Friday, October 05, 2007

Weathering the Storm

Just as I was getting used to the rainy season with its brief daily showers, Typhoon Lekima landed in central Vietnam and pushed westward toward Nong Khai where I was staying on the banks of the Mekong River. Named after a Vietnamese fruit, the tropical storm first headed towards southern China where over 100,000 people were evacuated along the coast. But it switched course, increased its winds to typhoon strength, and prompted authorities to begin evacuating 400,000 people.

By the time it reached me, winds had considerably diminished, but the skies stayed dark and the rains came, ruining my plans to visit the Sala Kaew Sculpture Park. Constructed of cement over a 20-year period by a mystic shaman named Luang Pu, who died in 1996, the park sounds like a Thai version of Watts Towers in Los Angeles. According to the Lonely Planet, the park "is a real smorgasbord of bizarre cement statuyes of Shiva, Vishnu, Buddha, and every other Hindu and Buddhist deity imaginable, as well as numerous secular figures." I wanted to ride over on a bike supplied by the Mut Mee Guest House to the park on the outskirts of Nong Khai, but the rain spoiled my plans. So I enjoyed a lovely breakfast in the outside hall while the winds blew, the rain came down, and the mighty Mekong rolled on before my eyes.

It continues to rain this morning in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The picture above of the river was taken from the terrace in front of the Mekong Riverside Riverside in the center of what had been described has a sleepy, dustry Wild West kind of a town. Not so. Even with the clouds and rain, Vientiane (the French name for Viang Chan, the city's Laotian name) seems a lively city, full of backpacker energy. While eating whole fish and laap, a Lao delicacy, at a table on the second-floor balcony of the farang-owned Douang Deuane Restaurant & Wine Bar, I watched dozens of young westerners walking up and down the street. There is little traffic in this part of the city near the river bank, other than the put-put-put of tuk-tuks and motor bikes.

Getting here was easy. The Mut Mee was only minutes away from the Friendship Bridge where my visa exist was stamped by Thai authorities who seemed unusually inquisitive about my residence in Bangkok. However, I passed, and took a bus packed with Lao across the bridge for 15 baht to the Lao immigration office on the other side. While waiting for the visa, which cost $35, I talked with an American coming from Burma who said he worked for the State Department and was constantly questioned by the police before the current troubles. He also said he had trouble find a Burmese girl who would date him (I wouldn't date a U.S. "spook" either!). After paying a 10 baht "exit fee," I took an aging Mercedes Benz taxi to the capital which was about an hour away over roads bumpy from construction. Occasionally the air conditioning would send out a puff of suspicious white smoke. My room at the Intercity Hotel is small with high ceilings and a dab of art on the wall. My cheap rate did not merit a Mekong view.

a After checking in, I oriented myself to the neighborhood. Vientiane is full of Buddhist temples, despite the fact that Buddhism was outlawed briefly when the communist Pathet Lao regime took power in the 1970s. Next to the hotel is Wat Chanthabuli and across from it is Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan, built in the mid-16th century by King Settathirat on a site believed to be imported for religious purposes in the 3rd century. Now called the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Laos is still a Communist country but the Soviet drabness has been replaced by backpacker chic. There are cafes and restaurants everywhere. After a cappuccino at the Scandinavian Bakery next to a French restaurant across from the Vietnamese Cultural Center, I walked up to That Dam (pictured here), or Black Stupa, a monument that was supposedly once coated with gold that was taken during the Siamese sacking of the city in 1828. It is surrounded by a couple of houses that could have been brought from Paris, a sign of French control over the country for fifty years.

Laotians drive on the right, probably a result of the French occupation (as is the popularity here of French bread; dare I order "freedom fries"?). Both U.S. dollars and Thai baht are acceptable currency (I paid the taxi driver 300 baht and the hotel $10 for in-room internet access). But the national currency is the kip. I got 281,000 kip for 1,000 baht , and when I took 300,000 kip out of one of the rare ATM machines, my bank withdrew $32. Lunch yesterday was 80,000 kip, and dinner, which included a glass of good French Sauvignon, was only 85,000 (I should add that this is for two, including my guide and translator).

If the sun lifts soon, I hope to visit a wat or two. Jerry said that when he came to Vientiane with Greg there was nothing to do here but eat and drink. I think there are more choices, judging by the sights to see in the Lonely Planet. But judging by the excellence of lunch and dinner yesterday, a culinary holiday in Laos would be a fine thing.

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