It was midday and we bravely decided to fight the jet-lag by staying up until the evening. We wanted to get a feeling of the town. Our first destination was the Mekong, visible from afar, a huge brown trail running alongside the city. As we are in the dry season, the river bed is partially dry and can be walked on. At least that’s what I thought. This directly led to my first experience with the Mekong being a lot more intense and closer up than anticipated: I slipped and made contact with the muddy muddy ground of the Mekong. After a short stop to clean myself up we strolled through the streets to take a look at all the street food, the traffic and the streetlife before heading for our first lao dinner. It was delicious: A huge variety of foods from soup to salad, most of it hot and spicy and a fresh mixed fruit juice to help with the painfully spicy chilis.
The next day we set out to visit the major temples in Vientiane. We learned a lot about Buddhism architecture and Buddhism in general, in particular that the Theravada branch is predominant in Laos and does not believe in reincarnation but in ascension to the heavens. Therefore they do not bury their dead but rather cremate them to see the body lifted into the sky. The ashes are then stored in Stupas, burial monuments. The lao temples normally have a similar layout: They consist of 4 main buildings: The central hall, the dormitories, the library and the Stupas. All the buildings are protected by Nāga, the mythical snake which wanted to become a monk, but couldn’t as it wasn’t of human form. Buddha then agreed to have a depiction of Nāga in every temple as a compromise. It is also considered the protector of Vientiane and Laos.
Our first stop was Wat Si Saket. A former temple, now a museum, which hosts several thousand Buddha statues of varying forms and sizes.The vast majority are small Buddhas situated in alcoves in pairs of two to bring a happy marriage to the pair that donated them. In addition the walls are lined with larger Buddhas between 500 and 100 years old. A Buddha statue’s fingers are all of equal length to represent that Buddha found perfect balance. He has no desires, whereas a human has different desires whose importance are represented by the varying length of their fingers. The only Buddha statue with “normal hands” was a statue made in the image of one of the former kings. They are the only ones allowed to make a Buddha statue in their image. But they do not stand above the monks or the constitution.
The central hall of Wat Si Saket can also be visited, even by women. It contains the main and also the largest Buddha of the temple. There are many wonderful frescos depicting Jakatas, stories of the previous lives of Buddha, on the walls. Behind the hall was a wooden Nāga. This very long trunk is used for the ritual washing of the Buddhas once per year. It is hollow inside and the water is filled into the Nāga from which it is then rained onto the Buddha statues.
The next stop we made was Haw Phra Kaew, formerly the temple of the emerald Buddha. Unfortunately the Thai invaded Laos a number of times and “found” many important artefacts which they consequently returned to Bangkok. This means that the temple of the emerald Buddha does not actually contain the emerald Buddha. It hasn’t contained said Buddha since 1778. This place is also a museum and contains a lot of different Buddhas from all over Laos. The building is not a temple, because it consists only of a central hall, but no libraries and dormitories.
The final stop was the golden Stupa located somewhat outside the town: Pha That Luang. The Stupa was built in the sixteenth century and was surrounded by four temples, one in each cardinal direction. Three of those still stand today. The Stupa was badly damaged during one of the Thai wars and then rebuilt anew, as were most of the temples and buildings in Vientiane
After lunch we decided to embrace the Lao way and relaxed. After all our guide told us that Lao PDR stands for Lao People Don’t Rush.