Vientiane from stupa to pupa

Laos has two capitals: an official one and a tourist one. While Vientiane is the largest city of the country and its political center since 1975, the much smaller historical capital of Luang Prabang serves as its main tourist attraction. Many travelers go straight there. It’s tiny, laid-back, set in picturesque area and full of ancient monuments. Don’t kill me, but I actually prefer Vientiane! Maybe it’s my occasional need of hustle and bustle. Maybe it’s because of the people I’ve met. Maybe it’s the food. I just liked Vientiane more.

There are no soaring metropolises in Laos: Vientiane has the “big city” advantages but is still quite small and quiet. There’s less to see than in Luang Prabang, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see. Indeed, the national symbol of Laos and it’s holiest site is here: Pha That Luang (ທາດຫຼວງ), the Golden Stupa.

According to legends, a bone of Lord Buddha himself is kept here. The site is said to be holy since more than two thousand years, but the stupa has been built and rebuilt numerous times: most recently in the 1930s.

Around, there are several interesting temple buildings and some national monuments. I spent some time on taking photos, being sure not to miss the Reclining Buddha.

Visiting the Golden Stupa has started my day. From here, I proceeded on foot towards the city center. It’s quite a long, four kilometer walk. Halfway through lies a park with yet another symbol of the city, the Patuxay (ປະຕູໄຊ). Modeled after the Parisian Arc de Triomphe, it’s a reminder of the 1893-1953 French colonial rule. The monument was built in the 1950s and 60s, but never fully finished. I looked at the plaque hanging on it and what can I say? It seems that Laotians are not very proud of it:

[…] From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.

Several steps later, I left the main thoroughfare to photograph the Black Stupa (That Dam, ທາດດຳ) that stands on a small roundabout in one of the city center byways.

As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, food markets are among the most alluring places to visit. In central Vientiane one option is the market that sets up in the evening in the Chao Anouvong Park (ສວນເຈົ້າອະນຸວົງ). It’s near Fude Miao 福德廟 – the city’s best preserved Chinese temple.

But my favorite is definitely the night market in the Golden Stupa area. I visited it on a separate occassion, but if you plan ahead you can easily do everything I mentioned above in just one day. Just do my walk in reverse, starting in the center and finishing with the Golden Stupa, and wait until it gets dark and the vendors open their stalls. North Korean Pyongyang Restaurant (평양식당), about which I have written a separate post, is also not far away – so you can squeeze a visit there in your itinerary as well.

Southeast Asian markets are famed for being colorful, but maybe even more so for serving fried insects, amphibians and other small critters exotic to a foreign eye. I spotted many of such treats here, including tiny frogs and worm and bee pupae.

Another interesting characteristic of Lao cuisine is the variety of sauces and dips. They are often very peppery or bitter. The bitter taste comes from raw beef bile. Digestive fluids of a cow are actually a common ingredient in Laos and northern parts of Thailand.

I couldn’t try everything, so I focused on exoticism. Not having anything “secure” to counter the “brave choices” was a huge mistake though. The crunchy froggies were no problem, but the big toad and some offal dishes turned off-putting even for such a seasoned omnivore like myslef. Alas, the worst were the cubes of fat deceitfully disguised in golden crust and garnished with alluringly green crispy kaffir lime leaves. With the release of unpleasantly sharp grease on my palate, the stomach sent SOS signals to my mouth: enough! I couldn’t, err, stomach anything else that day. At least I’m happy with the photos.