We only had a few hours in the morning to explore Vientiane, and so a few of us managed to organise a trip to Buddha Park and Pha That Luong Temple setting off at around 7.30 and arriving back at the hotel ready for lunchtime.
Buddha Park was a very interesting place. I knew that it was a man-made collection of fairly recent sculptures but I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so creepy. There were bastardised versions of Gods and effigies from both Buddhism and Hinduism and it made me feel a bit weird walking around and taking pictures. Almost like this was once a sacred ground, but now a tourist attraction. The reality is actually the complete opposite, because whilst the place was constructed to allure tourists, there is a little shrine in front of the reclining Buddha in the centre of the park which I imagine wasn’t part of the designer’s original plan.
As soon as you entered the park, there was a giant “pumpkin”-like structure that you could climb, and naturally, the only way to the stairs was through its mouth. It turned out that there were actually two routes to the top. The rest of the group went in first, and decided to go clockwise, I waited until they got to the top and got them to take a picture of me down in the park by myself! They had a seriously precarious route through the middle of the structure, whereas I went anti-clockwise and was rewarded with steep steps which were far easier to navigate. I also didn’t get up close and personal with the skeletal statues with baby skulls and child-sized evil looking beings carrying weapons in the centre of the structure. Which worked for me, since I was climbing it alone. Apparently, the Pumpkin is supposed to represent Hell, Heaven and Earth, but the only vibe I was getting was creepy.
At the top, you could literally see everything. It was really quite high, and there were no railings to prevent you falling. It must have been about 20-25ft high. We sat for a while at the top, catching our breath and as people went back down to walk amongst the structures, I directed them to the other staircase, which was much appreciated by all! When I went down to have a closer look at the statues, I felt really strange. There were clear nods to both Hinduism and Buddhism, but I could tell that the deities had been altered slightly and there were skulls everywhere. There was a depiction of Lord Shiva, Parvati Ma, Lord Ganesh and his brother, who goes by numerous names, but is a God of War. In my personal opinion, it is rare to see all four of them pictured together. There were two tall statues of the Goddess, but neither looked quite right. There was also a statue of Lord Krishna in his usual pose, in front of a cow, playing the flute, one foot balanced in front of the other. But even this didn’t look strictly right to me either. He didn’t have a chandlo (red mark on his forehead), and he wasn’t smiling.
And that’s not to mention the clearly more Buddhist effigies. There was a giant standing upright, holding the lifeless-looking body of a human-sized woman in his outstretched arms. That is not normal. There was a giant bug, some sort of cockroach/beetle type creature that was having its legs removed by a human-sized God in a clearly violent manner. There was a goddess-looking being smiling ear to ear as she was being consumed by a dragon. This does not sit right with me because neither religion advocates violence, so this theme of killing and being killed just doesn’t make much sense. What kind of symbolism is that supposed to be?
After an hour or so, everyone was weirded out enough to head to our next location. An actual real temple. Pha That Luong is the golden temple in the capital of Laos with a massive golden reclining Buddha in the centre of its grounds. The history of this temple is hazy, but it’s fair to say, as with all ancient temples, it had been passed from religion to religion as new peoples invaded and conquered, but it is now a Buddhist Temple. The most recent reconstruction effort was in the 1930’s after the Thai-Franco war.
Trying to organise cake and the signing of cards and buying of a few decorations without letting the birthday girl know, was especially difficult for this one, but we managed a lovely chorus of happy birthday and a couple of exploding firecrackers before getting back into a minibus to head to a little Laotian village called Na Duong. I actually skipped lunch and just had cake which really was incredible, plus it meant that I had plenty of space for our traditional Laotian meal in the evening.
Though it pains me to say it, traditional Lao food didn’t really do it for me. There were broth-y soups which didn’t really taste of much and minced pork which was a very dry dish. Then there was a dried fish and chilli chutney-style accompaniment what was supposed to be eaten with the ever present sticky rice. Then there were plates of crinkle-cut chips that reminded me of McCain’s microwave chips that used to come in cardboard boxes that went from the freezer to edible in two and a half minutes. The local whisky though? Yes, I could get on board with that bit of moonshine. It was quite a dark whisky and it was infused with some kind of bark reminiscent of cinnamon, so there was an aromatic woodiness to the flavour. Unfortunately, we didn’t know what it was going to be like, so we were necking our shot, but I could have quite happily savoured a short, on ice.
With a shot of whisky and maybe a beer in us, these ladies turned up to dress the boys in a long skirt each! The New Guy wasn’t keen, but then everyone suddenly had a lovely Laotian lady picking skirts up and assigning one to each of us, so we all got ready for some dancing. Out into the garden we went, to meet the village kids and the rest of the adults too. The kids were clearly trying to eye us up, trying to guess which of us had natural rhythm, and when they made their decision, they grabbed us by the hand and took us to one of the stools laid out specially for us in a line in the garden. Then they took their places for a dance performance.
The dance they showed us first was incredibly repetitive, with a few steps, a few kicks and a 180o spin, but they counted in 7’s, so it felt like there was a little jump in the middle of the dance. The nature of the repetition soon became evident, when the song finished, we applauded like a good audience, then we were pounced upon, taught the moves, and made to dance it to the music together. And that was by no means the end of it, as they made us do it by ourselves afterwards, just to make sure we got it down! During this last version of the dance, the music was getting a bit tedious, but my little Laotian friend, Phun, caught my eye, mouthed the word “beautiful” with a thumbs up, which caused me to lose my footing. She had a massive grin on her face when I got it back though, which was super cute!
When the song finally ended (and it did seem to go on for an extraordinary length of time), we were allowed to sit back down for another two performances. One of the dances was led by a little boy who had so much style and flair that there was no doubt in my mind at all that he was gay. Even at 10 or 11 years old, he had so much sass and his talent of twirling his body into the dance moves was just stunning.
After these performances, we were treated to a demonstration of a dance involving bamboo sticks. It was really fascinating, watching these sticks being produced out of nowhere and being laid out on the floor in this kind of formation, a kid next to each pair of tubes:
Then, with a rhythm not dissimilar to “We Will Rock You” by Queen, they began banging the tubes together, quite viciously! It was a little bit like Double Dutch that we used to play, except we only had skipping ropes, and these kids had rock solid weapons!
Pretty much every kid in the village wanted to show off their amazing nimble feet, they grabbed their partners and taught them how to jump across without getting hit or tripped. I think that Phun may have had a recent bad experience with the game, or maybe she was a little too young, in any case, I didn’t get a practice run, so when it was a free for all, I jumped straight in and proceeded to trip all over the place resulting in laughs all round! With one last dance left, with no guidance or planning, we kind of just made it up as we went along, dancing around in a circle. Sure, some of us had more natural rhythm than others, but it was a great night, we gave our time to some local people, they welcomed us with open arms and open kitchens and they seemed to be having fun too! It was an awesome day to have a birthday… not like the next birthday on the trip, but that’s a story for another day.