Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Quick Trip to Laos: Day 2 of 5 - Vientiane

The very French town square and its fountain is on the main strip that runs parallel to the Mekong. From there, a little street heads into town. On the left are a half-dozen tailors with cute French names and on the right "antique" dealers that sell ugly junk. On that street you can grab real buckwheat crepes that taste just like Brittany or take the first right into Th Samsenthai for a drink at House of Fruit Shakes.

Talad Sao is a market flanked by the country's busiest bus station. There are no railways in Laos and most people can't afford planes so this is the transportation hub of this small country. Still, it's much closer in size to the bus terminal of Phuket (a Thai island of one million souls) than any of Bangkok's several bus terminals. This man was a bit bewildered when I asked to take his picture but one man added in fine English, "You want to show the security in our country's bus stations." That sounds like a line from your a soviet guide in 1976 Moscow but then it dawned on me that the bus route to Luang Prabang used to be quite dangerous as rebels attacked the buses until recently. On our way back from Luang Prabang, the last passenger to board had a very slick folding-stock automatic rifle protruding from under his bomber jacket. One the way up, our bus was way too crappy to deserve any kind of protection.

When people told me baguette was big in Vientiane, I thought they met in the tourist joints. I didn't think the Lao would be selling and buying them by the heap load on their markets. The sandwiches they make are pretty good if heavier on fresh vegetables than in France and with pork closer to lard than ham.

See how many endangered species you can count. Furs, claws, beaks, gal bladder oil in M-150 bottles (another Thai equivalent to Red bull), and dessecated reptiles will cure anything a placebo can cure, only with the added risk of the medicine killing you first.

Back on Th Setthathirat, if you've ever been to the posh suburbs west of Paris, this will look familiar. This building is currently being renovated.

Vientiane's public library.

Patuxai, Vientiane's very own Arc of Triumph, also referred to locally as Anusawali (which means monument, just like in Thai, and happens to be the name of where I live in Bangkok), was built with cement donated by the USA to build a runway.

To get there and to the following sights of the day (and to retrieve my passport with its brand new 60-day tourist visa from the Thai embassy), we rented a motorcycle. Patuxai and Pha That Luang are both in town and could actually be reached by foot but Xieng Khuan is 25km out of town on the way to the Friendship Bridge. Hence another way to do this trip, for those crossing the bridge, is to see Xieng Khuan on your way in our out of Vientiane.

Photo note: Again, the polarizer did a good job of removing reflections on the water and might have contrasted the clouds a bit as well. I should have used a graduated filter to darken the clouds a bit so I did that a little bit with Picasa. Never do with Photoshop what you can do with Picasa because Picasa doesn't touch your original image and makes adding and removing modifications to your pictures much easier. For most of the day's pics, I would have liked bright sunlight but cloudy days do give the absolute best portrait light. Here they also made the Patuxai quite dramatic.

This is the national symbol of Laos--Pha That Luang. No, the clouds weren't purple; I need to rescan this. But so much gold paint does take its toll on the eyes.

The same thing from the outside and with more accurate colors.

These two novice monks spoke both excellent Thai and English. Novice monks are basically in need of a free home, free food, and free education. They spend a lot of their time praying, studying Buddhism and doing chores for the temple but it doesn't mean they have had some kind of calling, as you would expect from a Christian monk for example. Men can also be in monkhood for a few months, usually at the age of 20, to make merit for their parents and give them better afterlives. Out of these hundreds, or thousands, of men in monkhood, only a few will remain monks all their lives. The other monks I spoke too during my short trip were all similar to these two young men--they spoke good Thai and English and had studied at some point in Thailand. The planned on getting jobs once they had completed their education, and thus becoming laymen. I short, the distinction between education and Buddhism, or between teacher and senior monk, is a modern one; widespread in Thailand but apparently still limited in Laos.

I also promised to send him a print of his picture. If I don't, my afterlife will really suck.

This was shot at Xieng Khuan, the Buddha park. This place is a big garden crammed with Hindu and Buddhist sculptures cast in cement. It's more weird, or baroque, than pretty. This place is quite recent (1958) and was built by unskilled laborers under the direction of a yogi-priest-shaman (or so says Lonely Planet). You can skip it and you won't be missing the crown jewel of Laos.

Time to go to Luang Prabang. Only 380km but over 11 hours! At some points, in the mountains, you could probably outwalk the bus. Our bus was not quite as bad as the one on this picture but it was still the worst bus I'd ever taken for this kind of long-haul. No air-con means you were eating dust all night; getting caked in it as well. The legroom was so inexistent I had to put my knees in the alley. Even by sitting perfectly upright, my legs wouldn't fit against the seat in front of me! Then you had the drunk kids that boarded just outside of Vientiane. First they held us up thirty minutes haggling over the fare then one threw up for half the ride. But this bus was so crappy, it didn't even have the essential asian luxury--karaoke--and that was major plus compared to the one of the way back and even the luxurious VIP 24 buses in Thailand. Besides, this nominally VIP bus was still fine compared to sitting on your backpack in the middle of the aisle as some backpackers do when in a pinch.

Come back in a few days for Day 3 in Luang Prabang!


Anonymous Mathieu said...

Ahhhh... just like being there, without the heat. :-)

7:25 PM  
Anonymous jemedebat said...

superbes photos, j'y ├ętais en d├ęcembre, ce pays est merveilleux...

Bravo pour le Patuxai, fallait le faire.

10:36 PM  
Blogger schuey said...

yeah dude ur pics rock !

chaton, sors de ce corps.

j'hallucine sur les couleurs.

3:21 PM  

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