Vientiane

5 Nov

img_6730By all accounts, the capital of Laos is usually a sleepy sort of city. Vientiane is described in the Lonely Planet as languid and laid-back. Although it is the largest city in Laos, it tops out at a petite 760,000 or so. The Mekong floats leisurely by, and temples and cafes line the streets. Orestes and I visited Vientiane at the beginning of our fall break in hopes of some wandering and relaxation suitable for a lady five months pregnant (that would be me). Well, interesting as Vientiane turned out to be, languid is not the word I would use to describe it.

Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we arrived coincided with Boun Suang Heua, the annual Boat Racing Festival. For several nights leading up to the actual races, a street fair took over one of the main thoroughfares of Vientiane. Stalls offered food, drinks, music, shopping opportunities, and carnival games. Every evening was an opportunity for people watching; the city was packed with domestic tourists who had come to enjoy the races. The festival is meant to be an homage to the water divinities, and the Nagas, the serpent deities who live in the Mekong and protect Laos. In reality, most people use the festival as an excuse to eat, drink, and be merry.

On the final day of the festival, the park and street along the Mekong were closed to traffic. Thousands of people lined the riverbank. We could not get anywhere near the finish line, so we settled for seats in the shade along the river. From our vantage img_6747point, we watched the neon-clad racers as they performed a sort of warm-up ritual that involved plunging into the Mekong over the sides of their boats, and stretching/praying in the water before climbing aboard once again and paddling upriver to the starting line. Each long, narrow boat holds around fifty rowers. In this day and age, most of the teams have corporate sponsors. Both men and women participate, racing in heats two kilometers downstream to the finish line, accompanied by the frantic pounding of drums. I have no idea which team won, or how they sort this all out, but the crowd was enthusiastic. We watched until the noise and the heat made this preggo ready for some aircon.

We spent the remainder of our time in Vientiane ambling about, seeing the sights and taking refreshment breaks. We visited the Lao National History Museum, which is housed in an old colonial villa. img_6270As with many museums in Southeast Asia, a visible lacking of funding leads to outdated displays that show a decided lack of upkeep. In several spots on the second floor, I was a little worried we might fall through the dodgy wooden floorboards. However, the museum was interesting as it went through all of Lao history from the Stone Age to 2007 AD or so. The blatant anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the exhibits about the Vietnam War is readily apparent; to be fair, we did bomb Laos excessively during this period, so lingering resentment is completely understandable. (For more on Laos history, check out my post here.)

Aside from our museum visit, we checked out several of the shiny wats in town, and did a lot of walking along the park bordering the Mekong. We missed out on a few of the locations I had wanted to explore in Vientiane because they were closed for the boat festival – I suppose we will just have to go back!

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