Monday, May 19, 2014

A two-faced capital, another temple and dolphins in the Mekong...

After Vang Vieng the road conditions began definitely to improve - no wonder, we were approaching Vientiane, the shining capital of the «People's Democratic Republic of Laos». If there's a place in Laos where you can find communist kitsch, French-inspired street cafés, expensive cars, polished government buildings and AAA roads, then just pay Vientiane a visit.

The President's Palace of Vientiane - a pompous building in the style of Paris' Élysée Palace.

It's really notable how much the Laotians were trying to equal their former colonialists - in this city you'll easily find several national museums, bakeries which sell all kinds of baguettes or even a huge boulevard similar to the Champs-Élysées which even includes a knock-off of the Triumph Arc...

Only those Hammer-and-Sickle flags remind you...

... that this is not French territory anymore.

... you would expect from an European one.

In the local cafés you can get everything...

Baguettes, anyone?

But the country's poverty can't be completely ignored - the solid downtown buses were all donated by Japan.

The black Stupa of Vientiane

A typical Laotian Tuk Tuk-bike - tenderly called «Jumbo».

Vientiane even has some fancy temples - not too shabby!

Vientiane's Arc of Triumph, «Patuxay», in it's...
... whole glory.

An amusing fact regarding that «Arc de Triomphe»: Because the arc was built during the reign of the Nationalist Royalists in 1962, this monument never got an appropiate respect by the communist government that took over Laos in 1975. Since then «Patuxay» was always officially considered as a symbolization of «capitalism and western megalomania». But to be fair, the reds were not completely wrong - the concrete that was used to build this arc was originally donated by the Americans to build new roads in Laos. But the extremely corrupt Royalist goverment in Vientiane instead decided to set up one more expensive monument to make their pompous city a little prettier. A hilarious signboard attached to the arc explains everything:

A great way to promote the country's national monuments, isn't it?
But especially the last lines were true, as the view from up there really was great. On the way up, this means inside the arc, there were several souvenir shops that sold stickers, wooden figures, rugs, statues, necklaces, postcards and other stuff. But I was surprised by the amazed looks of the vendors after I asked them where I could buy postage stamps. The expression on their faces were telling me somewhat like «Holy shit, those things even exist?...»

From the top of Patuxay...
Because Vientiane offered some of the country's best museums, it was again time to get historically educated. The official army museum seemed to be a great choice.

 «The Lao People's Army History Museum»,...

... covers the Laotian Army's history until now.

A Chinese produced Type 59 tank, busily used by the Pathet Lao

These two beauties welcomed me at the entrance

I won't get too much into military history this time, but I still think the following incindents in Laotian history are quite noteworthy anyway:
  • In 1971, while the Secret War in Laos was still (quietly) raging, the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) actually tried to invade Laos in order to stop the North Vietnamese from entering South Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This operation was also supposed to give «a helping hand» to the CIA shadow armies, who isolatedly fought against the communists in the north. Although the ARVN were generously equipped and even air-supported by the USA, the invasion (also called Operation Lam Son 719) ended as a military disaster for the South Vietnamese. Together with the Pathet Lao, the North Vietnamese Army drove back the ARVN thanks to skillful guerilla tactics and the (tragic) incompetence of the ARVN high command. What sounds like a biased communist history lesson here is actually quite true...
This M113  APC was used by South Vietnamese troops who invaded Laos in 1971
  • Between 1987 to 1988 Laos was actually in war with Thailand, another not well-known fact. This short conflict was caused by a dispute over a controversial border area between Laos and Thailand, which Thailand claimed for themselves. After Thai soldiers occupied a small village and raised their national flag upon it, this territorial dispute completely escalated and became a minor military conflict. This war lasted only 2 months and caused «only» about 1'000 casualities in total - an almost laughable figure if you look up how many Laotians died during 1964 to 1975. It's also noteworthy that many border issues in South East Asia are still not solved due to the flawed mapping that the French colonialists left behind after their withdrawal from Indochina.
This Thai drone here was downed by the Laotian Army during the border conflict with Thailand in 1988

Remains of a shot down Thai plane from the same conflict

A bicycle like it was used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail


... and even captured western weapons.

Gun nuts like me were pleased to see many Soviet-produced...

Wreck parts of a shot down T-28 (left) and F-4 Phantom (right), ...

... both probably the most iconic U.S. attack planes during the Secret War.
A crashed UH-1 «Huey», one of...

... hundreds that Air America operated in Laos.

A visit at Laos' National Symbol Pha That Luang was also another tick on my bucket list. This iconic golden Stupa is one of the holiest places in Laos and is respected by all locals. It is admittedly a gorgeous pagoda, one of the prettiest I've seen so far.

Pha That Luang, way older than it looks like, was built several hundreds years ago. During that time it changed...

... its owners for quite many times.

Several magnicifent temples and statues surround the stupa.

But to be honest, even though Vientiane is a nice and quiet city (and supposedly one of the world's smallest capitals), I think that spending 2 days is absolutely enough. In comparison with all the stuff and places that Laos still has to offer, I felt the sudden urge to leave the city - in addition to that I noticed that my Lao Visa was soon running out. That's what I got from staying too long in Nong Khiaw!

As trains are still non-existent in Laos (but to be fair, I can't imagine railways in northern Laos), I was once again forced to take a bus for my next destination - but this time a fancy one. For longer distances the bus companies actually offer genuine sleeper buses, all equipped with some sort of beds!

As a genuine «VIP», you only get...
... the best of the best for a night ride through Laos.

My goal was to get to Pakse, a town 670km south of Vientiane. This meant I would skip lots of cool places like Takhek or Savannakhet, but due to my limited time I've had no other choice. To my biggest surprise (maybe not to my former travel buddies who might read this) I've overslept the whole 10 hours ride without problems. Quite a performance!

When I arrived at my hostel in Pakse, it was just raining cats and dogs. You don't see such kind of rain in Switzerland, believe me!

Pakse itself as a town offers not much, but the nearby Bolaven Plateau or the famous temple ruins of Wat Phu attract many tourists and backpackers every year. In this case my object of desire was the latter location.

Wat Phu is another temple built by the Angkorian Khmer empire hundreds of years ago and counts nowadays to Laos' most spectacular sightseeing locations. The best way for me to get there was to rent again a scooter, over an estimated 35 kilometers of beautiful roads...

The roads from Pakse to Wat Phu were some...
... of the most scenic I've seen so far!

Corn fields as far as the eyes can reach!
At some points the roads weren't asphalted...

... but I still arrived safely at Wat Phu.

After the small basin a long gallery...

... made out of stone poles lead me to the temple

The so called Northern Palace of the Wat Phu temple complex, at the foot of the mountain

The Southern Palace just next door

Frangipani, locally called Dok Champa, Laos' National Flower

Behind the palaces a stairway lead towards the hill...

Beautiful mural reliefs decorated those once proud walls

... where a well wrapped up Buddha and ...

... a mysterious sanctuary awaited me.

This particular sanctuary is still used as a...

... worship place for Buddhists, even if it wasn't always like that.

Most people may think that Khmer temples were always built to worship Buddhism, but that's a false stereotype. The Angkorian empire was in fact influenced by Hinduism during its beginnings, and the ancient constructors of these temples worshipped Hindu gods like Vishnu or Shiva, long before Buddhism even existed (a slightly older religion than Christianity). Only after a long period of time the people of the Angkor empire converted to Buddhism, which is still the dominant religion in South East Asia. At the mural reliefs of Wat Phu for example those Hindu Gods still can be admired - despite the Buddha statues just next to it.

Not Buddha, but Vishnu, the Supreme God of Vaishnavism (a form of Hinduism).
Behind the sanctuary, at a huge cliff, ...

... the ancient Angkorian people collected water from this spring here.

This power place was also full of mango trees

Those mangos here were perfectly eadible!

From here on the hill...

... the view on the palaces and the basins was amazing.

And do you readers remember the duo infernale Sam & Max (no, NOT the same-named comic and video game heroes)? The guys I travelled with from Chiang Khong over to Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw? I met those guys again in Pakse, while I returned to the city from the temple trip!

But to everybody's shocking surprise Sam crashed his motorbike while being on a scooter tour the day before, and he got some serious injuries on his knee and all over his body. Apart from some stitches and a really bad looking knee he was otherwise quite OK, but for him the South East Asia trip was unfortunately over. But he still made the best out of his situation and we ended up having a good time together with some other backpackers in Pakse. Incredible how happy a couple of Beerlao bottles and Indian dishes can make! But after all this accident taught us to be very careful on South East Asian country roads, especially because of the crash's cause:

... crashed his bike on these roads!
Freely roaming Water Buffalos, the cause why Sam ...

Because Sam & Max wanted to stay some time longer in Pakse before they were going home, I once again bid farewell to them - with memories of a great time with them in Laos! I still wanted to see the before mentioned Bolaven Plateau, which is famous for its scenic waterfalls or coffee plantations, but time has upset my plans. My visa would soon expire! This meant that for me there was only enough time to see one more location in Laos, before I would do the border crossing to Cambodia.

For me it was clear that I wouldn't miss the so called 4'000 Islands at the Laotian-Cambodian border all the way down in the south. The 4'000 islands is a group of tiny islands that are scattered at one particular part of the mighty Mekong River. Of course the region's name is not to be taken absolutely seriously - nobody knows for sure how many of these islands really exist in that part of the river, as many of them are flooded during the wet season and revealed during the dry season.

But for me this didn't really matter, as I just wanted to relax my last 2 days in Laos in an appropiate environment. And it was pretty cool after all!

From this pier on the mainland the backpackers would depart to the different islands on the mighty Mekong river

... relaxing, maybe almost too much.

The surroundings here were more than...

Some of the «islands» that are revealed due to the dry season

A waterfall through a narrow part of the Mekong

This funny locomotive offers an interesting history!

Let me tell you more about the background of that tiny locomotive: Before 1945 Laos and also Cambodia were part of the French Indochina colony, in which the French invested quite some money in local infrastructure. Because the French wanted to establish trade on the Mekong (as the river connects the Ocean with Inner Asia) it seemed almost ideal to own the territory in this particular spot on earth. But there was one obstacle that prevented the French from sailing up the river without problems - the 4'000 islands! This complex maze of tiny islands, rapids and dangerous waterfalls gave the French a real headache. To sail upwards those waterfalls would have been extremely stupid - and building a canal straight through all these obstacles seemed impossible as well. So the colonists actually built a small railway on one of the bigger islands! This small train was supposed the connect the flow of goods from South to North of the 4'000 islands, it was even supposed to transport whole ships to the other side! But even though the French succeeded in doing so, the whole project turned out to be too troublesome and expensive to be really profitable. So even before the French officially left South East Asia this railway got abandoned and forgotten somewhen in the 1930s. During World War II it was discovered again by the occupying Japanese who used it until the end of the war, but afterwards it definitely fell into oblivion, for good.

The southern part of the 4'000 islands - with a view on the Cambodian side!

The Khone Phapheng Waterfall, the biggest one of all in South East Asia!
Another obscure fact is that this part of the Mekong River is still home for the local fresh water dolphin, the so called Irrawady Dolphin! Appearently there are only about 100 Irrawady dolphins left in this part of the world, and it doesn't look good for their future either.

How a Irrawady looks like (NOT my photo...)
But even then I was lucky to actually see some dozens of them! In this border region of the Mekong the governments of both countries actually agreed to protect the Irrawady dolphins from illegal fishing or other killings, so if there's a place in the world to see them for real, then it's here on the 4'000 islands.

Now that's my shitty footage of the dolphins - but still nice to look at!
Meanwhile the locals are busy with fishing anything that's not the Irrawady dolphin...
A great conclusion of my 1 month trip in Laos!
Well, here I am, writing about the last days of my Laos trip. And meanwhile all the good memories are just rushing through my brain, just like a high-speed train that never ever would be operated here in Laos. To put it straight, I liked Laos way better than Thailand! The sightseeing options were way more authentic, the people seemed more honest and - most importantly - the country isn't as over-touristic as in certain areas in Thailand.

Let's face it: I don't really care if I must sit through a shitty 12 hours bus ride to get myself to some godforsaken place or i don't care either if some things in Laos take more time than in Thailand. Electricity blackouts, kids playing in garbage, freely roaming water buffalos on the roads or dangerous unexploded ordnance are at the order of a regular Laotian day as well.

But even then you enjoy all those things heartfully, because that's exactly what you were looking for. An authentic and true experience in the middle of nowhere in South East Asia - Laos.

Enough jabbering, soon after the 4'000 islands I crossed the Cambodian border. Look forward to the next blog post.

And once more: Goodbye Laos, see you again one day!

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