Vientiane Travel Blog› entry 17 of 27 › view all entries
"I've got a bike you can ride it if you like,
It's got a basket, a bell and things that make it look good,
I'd give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it."
Bike - Pink Floyd
Vientiane was one of the earliest settlements on the Mekong in what is now Laos. It was settled around the 9h century and has been controlled by Lao, Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese (Thai) since. In the 16th century the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom was moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which resulted in the building of many temples, making the city an important center for Buddhist learning.
We had two 'days off' in Vientiane and Mieke had the brilliant idea to rent some bicycles to explore the city, but not before we had breakfast first, which was also a revelation. Instead of the French bread and eggs we'd been having for 2 weeks we actually had a choice! After pinching myself I realised that the whiteboard at the restaurant indeed said 'chose between banana pancake or pork steak sandwich'. We decided to go for the latter and even though the volume of the breakfast was slightly limited, having a choice more than made up for this today.
After renting four lovely bicycles with basket and all at a nearby guesthouse we headed into the Vientiane traffic, which compared to other Asian capitals was very easy to handle. We first drove up to Patuxai, Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe. Unlike the one in Paris it has 4 arches and its been build in the sixties using cement that was actually meant for construction of a new airport, hence the nickname 'vertical runway'. Through two levels of souvenir shops you reach the top, offering nice views over the city.
After having a cup of coffee and some pastries at a nearby coffee shop we continued our way to Laos' national monument, the Pha That Luang stupa. The stupa has been built at the location of a 11-13th century Khmer stupa when the capital was moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in 1566.
Each level of the stupa has a definite meaning in Buddhist doctrine. The first 68 x 69 meter level lined by 323 ordination stones represents the material world. The second 48 x 48 meter level surrounded by 120 lotus petals also holds 30 small stupa's representing the 30 Buddhist perfections. The third level measures 30x30 meters and consists of the central stupa which ends in a lotus bud, symbolizing enlightenment in the form of a Lotus growing from the mud to the lake's surface.
Cycling back to the center of town we stopped at the Talat Sao morning market.
After passing That Dam (Black Stupa), a stupa that according to legend houses a dormant seven-headed dragon that protected the city during the Siam-Lao war of 1828, we had lunch at the nearby Souvemarn Lao Food restaurant where we tried a couple of new things.
Although Vientiane's temples cannot match those of Luang Prabang there are some that were worthwhile checking out. We spend a couple of hours visiting Wat Si Saket, Haw Pha Kaeo and Wat Si Muang. Wat Si Saket is Vientiane's oldest surviving temple, showing a Bangkok-like style. Remarkable about this temple are the small niches in the cloister wall that house thousands of small Buddha statues, with 300 standing and sitting Buddha's in front of them. There's also a pile of damaged Buddha's from the 1828 Siam-Lao war and inside the sim (temple hall) there's even more small niches filled with Buddha's. The total number of Buddha statues in Wat Si Sake is estimated to be 7000!
Haw Pha Kaeo was one the private temple of the royal family and housed the Emerald Buddha before it was stolen by the Siamese and taken to Bangkok, where it still resides at the Wat Phra Kaew temple.
Wat Si Muang is Vientiane's most frequently used temple. When Vientiane became the capital a pillar from a nearby Khmer site was placed in a hole. According to myth a pregnant woman sacrificed herself by jumping under the pillar and her spirit now resides in it as the city's guardian spirit. The pillar can be found in the back of the sim, wrapped in sacred cloth, where normally a Buddha statue is found. Elsewhere in the temple a wish-Buddha can be seen. When lifted three times above one's head it would grant your wishes, after which you'd have to come back to the temple to make offerings.
We headed southwards out of the center to Wat Sok Pa Luang, since we've read that they did good massages there. What's more, every Saturday the monks and a teacher are giving Vipassana meditation lessons. A good way for me to catch up on meditating since I never really get the time to do that while travelling with others. So while I would take the meditation lesson the rest would go for a massage. A small group of tourists had gathered at the temple and the teacher (obviously originally from India) explained the (very) basics of Vipassana, after which 20 minutes of sitting meditation, 20 minutes of walking meditation and another 10 minutes or so of sitting meditation followed.
We just missed the stunning sunset of the Mekong by a couple of seconds. To make up for this I suggested that we would cycle through town to the Papaya Spa, another recommended massage parlour. This was a classy place indeed, which also showed in the prices, which were 4 times as high as what we'd paid elsewhere so far. Still, 25 dollars for a 1,5 hour massage in which you're fully oiled and molded back into shape is a bargain compared to what they charge at home.
Having dinner turned out to be a bit of a problem this evening. We headed for a recommended place that had a variety of spring rolls, but they were out of food.