Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Vientiane – Day 40 – Views from Vientiane, Loas
Breakfast today was a particularly excellent foot-long street-vendor re-invention of the submarine sandwich – veggie; washed it down with an equally satisfying banana shake. I then found my way onto local bus no 14 along with at least 50 Lao in a vehicle designed for perhaps half that many.
Although Laos is reportedly the least densely populated country in SE Asia, it was difficult to believe that stat while shoehorned in the confined space of the bus. Economics of the region: transport leaves when its full. Emphasis on the full. The bus bounced me out of the city bringing me to the strange and whimsical Buddha Park.
There on the bank of the Mekong, a crab-grassy acre or two is the site of a weird collection of cement sculptures of both Buddha iconography and the even stranger Hindu pantheon. To wit, a 15-metre high pumpkin shaped cement structure contained three internal levels, each of them connected by cement stairs and each of them offering all sorts of muse-like cement characters. The pumpkin pavilion itself was topped by a 10-metre high sculpture of a tree-like apparition, its branches bare and rendered like fork lightning. Its significance? I have no idea.
Scattered throughout the rest of the park were all manner of large and small renderings of deities and monsters, often with an inscription at their base in loving memory of someone. The whole scene is the brainchild of a man named Bunleua Suhilat, described as a yogi-priest-shaman who has merged Hindu and Buddhist culture into a bizarre amalgam which, apparently, has developed a following in Laos and NE Thailand.
According to legend, Bunleua was walking in some mountains when he fell into a sink-hole and landed in the lap of a Hindu rishi (sage). (I hate when that happens, although I have to figure the rishi was none too thrilled either). But our protagonist, Bunleua, decided this was THE sign he had been looking for and he stayed in the sink-hole with the rishi for several years learning wisdom (which obviously included the ability to forgive strangers for falling into your sink-hole and onto your lap). I have to imagine that emerging from that kind of classroom might make one envision something like Buddha Park.
Upon my return to Vientiane I walked the couple of kilometers up and back to Pha That Luang (Great Sacred Reliquary) which tradition has it is the site of an ancient temple which housed a breastbone of Buddha (after he died). Pha That Luang is an important Lao national monument which has been restored and rebuilt several times in its many-hundred-year history. To be frank, the current edifice is not a fantastical structure by Asian standards but its gold gilt covering and multiple pointy stupas give it a prickly majesty and a rich glow in the late afternoon sun.
My last stop was at Patuxai, the Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. This structure was supposedly cast in cement which was originally purchased by the U.S. for use in building a new airport, during its hegemony in the area,. The fact that the succeeding government used it for its victory arch has apparently lead some people to calling it the vertical runway. Still, it does have a certain Lao flair with the three temple-like pointy structures which crown it.
The view from the top was quite refreshing and revealed just how little presence this city has actually carved out of the Mekongs tropical forest plain; there are a handful of seven and eight story buildings in the entire city. The rest of Vientiane exists beneath the palm-line, that is beneath the canopy of rich tropical trees that fill region. The city looked more like tropical forest than city from that vantage point.
One last fascinating view of Vientiane and indeed of contemporary Laos comes from the Vientiane Times, the citys english-language newspaper. Here are some of the stories that caught my attention from the August 7 9 issue:
>>The main headline on the front page declared Prince Akishino of Japan makes second-ever Lao trip. The article went on to point out that during the Princes 10-day visit, he will travel to Oudomsay province and he will stay there for three days. His Highness will visit chickens in Phoukhyo village and meet [the] Governor of Oudomsay. Which, of course, answers the age old question of which comes first, the chickens
>> On page three, the first headline declared, Deputy PM likes the odd drop of Beerlao. Deputy Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith remarks in the article, Beerlao is my favorite drink. I have been to other countries and have tried their beers but I still come back to the taste of Lao beer. A fine endorsement. Of course, the Deputy PM was quoted thusly at the finale of the Lao Brewery Company seminar to improve marketing techniques. Apparently, that seminar was a tremendous success.
>> On the same page, from the Van-Athith weekly is the following headline: Family man succeeds in female domain. The article says that In difficult family situations, the male has to find an extra job to earn more income for his family. This includes jobs traditionally confined to the female work domain including weaving cotton to make clothes
Mr. Mounty makes three embroidered hems that can earn him 10,000 Kip (about $1.10US) per day. Critics agree that Mr. Mounty does a fine job. Mr. Bounkam Thenvilavong and Miss Manivone from the neighbouring house in the same village, agreed that the embroidered hems made by Mr. Mounty are sent to the markets and nobody
complains because of the good quality of his products.
>> On the Asian News page was the following headline: South Korean wig firm charged with body search. The article goes on to say that female employees are taking legal action against their employer, a Shenzen wig manufacturing company, claiming that they were subjected to coercive body searches. The searches were allegedly conducted because managerial staff at the factory believed the 56 employees were stealing wig materials However, it is claimed that not a single hair was found on those suspected. (I swear thats how it was reported).
>> On a more serious note, on page five an article quoting the Lao-language Pathet Lao Daily, declared that in Vientiane there are too many students, not enough schools. Mr. Saythong Keoduangdee, Chief of Vientianes Education Department notes in the article that in the past some secondary schools in Sikottabong district had 100 students per classroom making it very hard to teach or learn.
>> In the Economy and Business section was an article headlined Road traders make fortune on fruit snacks. An in-depth expose of one such trader follows. The 29-year-old sour fruit cart operator, Mr. Minh, stated, Im currently pleased with my career. I daily earn 20 to 30,000 kip ($2.20 to $3.30US) during the wet season but sometimes my income goes up to around 40,000 kip per day. I thought very interesting to know that this is considered a fortune. The article goes on to quote Mr. Minh as saying, When I was employed as a worker, I was exhausted after work and often drank too much. I had no entertainment. So I decided to turn to a new career as a sour fruit cart business (sic) in 1997. Now I can meet my six year old daughters demands and our family living conditions are getting better. My daughter can attend school as well My famous [vending] place is in front of Pakpasak Technical School. Ive regular clients and I usually sell all my fruits at this place. I pay only 1500 kip for tax to officers at my famous place.
>> One last piece, an ad on page 18 trumpeted Lao Red Cross Youth Competition. The add contained a scrambled-words contest. Weekly winners in the contest would win a T-shirt promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. From all weekly winners, one winner of English lessons would be drawn. The scrambled words spelled out the following sentence: There should not be any discrimination against HIV infected persons. Great to see the Red Cross promoting AIDS awareness among youth in Laos. English language lessons as the grand prize; the West is coming.