Exploring Vientiane by Foot

(Laos trip: April 21st – May 2nd, 2009)Vientiane, the capital of Laos, according to Lonely Planet means “Sandalwood City”, but according to a Buddhist novice in one of the temples, it means “Candle Light Procession”. I prefer the latter, it sounds more interesting to me J.

The city is located on a bend of Mekong River. When I sit on the bank of Mekong River, sipping a glass of soft drink with ice, I can see Thailand on the other side of the river. It is so close, I even think that people can swim for less than 10 minutes to get to Thailand! 😀 I wonder if the locals do that… 🙂

There’s actually a Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in the 19km Southeast of the city, where people can cross to get to the neighboring country easily. Less hassle than swimming, I guess! Hehehe…
Strolling down the street along the Mekong River, I enjoy checking out the food vendors that are cramped on a small walking path. It seems that these vendors are locals’ favorite place to eat with friends, because there are actually more locals than tourists who sit on plastic chairs or wooden bench. Most vendors offer almost the same menu: noodle salad (Lao’s favorite), fresh and fried spring rolls, fried noodle and barbeque. I guess most foreigners are afraid to get stomachache from eating food from the street, which hygiene isn’t the top priority on the list. This is one of the advantages to be born as Indonesian. I don’t have any problem from eating food from the street vendors in any developing countries without the fear of getting diarrhea the next days! 😀
Not all vendors sell beer. Most of them offer soft drinks, ice tea or fresh juice. In bigger vendors, they have a wide selection of food and beverages menu and usually you’ll be sitting on a wooden floor with a small cushion that looks like it hasn’t been washed in five years :p. Hihihi… However, you can choose the fish/lobster/anything you want as they present the seafood and grilled them right in front of the restaurants. Nice, eh? In the evening, these bigger vendors look prettier with some Christmas lights as the decoration and I personally think it’s a smart way to attract customers. I notice that the more lights they have, the more customers there are! Hmm… does “bling bling” (lights) have a strong relation to “cling cling” (money)? It seems so in Vientiane.
On a hot sunny day, I walk around the city to visit some Buddhist temples. It is nearly impossible to visit all the temples in three or four days time as there are too many temples in the city. It is like in Jakarta, where there will be at least one mosque in a residential area. As in Vientiane, in every 1 km, you’ll see at least a temple. On the main street itself, sometimes I walk for five minutes and find another temple! And they’re all beautiful… On this trip, I decided to visit only the famous and old temples. Maybe in the next trip, I’ll visit the ‘regular’ ones… 🙂
With a map in my hand, I walk to Haw Pha Kaeo, which is known as the “Emerald Buddha Temple” and a house of some of the best Buddhist sculpture in Laos. I’m stunned with the building as it’s so beautiful. Entering the terrace, I’m even more amazed by the beauty of the Buddha statues that can be found in each side of the terrace. All the Buddha statues are human-sized and in different positions. Some of them are sitting and standing with different hand positions. In this temple, I learn all the different meanings of Buddha’s position. For example, if the Buddha statue is standing with hands at his sides, it means calling for rain. If the Buddha’s palms stretched out in front, it means offering protection. If the right palm of Buddha’s facing at you, it means blessing. Interesting, right?
Across the street of Haw Pha Keo is Wat Si Saket. It was built in 1819-1824 and considered as the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane. The temple has an outer area and the inner area. Entering the outer area, you’ll be greeted with a golden-color Buddha statue and a monastery with a Thai-style roof. At the backyard of the outer area, there’s a garden and sanctuary. My eyes caught a bling-bling stupa, which is decorated with pieces of glasses. It’s shining brightly in such a sunny day, I couldn’t even take a picture of it!
It’s almost noon when I visit Wat Si Saket. On 12pm to 1pm, the temple closed as the staff has to take a lunch break. Knowing myself, half an hour is definitely not enough to wonder around the temple, so I have to return after lunch. With the stomach full, I have all the time in the world to enjoy the inner area of this famous temple. Am glad that I don’t have to rush since as soon as I enter the gate, I can’t believe what I see before me. The inner area has four terraces, which are full of Buddha statues in different sizes, and all the walls have triangle holes with two small Buddha statues in each hole! Wow!!! According to the guide-book, there are 7,000 Buddha statues in this temple, even though I didn’t count them myself. It’s impressive, don’t you think?
The main temple itself has gorgeous painted walls and beautiful ceilings. The upper part of the wall also has triangle holes with small Buddha statues in each hole. It’s very pretty. I’m speechless.
It’s also nice to sit on the floor of the main temple in such a hot day, because the temple has high ceiling and big doors on three sides, so it’s very cool and breezy inside. It’s perfect to be there as I’m almost melting from the heat…
Not far from Wat Si Saket is a big black stupa called That Dam. I find this stupa accidentally when trying to find a place to eat. It’s located at the centre of a roundabout with one street monopolized by the US Embassy. And I almost get a heart attack here from taking a picture of the stupa. As soon as I get my camera and ready to press the shutter button, the guards of the US Embassy yelled at me loudly. “What the hell??”, I wonder. Apparently, taking picture is not allowed in that small street as it’s within the US Embassy territory. Ah!!! Apart from almost getting a heart-attack, I’m not too impressed with the stupa, even though the local myth says that the stupa is the house of a seven-headed dragon that came to life during the war in 1828 and protected local citizens.
My next destination is Wat Si Muang. Unlike the temples mentioned above, the locals frequently visit this temple to pray and ask for blessings. It’s considered as the home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane. You can tell by the numbers of shops and stalls nearby selling flowers, candles and some other stuff that are used for praying in the temple. In this temple, you can find a small damaged Buddha statue sitting on a cushion. What’s so special about this statue? Locals believe this stone Buddha statue has the power to grant wishes or answer troubling questions. I’m surprised to see the statue at first, because it doesn’t look like a Buddha statue anymore! You can tell by the shape that so many people have been touching and lifting this famous statue :D.

I see some school girls in their uniform try to lift it off the pillow three times after praying or asking a question (quietly). Some girls don’t manage to lift it off the pillow and their friends keep on encouraging them. They speak in Lao, I can’t understand any word. But maybe they say, “You can do it! You can do it!”.
It looks like the statue is pretty heavy, despite its small size. After lifting it off, they shake a bamboo cylinder with some numbered bamboo sticks inside. They shake it until one stick fall off and see the number written on it. After that, they go to a wooden shelf with a lot of boxes and papers in each box. Each box has different numbers and you can bring home the paper with your number on. It supposedly tells you the fortune or the answer of your question(s). If you requested something and it’s granted, then you are supposed to return with offering of bananas, flowers, incense sticks and candles. Out of curiosity, I also try to lift the statue off and I can tell you that it is heavy!!! Luckily, I manage to do it, though. Well, let’s see whether I’ll return there with some fruits and incense sticks one day! 😉
That’s the end of my walking tour of the city. I pass by the Royal Palace that looks like a big mansion in France with a huge garden. It must be nice to live there!
My legs are tired from the walking in the heat and when you’re tired, what is the best thing to do? Get a massage!!! The massage parlors in Vientiane offer Thai, oil, foot (reflexology) and aromatherapy massages. I try the oil massage and pay 40,000 Kips (1 USD = 8,500 Kips) for an hour. It’s definitely a good idea to pamper yourself after a long day…
If you’re not a big fan of wondering around by foot, you can rent a bicycle with only 10,000 Kips/day. It’s a good deal, I
think and you can get to the places so much faster! 😉
In case you can’t ride a bicycle, then the other way to explore the city is by hoping on the tuk-tuk! Don’t forget to bargain for the price beforehand. I take a tuk-tuk to reach some sights that are far from the city center. Read on my journey by tuk-tuk in the “Candle Light Procession” city in my next post!

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