Vientiane may be the smallest big city that I have ever been to.
It has the feeling of a small, country town that is somewhat embarrassed about its status as the capitol of Lao. It is the only capitol city in the world that I can describe as relaxing. Chickens still run free on the streets on this sleepy capitol. It is well worth a visit.
To be pedantic, it is called the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, usually just referred to as Lao PDR, on the very rare occasions that it is referred to at all in English. The French influence is waning, but not forgotten. While there are still plenty of baguettes, brasseries, aging Peugeots and French television programs, what you mostly see now are shiny Toyotas and garish advertising signs in English.
I glimpsed an occasional billboard left over from the revolutionary era; workers in solidarity with soldiers or some such nonsense, but these were long forgotten relics. The old billboards with their anachronistic images and peeling paint had lost the battle against modern graphics advertising Close-up toothpaste and Pepsi Cola.
The People’s Democratic Republic, it seems, has firmly embraced capitalism.
I had been sent to the Syri 2 Guesthouse on the advice of a friend. The room price was higher than I had paid elsewhere in Lao, the rack rate was 10,000 kip, slightly less than ten dollars, and included a very friendly staff, an immaculate room with air conditioning, crisp, clean sheets and all the CNN or BBC World that I could stand.
After changing into fresh clothes, I went downstairs, out onto the street and bumped into two other travelers that I had met elsewhere along the backpacker trail. The three of us made plans to go out for a walk later that evening. Shortly after dusk, we walked a few blocks over to the many sidewalk cafes set along the Mekhong river.
Big spenders, we drank iced watermelon smoothies for 50 cents a pop.
A storm was coming; the night skies were getting even darker with black clouds. We sipped our cold drinks along the river while watching a free lightning light show. With rain threatening, we three solo travelers made plans to explore the city the following day.
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We met the following morning over coffee and discussed our options. None of us wanted to see any cultural landmarks or do anything remotely educational, all we wanted to do was wander the markets and eat street food. I agreed, on the condition that we also visit Wat Xieng Khuan.
After touring the sprawling Vientiane Morning Market and eating cheap street food, we convinced a Tuk tuk driver to take the three of us out to Wat Xieng Khuan.
Wat Xieng Khuan is known in English as the “Buddha Park”. It is not historical, important nor venerated. It is certainly not a UNESCO Cultural Landmark, it is instead the best example that you will find of Lao kitsch.
Buddha Park is a 30 minutes outside of Vientiane, out past the Lao Brewing Company (home of Beer Lao) and past the Lao Beverage Company (where Pepsi is bottled). Buddha Park was built in 1958 and comprises about five acres of jam-packed kitsch in various states of deferred maintenance and decay.
Admission is thirty cents, plus an additional twenty cents if you wish to take photographs (and who wouldn’t?).
Buddha Park is the brainchild of named Luang Puu, an inspired devotee of bad taste and ferro cement. At this park he created countless very bizarre larger than life sculptures of his favorite heroes and creatures. He is obviously a man with a dream and a vision, plus a surplus of chicken wire, brick and cement.
It was hard to decide which was the centerpiece of the park, could it have been the 40-meter-long concrete reclining Buddha? Or was it the 30-meter-high depiction of heaven and hell with a hidden staircase to the top? (You enter that one through a scary ‘mouth’ with perfect human-like concrete teeth). I very much liked the three-headed elephant but was also fond of the enormous concrete crocodile with gaping mouth. It was hard to pick any favorite, there were dozens of tacky sculptures to choose from.
Buddha Park has more than made up for an obvious lack of intrinsic quality by providing a simply overwhelming quantity of all your favorite demons. The collection would not look out of place as a tacky tourist trap alongside the interstate somewhere in the southern United States.
Showing my typical lack of common sense, I had hoped to document my visit by buying a tacky souvenir. I had my heart set on some keepsake such as a Buddha Park snow-globe or perhaps a pencil holder with the inscription “I visited Buddha Park” maybe carved out of Oregon myrtle wood, but there was no gift shop at the exit.
Instead of the chance to buy tacky souvenirs, at the park exit there sat an elderly Lao woman who was frying fresh banana fritters, three for a nickel.
They were scrumptious.
After the 1975 Revolution, Buddha Park creator Luang Puu moved to Thailand. For no particularly good reason, he built a similar temple named Wat Khaek on the opposite bank of the Mekhong in Nong Khai. The mind boggles.