Saturday, October 06, 2007

Where is Noah When We Need Him

Lekima, the typhoon named after a Vietnamese fruit that swooped into Southeast Asia three days ago, continues to wreak havoc in the region and disrupt my plans. The Lao Airlines flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was delayed over two hours this morning because of bad weather and flooding at the airport where we were due to land. The crash of a flight to Phuket a couple of weeks ago was perhaps caused by rain which caused the plane to skid off the runway. I didn't want to risk anything like that, but I wanted a full five days in the temple city on the Mekong in north central Laos. So while I was a little worried that Lao Airlines might be small and flaky, I was happy that they were taking precautions today. Our 9:25 AM flight finally took off, just after the 11:30 flight to Luang Prabang and we had incredible views of the rain-swollen Mekong as our Chinese-made turboprop MA-60 aircraft dove through clouds and alongside the mountains to land at the airport where dark skies continue to empty their contents.

My guide and translator and I were able to check into our beautiful room in the Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel in time for a tasty lunch in the downstairs restaurant. And later we took the umbrella supplied by the hotel to stroll down Thanon Sisavangvong, lined with cafes, travel agencies, internet outlets and restaurants, and, at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, we turned back to walk along the Big Muddy, past innumerable guest houses, boat piers, street markets and riverbank dining spots to our hotel. It will be great when the sun finally comes out so we can see this fascinating town more clearly.

The rain actually let up for part of our day in Vientiane yesterday. We took a tuk tuk to Pha That Luang, the golden stupa that is both a symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty. Numerous pilgrims, many from Thailand, joined us to circumambulate the stupa, but unfortunately the upper levels were closed. According to legend, Ashokan missionaries built a stupa on the site to enclose a piece of the Buddha's breastbone (pubic bone in one account). A stupa was constructed in the mid-16th century by King Setthathirat on a Khamer site, but like so many other monuments in Laos was destroyed by foreign invaders. The present golden stupa was reconstructed by a French university team in the 1930s, which doesn't seem to diminish the passion of the pilgrims. A large statue of Setthathirat sitting on a horse is outside the gate and he looks amazingly like Teddy Roosevelt. Down the road from Pha That Luang is a large four-sided arch faintly reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Named Patuxai which means "gate of triumph," the arch was constructed in the 1960s of cement from the U.S. intended to be used in the construction of a new airport. It's sometimes called "the vertical runway." A sign on an inside wall is unusually critical, and after recounting the story of its construction, says: "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete." Patuxai is surrounded by a large park which was full of Laotians and tourists, all taking photos of each other in front of the concrete monstrosity.

There are more temples in Laos than even in Thailand where the characteristic architecture fills the skyline. We ended out tour yesterday at Haw Pha Kaeo, a temple built to house the Emerald Buddha which now resides in a place of honor at Wat Phra Kaew in the Royal Palace in Bangkok after being taken by the Siamese during warfare in 1779. I doubt that the Laotians are much happy about that, but relations along the Mekong border are peaceful these days. Haw Pha Kaeo is now a national museum of religious art and we sneaked under the wire just before closing to look at the varieties of Buddhist iconography, old and new. (That line at the left of the photo is my umbrella, as the rain was beginning to fall again).

Last night we went up to the fourth floor of Bor Pen Nyang, a bar next to our hotel, to watch the sun set over the Mekong. But despite drinking a Beerlao, the national brew, gray clouds obscured the view. A little later we walked along the riverbank past dozens of outdoor "beer garden restaurants" and a large carnival complete with games and blow-up castles for kids to a riverboat restaurant. But before the cruise began, mosquitoes feasted on us for dinner instead and we opted to leave and dine in the air-conditioned comfort of Restaurant Le Provençal, a French restaurant where the walls were inexplicably covered with bullfight posters (Hemingway's influence?). I order duck but got beef instead. It was delicious, and the "freedom fries" were very tasty.

The French influence can be seen in the architecture, street names, and in presence of French bread everywhere. I had a cappuccino at La Salon de Thé. The Post Office had "Philatelie" over the stamp window, and at the airport the VIP lounge was the Salon d'honneur." But Laos is still run by a Communist government and I was reminded of Vietnam but the absence of magazine and newspaper stalls. The only place I saw the English language newspaper, the Vientiane Times, was in the hotel lobby and in several cafes, but never for sale. There were no familiar fast food restaurants, no Starbucks and no 7-11s, although I did see a minimart with the tell-tale red and green strips in the window. None of the franchises were missed. Vientiane seemed full of westerners, many in working clothes whom I suspect worked for the UN and NGO organizations. And of course there were many backpackers, kids with tattoos and tattered copies of the Lonely Planet guide. Everywhere there are women wearing long skirts called I believe phasin, in beautiful patterns. The market I visited was packed with stalls selling beautiful materials and I flirted briefly with the idea of going into the import-export business. Certainly not an original idea.

I liked Vientiane very much and believe I could live there. Prices are certainly cheaper than in Thailand, and comparable to Vietnam. I'm not sure what I could do, however, beyond watching the river flow and, in the rainy season, watching the drops fall. My first impressions of Luang Prabang, soggy thought they may be, are very good, but I'll save them for another blog. Below is a picture of our hotel, the tall building.

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