22-28 January 2013. Most of the information online said to not bother with Vientiane. We’d also heard of Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau years ago from a friend and because of that had wanted to go there, and indeed most of the people on our flight got off at Pakse while we continued on. I can’t remember now what led to the decision to go to Vientiane instead but I’m really glad we did. Pakse will be for another trip: Pakse, and more time at Vang Vieng, and a village way north of Luang Prabang. Laos is the land with the list of three places we still want to see.

We had some great experiences in Vientiane; from markets to temples to walks along the river to a huge family celebration for a couple of monks, plus a day trip to a national park and another to a dam and some salt works, it was a rich and interesting time.

We discovered the local market – as always. Not the tourist market, though we found that too. I love the local markets. It’s one place where you can get an authentic glimpse into the every day life of the people.

This man is making elaborate altar decorations for the big temples. We watched while a woman made the inner structure from many pieces of folded palm leaf pinned together with little bits of wood, like tooth picks, then marigolds and other flowers are threaded onto longer skewers until the whole thing comes together into a glorious tower.

The following photo still causes a visceral reaction – guilt, shame and embarrassment. We’re walking along in the market and I see this child playing happily with a couple of chairs while her mother sits above selling her goods. Of course I immediately start taking photos of the child. I think the flash startles her. She starts to cry. Oh no. The mother picks her up. And this is the one country where I haven’t yet learnt the words for ‘I’m sorry’. I feel as if it would be nice if the floor swallowed me up at this point, but first it has to get worse. In trying to make it better I think I’ll show the mother the photo. She’s holding the child whose face is turned away from me. I hold the camera close to the mother’s face so she can see the picture. At that point the child turns her head, sees the camera so close to her and starts literally screaming in terror. Oh dear God. Please let the floor swallow me up. Please now, as I slink away, and the poor mother tries to calm her terrified child, and just about the entire market is watching the idiot tourist terrify the children. Dying of embarrassment. But of course there is no such blessing as being able to instantly disappear and all I can do is apologise, in English, and shrink down a little as I walk away.

On a happier note we found the Hmong market spread out along the sidewalk, much smaller than it used to be apparently, with mainly herbs, barks, twigs and other natural remedies being sold by very friendly people.

The streets of Vientiane:

School’s out

Many drivers hang up a hammock in the back of their tuk tuk so they have a place to rest while waiting for a fare.

And this. On the same street. The next two photos taken within less than a minute of each other. Such an incongruous juxtaposition.

And the mannequins are white. Well all the mannequins in all of India and Southeast Asia are white – I kept looking for shop dummies that looked like the people who live there – none. And, from what I saw, I can’t imagine the women of Laos wearing such dresses. The only wedding we got to see in Laos was in a village; still I’d think that even the women in Vientiane would wear some version of traditional dress. I was completely nonplussed. What are all those frothy white dresses doing there?

We went for a long walk by the river one evening looking to see if there was a ferry over to the other side. The river was so low we’d have had to walk a long way just to get to the water. We did see quite a few people doing that, and climbing into small boats way off in the distance. I guess we weren’t feeling energetic or adventurous enough to go join them. But we did see these young monks playing in the dust,

and these young women – the new generation.

And an even newer generation, looking mighty cool

By now, as we’re walking back along the riverside boulevard, the night market is being set up – stall after stall after stall – it seems to go on forever. That’s when we came across this young man. Look at what he’s selling. So very enterprising and creative. He’s made carry bags from old newspapers and rags. They are not very strong, and of course we found out by using the couple we bought that they don’t last very long, but I was seriously impressed with his creativity and enterprise – something from nothing so that he could make a little money. You can see his sign in English attached to his bicycle. Even that would have taken special effort. They do not use our alphabet so the lettering is like a five year old child in school just learning to write the letters for the first time. But he did it. He did what he needed to do. So impressed. I hope he sells many bags. It did occur to me afterwards that maybe his mother made the bags, or the whole family together. Either way I was really impressed. I guess I said that already. The prices in US$ are about fifteen cents for a small one, and thirty cents for a big one.

In the centre of downtown Vientiane is this ancient stupa called That Dam. Many Laotians believe it is inhabited by a protective seven-headed naga, a mythical snake.

Pha That Luang is probably the grandest temple in Vientiane and is the national symbol of Laos. Sheer beauty. We walked into the main hall, faced the big gold Buddha up front, dropped our bags, and just sat for a while. Then we went exploring in the temple grounds

Altar offerings

Temple detail.

We had such luck! Without being aware of it at the time we made the booking we’d chosen a family owned hotel. While we were there two family members were being given a huge celebratory three-day send-off into monkhood. One was the brother-in-law of the hotel owner and the other his nephew. They both had already been living in the monastery for a short time, but now it was time for the special celebration to mark their entrance into monastic life. We first became aware of it one evening when we saw two grandly and ornately decorated beds in the large open reception/dining room space in the hotel. We were offered free dinner that night, invited to join in a catered meal for many family members, but it was the next day, and especially the next evening when things really happened.

The entire courtyard of the hotel was filled with awnings and tables and chairs and buffet tables. The inside dining tables and chairs were removed and carpets laid down in front of the decorated beds. The beds, and the things on them, such as bedding and a tea set, represented what the monks could take with them into monastic life. And all around the beds were gifts for them in the form of non-perishable foods, and money. The hotel owner said he was expecting 1500 people. Some came during the afternoon, but most came in the evening, and we were once again invited to join in the celebration, and help ourselves to the buffet. It was magical, like a big wedding celebration, and we had some lovely conversations with the owner’s sister, whose husband and son were the two to join the monastery, and another family member who spoke some English.

The activities indoors had nothing to do with weddings. Indoors there were three women sitting in front of the beds. For quite a while the two monks were sitting off to one side. People were taking turns, in small groups, to come inside, kneel before the women and the beds, and make offerings for the monks – food or money to sustain them in the monastery, and then being given gifts in return – small packages of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf. We watched for a while, and then felt moved to also contribute. We had no food but we were given one of the fancy metal bowls to put some money in, and in that way presented our gift. It felt really special to be able to be part of the ceremony, to be so welcomed and included. The older woman who’d been receiving the gifts all evening was still there in the morning. I think she’d been up all night. She asked, in sign language, for me to kneel next to her in front of the two beds to have our photo taken together.

I really wanted to photograph the two monks sitting off to the side watching the proceedings, but felt it would be a bit intrusive – never mind that I scare children half to death in the markets! I wish I’d asked as I found out later it would have been perfectly fine. Anyway I did get a shot of them outside just before they headed back to the monastery. I love the way there appears to be flowers on the head of the older monk.

The scene outside. The owner’s house is in the background, the hotel to the right.

Indoors. You can see the two beds in the background covered in, and surrounded by gifts – begging bowls, rice makers, pails, baskets, all the things they’ll need. And flowers. Flowers everywhere.

The older monk’s wife receiving a gift

Time to go back to the monastery

Apparently there was to be another ceremony the next morning. We couldn’t attend as we were going on an all day excursion to a nearby national park.

The next post: the national park full of wild orchids, a country salt works, and an extraordinary, stomach-churning roadside market.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.