Our journey from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang was over one of the few paved roads in Laos, and it was rough. The rainy season wreaks havoc with landslides, bridges out, chunks of road cracked or missing and overflowed rivers and streams. We saw plenty of examples, and felt lucky to have made it safely to our destination. In Luang Prabang, we learned that the road further south was in even worse shape. There were two major sections washed away, and getting equipment in to clear the landslides and make the road passable was going to be difficult and time consuming. Taking a bus would mean getting off one vehicle, walking several kilometers, bags in hand, over the hill and around the slide, and meeting another vehicle on the other side that would make the rest of the trip. As exciting as that sounds, with the situation reamined unchanged several days later, with a forecast for more heavy rain, we booked a cheap flight from Luang Prabang into Vientiane.
Vientiane hasn’t got the romantic reputation of Luang Prabang. As a matter of fact, it usually gets a pretty bad rap. If you end up passing through though, it has its own charm. Café culture is strong here, and it’s as easy to grab a latte with a baguette sandwich as a bowl of noodles. The leftover French architecture is charming, and there are a number of nice, leafy streets to stroll and keep out of the sun. The riverwalk along the Mekong is wide and clean, and very busy around sunset, as people gather to enjoy the view. Thailand is right across the river. There are also, of course, some interesting markets and temples.
Wat Sisaket Temple
Wat Sisaket is near the Presidential Palace. Built in 1818, its the only temple to survive the Thai sacking of the city in the 1800s. This may have been due to its being constructed in the style of Siam rather than Lao-style. The niches inside the main hall were originally filled with thousands of silver and ceramic Buddhas (the silver ones have since been replaced with gilded clay). Many of the ceramic ones remain. Another unique feature of the main building is that it faces south rather than the typical east, and is not parallel to the river. In other words, it doesn’t follow Buddhist or Lao tradition. There are also some good surviving murals telling the story of a prince who used a magic fan to fight battles before becoming a bodhisattva. The repository here is filled with rescued and broken statues hidden underground to save them during wartime.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Vientiane, but it was time to hit the border. We bought a ticket on the International Bus, which took us seamlessly across to Thailand over the Friendship Bridge (stopping for everyone to collect their bags, pass through immigration and customs, and re-board) in about an hour.
Nong Khai Border Town
Nong Khai, on the Thai side, had more of that “border town” kind of feel. It was a little rough, a little odd, a little seedy. There were a disconcerting number of middle-aged Western men with Thai women, young and old. Those without a Thai companion seemed to be looking for one, either alone or in small groups, sitting in bars serving schnitzel and beer. We found a room in small guesthouse, and spent a couple of days riding bikes and figuring out next steps.
One particularly interesting stop was Sala Kaew Ku, a temple complex/ sculpture park created by a Lao mystic-shaman-priest, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. The works synthesize Hindu, Buddhist and other beliefs into daunting, elaborate works of art. There are recognizable deities, naga dragons, human/animal combinations and symbolic religious stories told through stone. It’s a place that’s hard to describe, but not to be missed.