As we progressed from China, to Vietnam, to Laos on our three-week journey, Asia became more and more fascinating to me. Hanoi was very different from cities in China for many reasons, but it still didn’t seem too far off the grid. Hoi An had a different feel altogether–no big city crush of people, no traffic to speak of, gorgeous countryside undamaged by industrial factories. And when we got off our 22 hour long sleeper bus in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, it was an almost surreal experience. I felt like I could be anywhere, in India, or Africa. The air was hot and humid, the roads were packed red dirt, at least until we got into the tiny city center. We got our backpacks out of the bus and piled into a tuk-tuk that was headed for the center, and I held my backpack, trying not to hit the two little Lao boys sitting next to me when we went over pot holes in the road.
When the tuk-tuk stopped, I was surprised. The city was tiny–no high-rises, a two-lane highway running through it with lots of little alleys and one-way streets, and hardly any traffic at all. But, this is one of the things that I loved Vientiane for, because it was so easy to get around and explore, and because it was wonderful to be away from big-city life. Like Vietnam, Laos used to be a French colony, so there is a noticeably French influence in some of the architecture and cuisine, especially in Vientiane. I have never seen so much Western food in China or Vietnam; even in its little supermarkets, Vientiane had cream soda, cheese, smoked salmon, pastries, freshly made pesto, and so many other treats that I have missed while living in China. For lunch one day, I had a delicious mozzarella, tomato, pesto, and ham baguette sandwich that almost brought tears to my eyes, it was so good. I know this sounds overly dramatic, but I love a good sandwich, and I have yet to find one of those in China. Don’t get me wrong, I love Chinese food, but being without certain foods, especially comfort foods, has made me crave them.
We walked around quite a bit in Vientiane, enjoying the hot weather, looking at the elaborate temples that were scattered all throughout the city. The temples in Laos are much different from the ones we saw in China and Vietnam. The workmanship on Lao temples is even more brightly colored and seems very opulent. We saw monks in bright orange garb walking through town and praying in the temples. We drove a motorbike to the most famous temple in the city, and it was colored almost completely gold. I was wearing shorts that day, so when we arrived at the temple entrance, a few other similarly-clad women and I were asked to use the wrap-around skirts they had for tourists at the gate. I was expecting this to happen, but the weather was so hot that I couldn’t bear to wear jeans that day, and when you’ve been traveling for three weeks you run out of clothing options.
One day, we rented a motorbike and drove 4o minutes out of Vientiane to Buddha Park, a garden full of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. The road there was riddled with potholes, but we made it there in one piece and enjoyed walking around the statues. One of them, included in the pictures below, was huge–you could go inside the fearsome mouth and climb up some tight stairs into something that reminded me strongly of Dante’s Inferno. There were several levels inside, and on each level, statues of people were fraught with hellish torment, and gods sneered out of dark corners. Looking at and being puzzled by the statues in Buddha Park, I wished that I knew more about the deities that were being depicted, and the people that worshiped them. Three short days wasn’t near enough to get acclimated to the unique culture in Laos that felt so different from anywhere else I’d been.
Our last night in Vientiane, we ate at a fabulous restaurant where street children learn skills to work and support themselves. It was exciting to see something like this in operation, and seemingly working out so well. I hope those kids can continue to work in such a safe, caring environment, something that is not a trademark of South Asian workplaces, especially where children and teens are concerned. There is a sobering amount of human trafficking that exploits the young, poor, and vulnerable in that part of the world. I hope that more places like this will spring up and get the support they need. I can’t find the name of the place, but if I do, I’ll post some more information about it.
This post wraps up my journey through southern China, Vietnam, and Laos–I don’t know if I will ever return to these places again, but I really hope to someday. If I come back to Asia, Vietnam and Laos especially will be on the top of my list!