There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 3 March 2014

Vientiane (2) A Buddha Park and a Fond Farewell: Part 16 of Following the Mekong through, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos


Next morning we set off with S towards the ‘Buddha Park’ 18 km to the south.

‘The road is good until the turn-off to the Friendship Bridge,’ S told us, ‘then it deteriorates.’ When the Thai-Lao friendships bridge opened in 1994 it was the first bridge over the southern Mekong, and only the second over the river anywhere. It has since been renamed the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge as there is now a second further south. I have never driven across a border requiring a change from driving on the right (Laos) to the left (Thailand). There must be potential for interesting mayhem.

We passed the BeerLao Brewery and stopped for a photograph. It is nothing special to look at, but we had enjoyed the product so it seemed appropriate.

BeerLao Brewery, Vientiane

After the turn-off the road did deteriorate, but less than S had suggested - it still had tarmac.

After a kilometre or two S asked the driver to pull over, got out and strolled across the road. We followed. Beneath a tatty awning was a small production line for khao lam, the bamboo tubes of sticky rice we had first encountered at Skune in Cambodia, where they are called grolan. A man was chopping bamboo, cutting just above the rings to produce tubes with one naturally closed end.  He stuffed the tubes with a partially cooked mixture of sticky rice, coconut and palm sugar and popped them into the ashes of a fire to finish cooking.

Khao Lam production line, near Vientiane

When they were done a woman carved off the charred bamboo and pared the tubes down until they could be split open with the fingers. Her colleague in the red apron dealt with sales.

S peels the Khao Lam with his fingers
They are rather too filling for a snack, but perfect for a manual worker’s packed lunch. Lynne pronounced them good, but I would have preferred less of the stodge and more of the flavoursome elements.
Despite the apparent grimace Lynne did say they were good, and she ate all of it.
Eating Khao Lam near Vientiane

We soon arrived at Xieng Khuan (other spellings, and indeed other names, are available), usually referred to in English as the 'Buddha Park'.

Lynne and a three headed elephant, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane
Bounleua Soulilat (other spellings and names etc) was a self-styled holy man who claimed to be the disciple of a mysterious cave-dwelling Vietnamese hermit. He began the sculpture park in the late 1950s to witness to his eclectic blend of Buddhism and Hinduism and quickly filled a field beside the Mekong. The sculptures, which tend to be large, were made to his designs by local people who also donated the concrete from which they are made.

Mytholigical scene, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane

The resulting collection of what is most kindly called, art naif, is best described in pictures.
Reclining Buddha, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane

 The globe near the entrance is the largest and most remarkable of the sculptures.

Globe, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane

Squeezing in through the mouth you enter the underworld from where you can climb crumbling unguarded concrete stairs in semi-darkness through the realms of men and of gods. I enjoyed their version of the 'churning of the ocean of milk' which we had seen so finely carved in Angkor Wat a couple of weeks earlier.

Churning the Ocean of Milk, inside the globe, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane

Emerging into Nirvana (?) beside the tree of life gave a fine view over the park.

From the top of the globe, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane
Bounleau was described as eccentric by his admirers and barking mad by the less sympathetic. When the revolution came in 1975 he thought it wise to decamp to Thailand where he set up another version of the park on the other side of the Mekong.

His death in 1996 may have been connected with a fall from one of his giant statues, or perhaps not. His mummified body is preserved at his Thai Buddha Park.

I have no idea what this is
Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, near Vientiane

The Lao park is now owned and managed by the government. They have not quite mastered ‘exit through the gift shop' but they do have the snack bar well organised and we ended a hot morning with refreshing green coconuts before heading back towards Vientiane.

On the way we bemused S and the driver by requesting a stop so we could take the picture below. JCB may be an international brand leader with factories on four continents, but they are still a private company wholly owned by the Bamford family of Staffordshire and have their head office in Rocester barely twenty miles from home. We feel a little vicarious pride in these things.

JCBs, Vientiane
We had lunch in a basic, entirely non-tourist restaurant. I am not sure what they menu said….

The prices are cheap enough (£1= 13,000 Kip), but I am illiterate
Family Restaurant, Vientiane
… but we had soup and fried rice with pork. It was a family restaurant. A young waitress broke off rocking a baby in a cot to bring our food. Her father fetched some beer and went straight back to helping her seven-year-old sister with her reading. Mum chopped vegetables, cooked and cooed over the baby while her oldest daughter, the other waitress, hung around wearing a tee-shirt with the slogan Califormia (sic) Surfin'.
Soup, pork and fried rice, family restaurant, Vientiane

Next stop was a private textile museum, hidden in one of the quieter outer suburbs among side roads which could have been in a village. All over the world people keep showing us looms and textiles, but unfortunately it is a subject that interests neither of us very much. The buildings, though, were splendid. The museum, run by a brother and sister and their respective families, is housed in beautiful teak buildings, with verandas, carved wood, filigree work and polished floors.

Veranda at the textile museum, Vientiane
Sundowners were invented to be drunk on verandas like this

They showed us their collection of looms, several of which they still use, and explained some of the technical differences – I almost wish I could remember them. They showed us their tie-dye work and large pots of indigo which changes colour from green to blue as it is processed.

Yarn and Looms, Textile Museum, Vientiane
After giving us coffee and some extraordinarily sweet little bananas from their own tree, they led us to the gift shop. The textiles and clothes were all high quality - and with prices to match.

By the time we had returned to our hotel and said goodbye to S the hot afternoon was demanding a cold beer, so we made the short walk back to the Belgian beer bar. Beer Lao has two varieties, the regular lager and a dark lager which was a little more expensive and comes in smaller bottles. We ordered one of each. The dark lager is strong (6.5%), full bodied and just a little too sweet for my taste.

Lynne, Tintin and Beerlao dark lager
Later we returned to a nearby barbecue restaurant.

Barbecue, Vientiane
 We had one of the large fishes, see above, half a duck chopped into bite sized portions and some chips. It was our last dinner in Laos, and a very fitting finale it was too.

Fish, duck and Beer Lao, Vientiane


I don't like last days, if you've got to go it is best to go quickly. This was to be a long last day and we negotiated a late check-out so we had somewhere to retire to as the day wore on.

After wandering round the shops and buying a few gifts, eleven o’clock found us on Fa Ngum road beside the Mekong. We paused for a coffee and then continued our riverside walk. The Mekong here is wide but in the dry season much of its width is made up of shoals and sandbanks. We could see the outline of buildings on the Thai side, but it was too hazy to make out any detail.

In a small park beside the River is a statute of King Anouvong. Those who know their Lao history, (or read the previous post) might remember that Anouvong rebelled against his Siamese overlords in 1828. The rebellion resulted in the complete destruction of Vientiane and Anouving being hauled off to Bangkok and put in a metal cage where he died a year later.

General Sing, who sacked the city, and Lady Mo who played a part in destabilising the rebellion are national heroes in Thailand and schools and streets are named after them. Although the timing and conduct of the rebellion raise serious questions over Anouvong’s judgement and competence, the Lao have responded by turning Anouvong into a hero too.

King Anouvong faces Thailand

The Friendship Bridge was built in 1994, and in 2010 Anouvong was placed on his plinth, his right hand extended in a gesture of friendship, though the sword in his left looks ready just in case. The Lao and the Thai are related people with a similar language written in a similar alphabet. Relations are generally good but like all families they can squabble. The Lao attitude to their bigger, richer neighbour is one of deference mixed with envy*.

We took off our shoes to approach the statute. A family was there at the same time, a young child running round the monument under dad’s vigilant eye while his mother laid flowers at the feet of the king.

Leaving Anouvong we walked up to the Presidential Palace, which is used for state occasions rather than as a residence. It is not a great building and this is not a particularly good photograph of it, but at last there were no security guards and I could stick my camera through the railings without being shouted at.

Presidential Palace, Vientiane
We had lunch at Makphet. Like Romdeng in Phnom Penh, Makphet is a training restaurant for former street kids. As in Romdeng the trainees were a credit to their teachers and we had an excellent chicken curry with pumpkin and mushrooms, and Luang Prabang sausage with assorted dips. My dessert was the sort of dish that makes my heart glad: coconut ice cream on fresh pineapple with palm sugar syrup and the lightest dusting of chilli. If only they had worked in some ginger all my favourite things would have been on one plate.
Top dessert, Makphet, Vientiane

We made our bags ready for departure and walked up to the Belgian bar for a final pastis. It was closed, so we went back to the hotel and had one there. We sat and waited for our holiday to end and the punishing and lengthy business of flying home to begin.

Last pastis
This had been our second trip to friendly and dynamic Vietnam, where the ‘economic miracle’ is following closely behind that of China. Last time we noted similarities between the Mekong delta and the Garden of Eden and we had seen nothing to change our view. Cambodia is fascinating, its ancient history is enigmatic but its modern history is the saddest story in this recently war torn region. It was, perhaps, our least favourite of the three; the land was too flat, the food too sweet and the people too inclined to blame anyone but themselves. Cambodia is small and maybe we have seen enough not to need to return. Sleepy Laos is beautiful, smiley, relaxed and utterly beguiling. I know it is one of the world’s poorest countries, the government is corrupt and opposition is not tolerated, but nobody seems to worry about it. There is much more to see and I hope we will be able to return in the not too distant future.

*The rather more ‘chippy’ Cambodians, on the other hand, cannot forgive the Thais for being so much more prosperous than they are and for avoiding the horrors of the Indo-Chinese wars in the third quarter of last century. They consequently blame the Thais for anything they have not already blamed on the Vietnamese.

Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

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