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An Art Therapist Abroad

Bright Wats, Small City (That's Where I Gotta Go)

LAOS | Tuesday, 14 January 2014 | Views [1684]

The bus ride to Vientiane was relatively uneventful and from the bus station I took a shared tuk-tuk straight to my hostel - a pretty cool place with graffiti art covered walls and a huge padded movie room on the first floor. (Complete with the sign: No Boom Boom in the TV Room. Alrighty then.) Immediately upon settling into my new temporary digs I met Nandini, who was originally from India but living in Berlin. We decided to team up for a bit and headed out for some dinner near the city center, which was pretty close to the hostel, checking out the plethora of coffee shops on the way. Ahhh the perks of city life. Afterwards we called it a night in order to get an early start sightseeing the next morning.

Nandini and I started the day with complimentary breakfast at the hostel, then set out to see as many sights as we could. Like many cities in Laos, Vientiane is covered with temples, or wats, like this one just around the corner from the hostel,

but being the capital it's home to some of the country's most famous. It was wonderful to visit these places with Nandini as she was raised primarily Hindu and was able to compare these Laos Buddhist temples to the the Indian Hindu temples she grew up with. Aesthetically, the similarities surprised her a great deal. Our first stop was Wat Si Sisaket, the most impressive feature of which was the collection of over two thousand Buddha statues cloistered inside the walls that surround the main temple

(which was also beautiful).

Although most of the statues have been well maintained, a section of Buddhas that were vandalized during various invasions of the city were also on display,

as a reminder. This couple must have been as enchanted with the beauty of the temples as we were (or following tradition) because we saw them throughout the day having their wedding photos taken at several locations - and they changed their attire to match each one!

Wat Si Sisaket was followed by Haw Phra Kaew, another famous temple just across the street. Built in the mid 16th century this temple used to house the famous Jade Buddha, which now resides in Thailand. The bronze and stone sculptures were amazing

(Nandini was able to explain some of their symbolism to me) and the grounds were immaculately kept.

After a great lunch combo of streetfood and a cafe, we grabbed a tuk-tuk out to what is considered the main attraction of Vientiane: Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa.

This 3rd century temple has been rebuilt several times due to invasions, transitioning from Hindu to Khmer to Buddhist, and is continuously renovated to keep it in pristine condition. Although, if you ask me, they might wanna focus some of that attention on the five minute walk you have to take across the enormous, empty parking lot to reach the site, which kind of ruins the ambiance. While the main attraction is, without question, the center temple covered in golden stupas, Pha That Luang is a huge complex with many incredible things to see:

After that, Nandini and I took another tuk-tuk out to Wat Sok Pa Luang, a more rural temple / monastery located on the outskirts of town, known for its herbal saunas and massages. We were attempting to go to a free group meditation but found out it wasn't happening until the next day. Whoops. Still, it gave us the chance to take a long walk back into town and see more of the real Vientiane than we otherwise would have. At the hostel I curled up in the movie room for a while and then we went to dinner.

In the morning Nandini and I parted ways, and I boarded a bus to the tiny village of Ban Nahin, also known as Kong Lor, to visit the Kong Lor cave and surrounding remote scenery. The ride down to the village was long but absolutely stunning: mountainous limestone crags and forests of thin but soaring trees. By this point, I'd given up on attempting to photograph moving terrain through dirty bus windows, so you'll have to use your imaginations! The village really was tiny,

but obviously growing to accommodate visitors. I found a guesthouse with shared rooms along the main road (a.k.a.: the ONLY road), owned and run by Noi, an incredibly sweet man, and his family. It was one of the nicest places I'd stayed (it even had free bicycles!) and, comparatively, I paid almost nothing. The second I put my bags down Noi gave me a mug of Laos tea and took me up to the balcony so he could show off the view.

(Okay, not from the balcony but you get the idea.) After dinner down the road at one of the few restaurants, I called it a night in order to get up on the early side and see the cave the next day.

Despite being early to bed I was not early to rise, but that's one of the perks I've found of solo traveling - no schedule to stick to if you don't wanna! After I got up I went for a leisurely stroll and breakfast and on my way out of the guesthouse Noi and his wife gave me a quality head torch to use in the cave. Walking to the cave was great, I got to see the day to day life of the villagers and listen to the wind as it blew through tall outcroppings of bamboo; a beautiful, hollow, meditative sound. The entrance to the cave area was flanked with giant gates,

very Jurassic Park, and inside was a lovely forrested pathway.

I took my time exploring the area and it was a good thing I did because it meant I got a boat buddy for the ride through the cave. By combing forces, Joel from New Zealand and I paid half of what we would have had to individually. We were set up with two guides and walked across the Nam Hin Bun river to the mouth of the cave.

Now, I had read a description of this cave which likened it to the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology, so I can't take credit for the comparison, but I can say I found it poetically accurate. The entrance of the cave is wide and low, at if a giant axe spilt open the mountainside.

You walk in along a sandy riverbank and darkness descends almost immediately. The guides (our own personal Charons) led us to a long, shallow boat, and we began to putter slowly through the water, only able to see where the lights of our head torches could reach. As we rode along, the low ceiling suddenly opened up into a huge cavern. With the walls textured by small side caves and lined with more sandy banks, I could almost see the demons and lost souls staring out from their posts and roaming the shores. Then the ceiling would lower again until the next massive opening. It was as if we were descending through Dante's nine circles of hell. Once in a while another boat would pass us going in the opposite direction, but then we would fall back info darkness and near silence. Although there was definitely a creepy factor (something the tour companies like to play up, as evidenced by several descriptions I read focusing on the massive, 10 inch spiders they pretty much guarantee you will encounter on your trip - of which I saw none and was a bit disappointed) I found the experience both thrilling and surreal. At one point we got out of the boat to get up close and personal with the rock formations, but overall I found this cave to be much more about the experience rather than the sights. And, needless to say, in the pitch black I didn't get any pictures, so my memories of the sensations will have to suffice. (I later found out that the walking sections of the cave are wired with lights which our guides were supposed to switch on as we went through, but I'm so glad they didn't!)

After riding for about an hour we turned a corner and saw light - it was the other end of the cave! So we sailed out of the underworld and into Eden...

The river continued on to another village, this one even smaller than Ban Nahin with a population of just over five hundred people. (More adventurous travelers than I sometimes opt to spend a night or two in a homestay there.) We stopped outside the village for a while, and then began the journey back through the cave. It was just as enchanting in reverse. Before leaving I asked the guides how high the river gets during the rainy season, as I was wondering how different the experience would be. I was emphatically informed that the tours don't run during the rainy season, as the cave floods completely. Finally, for this adventure the weather was on my side! I enjoyed the walk back to the guesthouse where I spent a lazy evening reading and getting ready for my 7am bus ride south to Thakhek.

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