I arrived in Vientiane with a mission. I had a to-do list, a carefully combed guidebook, and a curated list of must-have experiences. I was going to fall wildly in love with this capital metropolis. I was going to adore this city, so help me God, and nothing was going to stop me.
Why? Because I like to root for the underdog, and I was sick of hearing people talk smack about how “boring,” “completely skippable” and “basically shit” my future favorite city was. After all, the guidebook described it as downright pleasant! So how dare these backpackers accuse it of lacking tangible charm or notable things to do!
Well, Vientiane and I’s beautiful fantasy relationship got off to a kind of rocky start when I came down with a crippling post-tubing-related, unidentified-but-just-like-food-poisoning illness. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like lying on the bathroom floor of a dank hotel in a city where you know no one, too sick to walk to a pharmacy and too weak to even cry tears of self-pity, to make you feel sorry for yourself. When I emerged from the puke-odored hotel room after two days, I felt my character sufficiently built.
Unfortunately, my little brush with hospital-level dehydration meant I had missed out on a good percentage of my time in Vientiane and would have to scrap many of my plans. Goodbye bicycle tour of wats and museums, goodbye yoga classes and Lao-style weaving lessons. I checked into the adorable iHouse hotel for a fresh start, and made a new plan for my final few days. Here’s what I eventually got up to.
Lao National Museum
I think an important part of visiting any capital city is checking out the National Museum. I’ve mentioned before that I especially love museum-going in this part of the world which is so pointedly not known for it. To quote, um, myself — this isn’t the Western world, and these are not world-class museums. As I wrote when I visited the Lao Royal Palace museum in Luang Prabang,
“Even in major cities like Bangkok, the majority of museums tend to be somewhat provincial and less ambitious. But they have an intangible charm, a lack of crowds and a unique insight into fascinating cultures and topics.” More here.
Lonely Planet Laos confirmed what I knew and kept my expectations in check by assuring me that this place “will never be confused with the Louvre,” but I still went in hopeful.
Well, the charm box was ticked before I even entered. I swooned over these sweet murals, depicting the famous Plain of Jars and Wat Pha That Luang. The exterior marked the perfect balance between decrepit and colonial-charisma.
Inside I smiled at the modest entrance fee (10,000 kip or just over one dollar) but frowned when I had to lock up my bag and camera. Cue the sneaky and poor-quality Blackberry photos.
While the museum is light on English signage, cool air, and impressive artifacts, it makes up for it in earnest effort. My favorite exhibit was about dinosaurs, and more specifically a French geologist who discovered dinosaur bones in Laos but was killed at the end of World War II, before his research was complete. Other fantastic finds were the King’s elephant-riding throne (shown top row of below collage), Vietnam-war era weapons laid casually on the floor, and a display case of actual drugs seized during raids. It’s not every day you get to lay eyes on an actual brick of uncut cocaine. The greatest hidden gem, however, was the guest book. While most people stuck to the typical name, date of visit, country of origin format, a few other visitors added colorful remarks about the lack of air-conditioning.
Oh the historical side, the museum emphasizes the seemingly unwanted interference of other countries in the nation’s history. The French have played a major role in Laos’s history and that was heavily represented. What I hadn’t fully realized was how much America was also all up in Laos’s business. From black and white photos showing parades of people carrying “USA GO HOME” signs to a caption under a display case of guns that read “Weapons imported by the US imperialists for their puppets,” it was clear that I had slept through a few days in history class.
Due to the lack of English signage or clear organization, I left the museum not so much with a clearer understanding of Lao history but rather a clearer understanding of how very little I actually know about Lao history. It’s a good starting point.
Regardless, I was charmed by this little museum. Its run down, its unsophisticated, and walking through it’s hard to fathom that its the National Museum. But its an accurate reflection of the simplicity of life in Laos, as well as the fairly bleak economic situation.
Xieng Khuan Buddha Park
Having gotten the traditional museum visit out of the way, I was ready for something quirky. So one day, two friends and I rented motorcycles to visit one of Vientiane’s most eccentric attractions. The journey brought us 24km outside of town, through some interesting outskirts.
Though we got lost several times, we did get to practice the art of asking for directions in sign language and make unexpected detours through some markets and even a barber’s district where Chris stopped for a shave.
photo on right via Treasures of Laos
Finally we arrived at the Buddha Park, despite a distinct lack of signage promised by the man who rented us the bikes. We paid the 5,000 kip (50 cent) admission and made our way in.
The park is the work of one bizarre man, a yogi-priest-shaman with a fascination with both Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Throughout his life he developed a strong following in Laos and in Northeastern Thailand, where he has yet another monument to his unique philosophies and mythologies.
All the sculptures are cast in concrete and many are interactive. The orb-shaped sculpture pictures above left, for example, has three levels connected by steep stairways that eventually lead out to the roof and panoramic vistas of the park. The creepy interior is pictured below.
The sheer scale is impressive, and those with knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu iconography will spot some familiar, if slightly distorted images of Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and others.
The day we were visiting there was some sort of rocket festival going on, and the sky was frequently punctuated by a sharp sound and a ribbon of white cutting through the blue. It definitely added an element of fun.
While there is no signage and the park is relatively small, it’s definitely a pleasant place to walk around, marvel at the endearing oddity of the human spirit and take some photos.
Or, in Chris’ case, to take some particularly hilarious, and slightly interactive photos. Out of respect to Chris, who is a friend from Koh Tao, I am saving the Buddha-belly pictures for blackmail purposes.
I love me some eccentric, roadside-attraction style sights, and this definitely fit the bill. Buddha Park is, in my opinion, a must-see in Vientiane.
Wat Sok Pa Luang Lao Sauna
I have become a bit of a spa addict lately, which is an odd statement coming from a traveler on a limited budget. Luckily in Southeast Asia it’s cheap and easy to get a fix, and at this point I had become a connoisseur of the Thai massage. Despite the heat I was pretty excited to try Laos’s signature treatment, the herbal sauna.
Still using our rental bikes, we drove just out of town to a forest temple tucked away down a semi-rural road. We wandered the grounds cautiously, not sure where to go, when a monk finally took pity on us and gestured in the correct direction. We giggled nervously walking through a path in the woods until we came upon an un-marked stilted wooden house.
Inside we were greeted by a friendly woman who appeared to be in charge. She bustled us into changing rooms where we swapped our clothes for sarongs and then pushed us straight through a tiny door and into a wall of steam. I had to concentrate to breathe as the sauna was so overwhelming. I went out and back in several times, drinking tea while I was out to stay hydrated and trying to identify the different herbs while I was in, to distract from the intensity.
When I had finally had enough I went for a massage. I asked the woman what the difference between a Thai massage and a Lao massage was and she replied with a smile: “price.”
As I laid in the open-air pavilion and submitted myself to the sometimes-brutal massage, it started to pour rain. I had this strange sensation as I lay there in a sarong on a bamboo matt in the middle of the Laotian countryside, listening to the rain drops hit the palm trees — a kind of This is Your Life Alex Baackes moment. It was pretty beautiful. And all for a whopping 50,000 kip — or six dollars.
Despite my best efforts, I did not fall head-over-flip-flops in love with Vientiane. I did some interesting things and saw some bizarre sights, but I didn’t depart the city with the passion that I had hoped for. However, I’d be happy to return some day and to revisit that sauna again and hit up all the other sights I missed. Hopefully this time I’ll do so with a little bit less food poisoning going on. That would be ideal.