I arrived in Vientiane, in Laos, at about 7:00 pm after a two-hour flight from Saigon which included a brief stop in Phnom Penh. I had just about enough time to quench my theist with a beer before heading off to bed for a sleep. It is the hot season here and the temperature in Vientiane yesterday was 38 C. With the help of a little cloud it is only 35 C today.
I have a local guide named Tina who has a lot of knowledge and very good English. She is multi lingual and also takes Chinese tour groups on tours around the city. I found out that the more interest I showed in things, the more time she spent giving me in depth explanations. That was OK when we were inside buildings or in the shade but it became very tedious when we were walking around open temple grounds in the sun.
Our day was spent in mostly visiting temples – what else is there to see in a devoutly Buddhist country? I did learn two things that didn’t know before. One was that each country depicts Buddha slightly differently according to its local dress and appearance. The Thais, with whom Laos shares a lot of common culture and history create statues with a slightly deferent appearance than do the Laotians. Secondly, there are over 60 different postures in which Buddha can be represented. These are symbolised by the position and direction of the hands, whether he is sitting or standing and the position of the feet.
As a comparison, I Googled the Kama Sutra and I see that it describes over 100 positions in which one can have sex, so I suppose that sex out does religion by nearly double the variety of positions.
We visited the National Museum, which, at first I misunderstood. It was actually the Revolutionary Museum and seemed to have a lot of photos of national heroes who were all referred to as ‘Comrade’. Then it hit me that Laos had gone down the same path as Vietnam – expelling the French, having a revolutionary war between the forces loyal to the King and the Pathet Laos who eventually won and formed a socialist government with one party. Laos is now a single-party socialist republic. It espouses Marxism and is governed by a single party communist politburo dominated by military generals. I guess that the nature of this government was confirmed to me when my guide told me that she had to register my itinerary with the tourist police.
Along a wide boulevard is the Patuxai Arch, a war monument which was built between 1957 and 1968. The Patuxai is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It resembles a Hindu version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. I climbed up seven levels to the top by staircase (no lift) and not surprisingly found a whole floor of cramped gift shops at the top level. Most of the souvenirs looked rather crappy to me but I did find a little frangipani flower (the floral symbol of Laos) for our Christmas Tree.
Our last stop on the tour was at Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa which s a gold-covered large Buddhist stupa in the centre of Vientiane, It was first established in the 3rd century, and is generally regarded as the most important national monument in Laos and a national symbol. A stupa is the place in which a person’s ashes are interred after cremation (think, mausoleum). They can be found at every temple and the size and and complexity of decoration are directly proportional to the status of the individual.
I was dropped off at a restaurant that my guide recommend for lunch. It was just as well that I had changed a few dollars this morning into Laotian Kip (around 8100K to $1US). My lunch of a beer, glass of wine, bowl of onion soup and a grilled chicken dish cost me $11. The streets here are busy with traffic and you have to weave your away across them carefully. It also seems that the local electricians would have to do another job of weaving whenever they repair the power lines.