a rather non-assuming town with a mixture of French, Chinese and Vietnamese-style buildings interspersed among Buddhist temples and modern structures.

Busy and hectic compared to the rest of the country, with a population just a little over 200,000 Vientiane is quieter and more laidback than other capital cities in Southeast Asia. Don’t let that fool you, though. As quiet and unassuming Vientiane might first appear, it is an exciting and vibrant city filled with antique shops, quaint open-air cafés, and a trove of restaurants and guesthouses, amidst cultural landmarks steeped in Laos’s historical heritage.

The origin of the name Vientiane is rather interesting: it either means “the King’s grove of sandalwood” in Pali or “City of the Moon” in native Lao Language and today’s spelling is of French origin. Depending on whatever name origin you choose, Vientiane is a city that has retained much of its exotic Indochina charm amidst dizzying modernization.

The gateway for exploring Laos for some travelers might begin at Wattay International Airport—which is just a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride downtown to many of the hotels and guesthouses (which are the best bet for budget-minded travelers). The town always seems busy with travelers and tourists coming and going.

Most travelers spend two or three days here before heading north to Louang Prabang or south to Chiang Mai and Bangkok or perhaps even further to Siem Reap or Hanoi. That’s pretty much all the time you would need to take in most of the sights here unless you are like me and just want to have a week to chill out, enjoy some delicious Lao food, and enjoy sitting outside some café.Patouxai

Most of Vientiane’s landmarks can seen in two or three days. For starters there’s Patouxai, Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe and That Louang, the country’s symbol of national unity and Buddhism. There’s also the mysterious-looking chedi, That Dam—what really is inside?

If Buddhism is your thing, Vientiane has two very important temples Wat Phra Kaew (yes, like the one in Bangkok, and there is a reason for the same-sounding name—the Emerald Buddha, now in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, used to be here in Vientiane) and Wat Si Saket, located right across the street.

There is also a museum that might be a little short on artifacts, but not on historical scope. All of these landmarks can easily be walked to from most of the guesthouses along the Mekong River and side streets.

However, the best way to get around Vientiane is by renting some bicycles and riding around the city. You can rent one for the day from most guesthouses.

Of course, there are always tuk-tuks to get around, but they can be a little expensive and in many cases a rip-off for unsuspecting tourists. You might not think twice about spending 2,000-3,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to get from say Wat Si Saket to That Louang (you could walk there in under an hour if you wanted at a nice leisurely stroll) but it’s still a little pricey. Most of the rates are already fixed so there’s no negotiation.

Streets of VientianeThat’s why one is better off walking or renting bicycles. You are really not that far from most places—the farthest place being That Louang if you are walking from Fa Ngum Road or Setthathilat Road (which runs parallel to Fa Ngum Road).

And no trip or stay in Vientiane would be complete without having at least one or two baguette sandwiches, which are sold throughout the city—from sidewalk vendors and cafés. Without question, it’s some of the finest bread you’ll ever taste in your travels in Southeast Asia.

If shopping is you thing, there are plenty of antique shops to satisfy one’s hunger for souvenirs, bric-a-brac and antiques as well as the city’s morning market (near Patouxai).Morning_market_in_Vientiane

After you have had your fill of Vientiane—whether it is visiting it’s stunning landmarks, enjoying its tasty baguettes, or strolling along the Mekong at night—and it’s time to move on to your next destination, you just might find yourself missing this quaint, historical and charming city along the banks of the Mekong.

Haw Pha Kaew — Once home to the “Emerald Buddha”

One of Vientiane’s “must see” attractions is Haw Pha Kaew, once the king’s personal Buddhist temple. Although it is not actually a temple per se with monks on the premises and services being performed, today it functions as a museum of art with a very impressive collection of Laotian Buddhist artifacts.

Built in the sixteenth century, the temple has many priceless Buddhist statues and antiquities on display; however, what makes this temple interesting and perhaps somewhat infamous is its controversial past, which revolves around the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred items in all of Southeast Asia and the symbol of Thailand.

According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was found when lightning struck a chedi at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, in 1434. Inside the chedi a statue covered in stucco was found and when the stucco was later removed, the Emerald Buddha was discovered. Realizing the statue’s religious significance, it was taken to Lampang, Thailand for safekeeping where it would stay there until 1468 when it was moved to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai.

Here’s where the story of the Emerald Buddha gets interesting (and sounds like the plot for an epic movie): The King of Lanna had no sons but his daughter married the King of Lan Xang and a son was born who would become the future King Setthathirat (King Chaichettha in Thai). Both Kings died almost at the same time and he was given the chance to become King of Lanna, but instead returned to Lan Xang to become King, taking the Emerald Buddha with him.

Got all that? The story gets better. Around the same time, Burma invaded Siam. Chiang Mai which was the capital of Lanna, was invaded and conquered in 1558. Because of the danger posed by the Burmese, King Setthathirat moved the capital to its current location, Vientiane in 1560 and brought the Emerald Buddha with him and once again, the Emerald Buddha was on the road.

Five years later, in 1565, Haw Pha Kaew was constructed in Vientiane to house the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew means ‘Jewel Buddha Image’ in Lao; actually, the image is made of a type of jade). The Emerald Buddha would end up staying there for over two hundred years until it was taken back to Siam by Phraya Chakri, the future King Rama I of Thailand, in 1778 and placed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo or “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.”

Sadly, Haw Pha Kaew sans the Buddha that had once given its name would suffer another tragedy when it was destroyed in 1827 by Siamese troops in revenge for then King Anouvong attacking Siam. The temple would not be rebuilt until the 1930’s by the French supposedly following the original plans; however, the reconstructed temple looks more like a Thai-style structure from the eighteenth century.

While the loss of the Emerald Buddha might still be a bitter pill for many Laotians to swallow, the temple today houses some fine and exquisite Laotian Buddha statues and related Buddhist antiquities. It is one of the finest collections of Lao art in the country. Outside, bronze Buddhas, many looted of the jeweled inlay that once decorated their eyes, line the terrace surrounding the building. Inside are a trove of statues and relics-one of the most striking being a Buddha in the “Beckoning Rain” pose (the Buddha is standing with arms to the sides and fingers pointing to the ground) and bearing a jewel-encrusted navel. Photography is prohibited inside, but there is plenty to see and photograph outside.

Located on Setthathirat Road (just past the Presidential Palace and across the street from Wat Si Saket) the temple is open daily from 8:00-12:00 and 1:00-4:00. Admission is 5,000 Kip (about 1.00). The best time to visit the temple is in the morning when it opens to avoid the throngs of tourists that start piling out of tour buses in mid morning or an hour or two before it closes in the afternoon.

“Combat” on the bus to Vientiane

When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos (and other Southeast Asian countries) there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus where TV programs and videos/DVD’s are shown.

 

If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai); on the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong that feature scantily-clad models with heaving breasts bouncing up and down while they rode on horses, scooters, and bicycles to the bouncy pop back beat.

 

On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane this past February, though there would be no bouncing boobs but instead a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. I guess someone must have thought that Charlie’s slapstick antics were lost in translation and needed to have him speaking Thai. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue.

 

The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai. If I thought it was weird for Charlie Chaplin to be speaking Thai, it was weirder hearing Vic Morrow speak it.

 

Even more interesting was that they had originally been aired in Japan, judging from all the Japanese language at the beginning of the tape, and more than likely pirated for the Thai market and eventually ending up in Laos.

 

I could follow some of the story with what Thai I do know, but fortunately there was more fighting than talking. Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.

 

About an hour after the bus had left Savannakhet, that part of the windshield just shattered. I can’t remember if the windshield had already been cracked that caused it to shatter the way that it did. Fortunately no one was hurt and fortunately when the windshield did break, not much glass went flying through the air.

 

However, the bus would not stop to have the windshield fixed or even boarded up. And we would not be getting on a different bus either. Instead the bus would keep on driving north to Vientiane with the cold wind rushing in freezing all of us huddling in our seats to keep warm.

What’s an AK-47 doing on a VIP bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane?

AK-47 on VIP bus in Laos

Good question. 

First I asked, “What’s a Korean bus doing in Savannakhet?” 

Then, I asked, “What’s up with more Korean buses in Laos?” 

Now, I want to know what’s an AK-47 doing on the VIP bus On and I took from Luang Prabang to Vientiane? 

I didn’t notice at first when On and I got on the bus, but later, when the bus stopped for everyone to get something to eat, that is when I noticed it. 

AK-47 on a VIP bus in Laos

From what I have read and heard from some people, some robbers have held up some buses from the Hmong hill tribes that you pass along the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And in the past, there have also been a few murders.

That’s probably why there was an AK-47 behind the bus driver’s seat.

“Combat” on the bus to Vientiane

Combat TV series

When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus. If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai).

On the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong. 

On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane though a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue. 

The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai. 

Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.

Tuk-tuks in Vientiane & Luang Prabang — Let the rider beware

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

One thing that there’s definitely no shortage of in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are tuk-tuks plying the streets. You can’t walk down the street (at least in Vientiane) without a tuk-tuk driver inquiring where you are going and if you want a tuk-tuk. 

If you have already been to Thailand you know all about tuk-tuks (called tuk-tuks because of the sound they make, or so I have been told) and that they are a cheap form of transportation for short distances, not to mention a practical mode of transportation for weaving in and out of Bangkok’s notorious traffic gridlock. 

In Laos, it’s a different story though when it comes to taking a tuk-tuk. First of all, unless you have to go somewhere far—like the bus station or airport—in Vientiane or Luang Prabang you don’t really need to take a tuk-tuk and you are better off walking or renting a bicycle (or motorcycle). Most places in Vientiane (and to a lesser degree Luang Prabang) can easily be reached on foot.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

Lao tuk-tuks are generally of the Phnom Penh style (I had no idea that tuk-tuks had different styles). They come as tuk-tuks or Jumbo tuk-tuks. Jumbos have a larger 3 or 4 cylinder 4 stroke engine, many are powered by Daihatsu engines. While the smaller tuk-tuks carry similar loads to Cambodian tuk-tuks, and are geared similarly. The Jumbos’ larger engine and cabin size allow for greater loads (up to 12 seated people at a squeeze) and higher top speeds. Jumbos are almost without exception only found in Vientiane. A few Thai tuk-tuks (fully enclosed cabin) have also made their way to Vientiane.

(Phnom Penh tuk-tuks are one piece—the front end of a motorcycle comprising of steering, tank and engine/gearbox with a covered tray mounted at the back. The power is transferred by chain to an axle mounted to the modified rear fork which drives the two rear wheels. Suspended upon the rear fork is an open cabin with an in-line seat on each side. This arrangement can carry 6 people at ease, with their luggage in the leg space.) 

Most of the tuk-tuks you see on the streets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the smaller ones; the larger ones are found around markets and the bus stations.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

If you are not in the mood for a lot of walking you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day (the drivers have a price list for the fares to all the major attractions in Vientiane.) The fares are a little pricey, though. For example, the fare from Patouxai to That Louang was 100 Baht. Unless you really want to be taxied around Vientiane be ready to shell out a few hundred Baht.

If you are lucky though, you might come across a tuk-tuk driver who will give you a good rate for a few hours. On and I found such a driver who only charged us 500 Baht to go to Buddha Park (23 kilometers outside of Vientiane) and would have taken us all around Vientiane to all the major sites for the same price. It pays (pun intended) to shop around when it comes to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day.  

However, for those farther distances you have to rely on a tuk-tuk to get them. And when it comes time to take a tuk-tuk you have to be careful with how much the driver tries to charge you. For example, when On and I wanted to go the bus station from the Inter City Hotel, the tuk-tuk driver said it would cost 200 Baht when it normally costs 150 Baht. Also, if you are in Vientiane, the tuk-tuk drivers that ply Fa Ngum Road (the road that runs parallel to the Mekong River) tend to ask for more than if you catch a tuk-tuk on a side street. 

Tuk-tuk in Luang PrabangNow, I know what you are thinking—what’s a few hundred Baht for a tuk-tuk especially when you have just traveled halfway around the world and spent a thousand or more dollars to get to Laos, right? After all, that few hundred Baht you shell out for a tuk-tuk is probably not going to make too much of a dent in your budget but it could make a big difference for the driver.

On the other hand, I think some tuk-tuk drivers start off quoting a higher fare to see what you will do, if you are in the mood for a little haggling or if you simply don’t mind paying a little extra. They are not out to rip you off or anything. It’s all part of the travel experience and if you do pay a little more the next time you might get a better deal. 

Still there are some tuk-tuk drivers who give the whole tuk-tuk driving business a bad name and those that you have to watch out for—like the one who took On and I back to the Inter City Hotel in a jumbo tuk-tuk after we had come back from Luang Prabang. This tuk-tuk driver was definitely a hustler and almost got into a fight with another tuk-tuk driver over some passengers.  

We had just gotten off the bus and were looking for a smaller tuk-tuk when this driver came up to us, grabbed my suitcase and asked where we were going. On had no sooner answered Inter City Hotel when the driver tossed my suitcase into the back of the jumbo tuk-tuk and went to round up some other unsuspecting passengers. Within a few minutes the tuk-tuk was full (including the Swiss couple who didn’t want to give up their seats on the bus) but the driver wanted a few more fares and tried to steal a “fare” from a rival tuk-tuk driver. 

At this point we hadn’t even talked about the fare. On and I were thinking that it would be 150 Baht. At least that is what we thought. Fortunately the driver got our destination right and we were the first passengers to be dropped off and it turned out that the fare—40,000 Kip—was about right; however, the tuk-tuk driver said he had no change and made another 10,000 Kip because On only had a 50,000 Kip bill to pay him. 

If you do want to take a tuk-tuk when you are in Vientiane or Luang Prabang be prepared to haggle a little. If you do end up paying a little more when you think you should have paid less, just think of it as part of the travel adventure you are on in Laos.

How Aon and I infuriated two Swiss tourists on the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Well, maybe not infuriate them exactly, but they sure got a little bent out of shape when they had to give up to their seats to us on the bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.

The morning Aon and I left Luang Prabang we got to the Nanluang Bus Terminal early to check in and get our tickets and food coupons for our bus ride back to Vientiane. Now, when you book a bus ticket through a travel agency, the travel agent makes a phone call to the bus terminal to reserve how many seats you need and then gives you a voucher for each seat which you then exchange for the bus ticket when you check in at the bus station.

That’s what happened when Aon and I booked our tickets at the travel agency in Vientiane. We had no problems checking in at the bus station in Vientiane the other day. We showed up, exchanged our vouchers and got our tickets. Seemed easy and efficient enough.

Now I am not too sure how efficient this system is because it is all done over the telephone. Maybe mistakes could be made like the one when Aon and I got on the bus the morning we left Luang Prabang.

When we went to the travel agency yesterday to reconfirm our bus tickets back to Vientiane, the travel agent made a quick phone call and then issued us our vouchers with our seat numbers 9 & 10 that we would exchange the next morning at the bus terminal. We weren’t given seat assignments when we bought our tickets in Vientiane; maybe they are only given out the day before you leave (Aon and I had bought our tickets to Luang Prabang five days before we left).

Anyway,  we were the first ones to check in at the bus station the morning we left. While Aon waited in the bus (it was really chilly out) I waited at the window where you checked in. I didn’t have to wait too long. I handed the clerk our vouchers and he gave me our blue tickets. We were good to go. However, when I got on the bus, Aon told me that was two people sitting in our seats. Turns out the Swiss couple also had seat assignments for 9 & 10, but all they had were vouchers.

I tried to explain to them that they had to check in to get their blue tickets but the woman refused to give up her seat.

“These are our seats,” she said. “We have a reservation.”

“We did too, but you have to check in first,” I explained, “then you are given your seat assignment.”

“But we have a reservation for these seats,” she said and not too happily.

Hopefully her husband would be the voice of reason and he went to the window to check in. Now, I would have gladly given up our seats in exchange for the seats (7 & 8) that the Swiss couple would eventually get, but they were so rude to On and myself like we were the ones who caused the problem/mix-up in the first place.

Thinking that I might be of some help in clearing up this seat snafu, I went back to the window where I had gotten our tickets. The Swiss man got really angry with the ticket agent on the other side telling arguing that they had reservations for seats 9 & 10. The agent tried to explain that the travel agency that had promised the Swiss couple seats 9 & 10 was wrong and that they would be given other seats. Well, the Swiss tourist did not like this answer and told that agent that when people hear about this back home they are not going to want to come to Laos and so on and so on.

Like I said, I would have been more than willing to exchange our seats, but after the Swiss tourist started wigging out I decided not to and went back to the bus. Aon  wanted to know what was happening and I told her to wait that everything was going to be okay; at least for us.

Eventually the Swiss couple moved after the husband had come back to the bus with their tickets, but they were still not too happy about it. They started talking to some other tourists about how messed up the system was and complained about how Laos used to be much better in the past. Maybe if they would have known that Aon was Laotian they might not have been so vocal about with their disdain.

As it turned out a few other tourists had the same problem; however, they had not been told to check in once they arrived. I don’t think it was that much of problem, but it is something that needs to be straightened out between some of the travel agencies at the bus terminal. Maybe once everything gets computerized it won’t be so much of a problem.

The Swiss couple was still fuming hours later and a few times, they shot us some cold icy glances as if it was all our fault for sitting in their seats.

If you do go to Luang Prabang and take a bus back to Vientiane (especially the VIP bus) buy your tickets early and get to the bus terminal early on the day you leave to check in. You should at least buy your tickets a few days in advance if possible.

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