Just my luck. The train bound for Nong Khai, and the Thai-Lao border, left Bangkok and arrived on time. That never happens! As usual, I slept well on the train. When I got off, I ran into two women who seemed to be lost. They were on a “visa run,” where you leave the country and reenter in a day or two to get a 15-day extension of your stay in Thailand. When we were on the Lao side of the border waiting for our visas to enter the country, I told them an amusing story about how years ago the immigration station here was really a glorified shack and when your visa was ready, the officials would simply wave the passport out a window. If it was the color of your passport, you moved quickly to see if it was yours. Well, sure enough nothing changes too much. As we waited, we saw a familiar blue passport being held by a hand flickering it impatiently out the immigration window! It belonged to the woman from Michigan. It wasn’t long before the two were on their way for the 30-minute trip to the capital city of Vientiane. I was waiting for my ride, Damdee and his son, Colin, who are staying in Vientiane. Damdee and I have been friends since he was my camp contact in one of the Thai refugee camps back in the late 70’s. He was in Laos to visit his ailing mother and cousins who own a pharmaceutical company.
Soon after checking in to my hotel, we went to enjoy lunch sitting on the Mekong River at a restaurant called Kong View. The food was Lao-excellent: spicy chicken laap, morning glories sauteed in oil garlic and spices, summer rolls, a river fish and, of course, plenty of sticky rice! Wish we could have stayed longer, but they were on lunch break and had to get back.
As it turns out, my hotel, a Vietnamese-owned establishment called the Hermera, is located right near the once notorious morning market (Talaat Sao). In April 1975, as the country was being rapidly taken over by the communists, Talaat Sao was the black market place to go for incredible exchange rates for dollars to kip, the local currency. It was also the go-to place for cheap and powerful marijuana, which was often added to the morning bowl of noodle soup! You could get anything and everything there back then— if you had the right amount of money.
The temperatures, as most middle-latitude north of the equator locations are these months, were hot and humid. But this didn’t stop Damdee and I from walking the length of the old main boulevard, Lan Xang Road! Our first stop was Patuxai Monument, a structure somewhat like a Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It is the first time I can recall being able to climb all the way to the top for the wonderful view. In the past, you could see the entire city from the upper floors. Now, with taller buildings in the area this is not possible. The second to upper floors of the monument have been taken over by little tourist stalls selling the inevitable t-shirts, post cards, amulets and “old” Lao pottery. This is balanced by a vast improvement in the landscaping around the monument. There is even a fountain now, which enhances the external view immeasurably.
As with Patuxai, the temple which is the national symbol, Wat Tat Luang, has been seriously ungraded since last I visited. There are more buildings in the area, and a “tourist village” now located behind the temple. We walked around a bit, but the heat of the day and hunger got the better of us and we became more interested in finding the noodle shop we saw while walking to the temple! The noodles and the tall bottle of water were just what was needed.
The next stops were two very important temples. Wat Sakhet is by far my favorite temple in Vientiane. It is ancient and managed to survive a war with Thailand in the 18th century because it was used as a billet for the soldiers. I’m so glad it did. There are hundreds of embedded Buddha images in the walls, and I especially love the architectural deep swoop of the rooftops. During my stay in Vientiane, I found myself as in past visits, wandering the galleries marveling at the variety of styles to the Buddhas and simply enjoying the meditative quietude of the temple. I was so glad to see that money was being put into restoring the main building. The next place on our list was Haw Prakeo, which once housed the famous Emerald (actually jade) Buddha now in residence at Wat Pra Khao in Bangkok. It was a spoil of the war when Thailand virtually ransacked the city. We ended up in a nearby park getting a drink and just relaxing from walking so much in that heat. Damdee headed off to his cousins, and I passed out for a few hours in the blessedly cool hotel room!
Early the next morning, I took the opportunity to visit Talaat Sao. It is a far cry from the past! It is now half way to being a multilevel air conditioned mall. It still has stalls that sell everything under the sun, but not the marijuana (not that I was looking, mind you)! You can still buy Hmong embroidery, stationery, a washing machine, and get a haircut after having lunch in the food court! I miss the demimonde atmosphere and the sense of “danger” of the old market, but sometimes you just want a latte and a croissant and be on your way!
Damdee stopped by my hotel and we were joined for lunch by an expat friend who lives in Vientiane, Mike Carroll. Mike took us to a restaurant on the other side of the city that serves up some of the best noodles in town! We enjoyed the pleasure of just sitting there talking over the “old days.” Damdee had to meet some people, so Mike dropped us both in town. I walked a bit along Fa Noum Road, that runs along the Mekong River.
On Monday, Damdee left to visit his mother, who is ill, in the southern part of the country. I had the whole day to wander the streets, as I love to do, and especially the back lanes of the city. My first stop was the “Black Stupa,” very old and for some reason any visit to Vientiane seems incomplete without stopping by here. I recall the legend that if the Thai ever invade Laos again, the dragons will emerge from under this stupa to stop them cold! May the dragons have a long rest! I walked west on Samsenthai Road. It was unbelievably hot already at 10:00 in the morning, but on I went. Stopped at the Lao National Museum, which has some amazing Stone Age artifacts, but the rest is in a sad state of deterioration as is the building itself. About 60% is an area devoted to the wars against the French and Americans. So many of the black and white photos are stained and faded. What a tragedy. As I left there, I noticed the seemingly out of place cathedral-like National Lao Cultural Center. Didn’t go in as I wanted to spend time at the temples along Samsenthai and Sethathirat Roads. By 11:30, I realized that I was “walking drunk” from the intense heat, so I stopped for a mango smoothie. It is so easy to get dehydrated in this weather. The hot sun can take it right out of you before you realize it!
I managed to last till I got through Wat Impeng and Wat Michai along Setathirat Road. They have their own unique charms, but can’t compare to Wat Sisakhet. As night fell, I had dinner in town and walked back to the hotel though lanes filled with tourists and the shops and restaurants that cater to them.
Watched a little of the Democratic convention on CNN, but tore myself away realizing I had a lot to do and only one more day to do it! I started out in the vague direction of Wat Si Muang, a surprisingly interesting temple I had never visited before. The place is alive with activity as it is Buddhist Lent and people are there to make merit so they will enjoy a happier next life. People were offering money, flowers and necessities to the monks. There was the familiar smell of the incense of the burning josticks, the rattle of fortunetelling cups and chanting of the monks giving blessings to the faithful. People also make merit by releasing caged birds, even though most know that the birds are conditioned to return to their “masters” to be released yet again and again.
I left there and walked south to pick up Fa Ngoum Road to head back into town along the Mekong River. There is no protection from the blazing sun and I soon realize that I am pretty far out of town. Again, here as in other parts of the city, so much has changed. I barely recognize the places along the Mekong. In the evening, I met up with Mike and we had a wonderful Lao dinner at Musika Restaurant, which looks like a converted old French colonial house. The food was wonderful and the atmosphere was relaxed. Just what you want on your last evening in town. Then late night fruit and tea at Sticky Fingers, a restaurant owned by a very pleasant Australian couple who have lived there for 17 years.
The next day, it was back to Thailand. I went to the bus station behind the Talaat Sao to catch the bus to the border. I met an American woman married to a Chinese guy who were having some trouble getting information. We ended up sharing a taxi to the border for a little more than the bus would have cost the three of us. We went through all the exit procedures and soon found ourselves in Nong Khai with a two-hour wait for the train to Bangkok.
As sad as I was to leave Laos, it was tempered by the fact that a week later I’d be in China!