Monday, September 15, 2008

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a guilty pleasure. It's the type of place that, as an enlightened traveler, you want to hate. It's overrun with tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, overindulging in booze and poor imitations of western foods, watching crappy western television and generally not giving a damn about the culture or the people surrounding them. But, it's also ridiculously fun. If you can choke it down, chances are you'll ask for a second helping.

So, what's the big draw? I'm sure that once upon a time people came here for the beauty of the river and the surrounding limestone moutains jutting skyward above an intricate system of caves. Today, the allure of the river is not its beauty, but the many make-shift bars that have been built along its banks, each with its own signature rope swing, zip line and volleyball court. You rent a tube and float along, as the proprieters pass you a reed and pull you into the shore to greetings of free shots and DJ music. If we could somehow replicate this in the States, we would be millionaires.

In town, the situation is a little less worthy of emulation. There are lines of bars playing endless loops of "Friends" reruns, with the occasional "Family Guy" or "Simpsons" thrown in for good measure. I am not sure why these places are so popular, but I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that most people are too drunk or hung over to do anything else but veg out in front of the TV.
After a couple of days on the river, we decided it was time to get out and see more of the surrounding area. We rented a minibike and went in search of the many caves throughout the region. Along the way we passed some local boys hurrying home to show off the birds they had caught. Gil climbed through one cave that extended a kilometer into the hillside and we followed a river into another deep cave by tube. We also visited a couple of more expansive caves trimmed with stalactites and stalagmites. One was the home to a Buddah figure surrounded with offerings.

Back in town, we visited our favorite restaurant one last time - an organic restaurant using ingredients from a farm they own nearby - and then went for an ice cream at the local night market. Even though it was only two blocks from the packed Friends bars, we were the only foreigners there. For shame!


The overnight bus ride to Vientiane (pronounced something closer to "wiangchan" by the locals) was long, but noticeably free of the earsplitting karaoke of which we had been warned, so we can't complain. The search for a hotel was another matter (Lao New Years was fast approaching), but after a series of unsuccessful attempts, we finally found a great room a few blocks away from the river.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and although it's relatively sleepy compared to other Asian capitals, there was enough happening to keep us busy for several days. We started by visiting the city's temples by foot and then by bike. As a whole, they are less impressive than the temples in Thailand (no thanks to the Siamese, who destroyed nearly all of them in a series of invasions), but many boast special features or histories that make them unique.

Pha That Luang, a golden stuppa of enormous proportions, is the most important national symbol and a point of pilgrimage for many Laotians. Its architectural design is meant to convey different aspects of Buddhist doctrine, with the lotus bud on top symbolizing human advancement toward enlightenment. The stuppa also represents national independence to many Lao people, since it has been rebuilt multiple times following the occupation of foreign rulers.

Another interesting temple is Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the Siamese invasions. Today it houses more than two thousand Buddhist images of various shapes and sizes and a couple of interesting dragon-shaped vessels that are used each year on Lao New Year to bless the Buddha images with water. Nearby sits Haw Pha Kaew, a royal temple built to house the legendary Emerald Buddha, which currently resides in Bangkok. There are many monks studying at these temples, all eager to practice their English!

Other attractions in and around Vientiane include Patuxi, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike and the Xieng Kuan Buddha Park, a collection of larger-than-life sculptures built by a priest-shaman who integrated Buddhist and Hindu teachings. The sculptures were supposedly built by amateur artists, but what they lack in meticulousness they certainly make up for in sheer size and bizarreness. It was a fun place to visit, especially since we got to wait for the bus with a couple of beers overlooking a local soccer match. Another highlight is the huge Talat Sao market, where we picked up some amazing hand-woven scarves.

One of the best things about Vientiane, however, is the proliferation of excellent, cheap restaurants - many in the tradition of the French, who ruled here for over 50 years. From quick eats by the river to a 4 course meal with wine, we did our best to take advantage of the city's fantastic culinary offerings.