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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Smashing Pumpkin

So it was a toss between a slow two day boat to Laos, a fast speed boat with a reported 10% mortality rate or fly in with Laos Airlines (no published safety records and most western embassies advising against flying with them). Tough choice, no doubt about it!

In the end Laos airlines won the game of Russian Roulette and before long we touched down in Vientiane. Almost immediately we knew that we'd left the western world of Thailand behind and were in for a real treat of traditional backpacking.

Although Vientiane is the capital city of Laos you'd never know it for the large amounts of tumbleweed drifting across the quiet country lanes. The only grandiose avenue in the entire town is a copy of the Champs d'Elysees finishing in a mound of concrete destined to be an airport runway but, due to a mistake on the shipping address invoice no doubt, ended up being a rather funky Arc du Triumph.

We rented some bicycles for a day and visited most of the temples to be found in and around the centre. Most of them came complete with snoozing attendants. One even had a resident team of football crazed monk novices who continuously hammered a football, squash style, off the temple; using some spirit houses for goal posts.

The following day we set off to see the 'Bull Whipping French Colonials', the 'Japanese Fascists' and the 'Imperialist Americans and their Puppets' in the Vientiane Revolutionary Museum. The museum has two floors; the first takes you from the dawn of man and his eternal struggle with the cave woman stealing tyranosauruses and what not to the end of that period. From there the tours jumps to the second floor and immediately to the late 19th century (nothing much seemed to have happened in the meantime!).

Here the museum goes into quite a lot of detail on how the Lao people suffered immensely under the various foreign powers that arrived to try (ab)use the country. You come away from the exhibition a little overloaded with information, but with a good feeling for the injustice and plight of the people.

After some fairly sobering information in the museum we decided that it was time for some more fun and funky things, so without further ado we commandeered a Tuk-Tuk and set off for the 'Buddha Park'!

The park was created in the late 1950s by a self-styled holy man who claimed to be a disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Viet-Nam! And after visiting the garden one can only imagine that '60s drug induced experimentalism arrived early in Laos!

The park is home to a staggering number of weird and wonderful concrete creations - my favourite being a huge pumpkin shaped representation of hell, earth and heaven. The pumpkin plastered monstrosity houses three internal floors that are discovered by entering through the mouth of an ogre! After making your way past skeletons, demons, serpents and all kinds of grisly ways to meet an unfortunate end you pop out on top of the pumpkin through another demon's mouth!

Standing on top of the 20 metre high pumpkin gives a great vantage point to take in the pure weirdness of the rest of the park. Unfortunately for our enlightened friend he was forced to flee to northern Thailand after the revolution and never managed to complete the complex.


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