Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Laos Tour Journal – May 2014


My Laos tour was scheduled with Advantage Travel & Tours, Poway, California to complete my visits to all the countries in Asia.  The trip was a post-tour to a month long tour of Sri Lank, Maldives, India, Bangladesh and Myanmar.  Through Bangladesh I was traveling with a group but for Myanmar and Laos I went solo.

The journal starts with my leaving Myanmar, spending the night in Bangkok and then flying on to Laos.

Thursday, May, 08, 2014: Fly Bangkok, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos and tour Luang Prabang, Laos

I woke without an alarm about 05:30, showered, shaved, packed and went to breakfast at 07:00.  It was a large buffet style but I had one egg over, beans and bacon plus rolls and tea.

At 08:00 I started the checkout process.  I left my new bag filled with things I didn’t think I would need in Laos at the Bellman station, then settled my bill and took the hotel van to the airport.  Check-in at the Laos Airlines counter was fast and easy.  They affixed a sticker to my shirt indicating I was a Laos passenger.  I then took some time to fill out my Departure card and process through Immigration.  Security was strange.  They had a full body scan but required that I remove my shoes.  Belts and watches were OK but not shoes – go figure.

The Laos Airline assigned gate was a long distance from the Security point.  Along the way I picked up a user name and password for 60 minutes free airport Wi-Fi.  The only problem was the area around the counter where they issued the user name and password did not have a strong enough signal to sign.  I returned to the counter and the girl told me it worked better the floor below and sure enough when I went down the escalator to the floor below I could sign in.  I sat there for a while processing email and then headed to my gate.

The plane was an ATR-72-500 and it had very few passengers.  It was very clean looking and had larger overhead bins than the Indian and Myanmar ATRs.  Two young ladies from the US sat across the aisle from me.

At Luang Prabang I found the airport to look new with only one other plane on the ramp.  We had a long walk to the International Arrivals Hall.  There we had to process Visa on Arrival.  The first window took our applications for a visa which I had been provided on the plane, plus a passport photo.  Then at the next window which I had to walk through a maze to get to, I had to pay $36.  The final window after walking through a maze again was the Immigration Agent and there my photo was taken and my passport stamped.  My bag was just coming on the carousel when I reached the Baggage Claim area.

Outside I found a young man with a sign with my name on it.  When I aked him his name he showed me a small laminated card with the name “Ounkham” on it.  The driver’s name was Dao.  We loaded my bags in a new Toyota Hiace van.  It had left hand drive and in Laos the drive on the right side of the road.
Just as I entered the van it started to rain and in the short distance to the hotel it rained even harder.  I retrieved my rain jacket from my carry-on and put it on for the dash from the van up a walkway to the hotel reception area of the ‘My Dream Boutique Resort’.  While processing my registration they served me a glass of cold fruit juice, a cold wash cloth and a small plate of mango with honey dripped over it.  I also obtained a Wi-Fi password and found I could make a Vonage call to Judy.

When the rain started to lessen my bags were retrieved from the van and sent to my room then they led me to my room which was in a separate building, down a flight of stairs outside from Reception, past the pool and up a flight of stairs to the second level of another building.

The room was fair sized with power outlets at the head of the bed on both sides and an outlet at a desk for my laptop.  There was a porch with two chairs and a clothes rack.  The shower was large and the bathroom floor was slate.

The rain stopped and I met Ounkham at Reception to start our tour.  We had to walk through several inches of water to get to the van.

The city is on the east side of the Mekong River and is divided by the Nam Kham River which flows into the Mekong River and north of the Nam Kham River lays the airport and my hotel.  Although the hotel overlooks the city the only bridge that can support automobiles is a little distance east of the city.

Our first stop was lunch at the Tamnak Lao Resturant.  I was served a set menu determined by the Travel Agency.  It started with soup, a clear broth with greens and pork balls, followed by a fish mixture in cooked in a banana leaf (Mok Pa Lao), then chicken with oyster sauce, boiled onions and cashew nuts Khua Gai Maak Muang), fried spring rolls with a peanut and vinegar dipping sauce.  Dessert was water melon, pineapple and small bananas.  I had a 640ml bottle of Beerlao.

After lunch at 14:00, we walked down Sakkarine Road past a 1930 era Citron in beautiful condition owned by a local hotel to Wat Sene, a pagoda with Lao design.  It had a four layer roof somewhat like Thai design but unique to Laos.  It had beautiful gold figures on the outside walls.  In a long shed in the compound two long boats (canoes) were stored.  The boats were used in the Boat Racing Festival every year between teams from local villages.  Thirty five men row the 104 foot long thin boats.

We then walked up to the Wat Xienthong (Temple of the Golden City) stupa and monastery.  It had recently been restored under the World Heritage guidance with $215,000 provided by the United States.  Among the unique aspects of the compound was buildings decorated with colorful cut glass figures, the King had imported the glass for use in his palace and donated the left overs to be used to decorate the buildings.
From the compound we boarded the van and rode up to the entrance to That Phousy, a pagoda that was built on the top of Mt. Phousy overlooking the city.  To reach the top I had to climb 300 steps.  The Buddha statues in the pagoda were beautiful and the view of the area impressive.  We took another route down and on that route there were many gold Buddha figures.  There was a young Japanese woman that asked if it was correct to take the path we were on since it was not the stairs she remembered climbing.  We assured her that the path would lead her back to the street and that there were many sites to see on the path.  She walked with us for a while and she turned out to be an American from Orange County.

Among the figures we passed were a reclining Buddha and standing Buddha with hands in various positions.  They were beautiful figures.  As we got close to the street the path lead us through a group of houses with people going about their daily activities.  A big contrast to the hotels, restaraunts, and tourist shops we had passed on our walk along Sakkarine Road.

Our next stop was at That Pathum (Lotus Stupa) but commonly referred to as That Makmo, (watermelon in Lao) because of its unique shape like a watermelon instead of a cone shape so many stupas have.  Across the plaza was Wat Visoun pagoda with the largest Buddha in the city.  I didn’t take my shoes off because I had a cut on the heel of my left foot from walking on rough ground in Myanmar and I didn’t want to risk an infection so Ounkham took my camera inside and shot some good photos of the gold Buddha.  While he was inside I talked with a couple of young men, one from London and the other from Vermont.  They asked me a lot of questions about Myanmar, the next stop on their travels.

As we left the pagoda I asked Ounkham about a game court painted on the concrete plaza.  He explained that it was for his favorite game, Rattan, which is like volley ball but the players have to use only their feet to kick the ball over the net.

It was 15:40 and I was delivered back to my hotel to rest before dinner at 19:00.  I spent the time, first hanging my clothes wet from perspiration in the sun to dry and taking a swim in the hotel pool and then writing in my journal.

At 19:00 in my dry clothes I went to dinner at the Un Petit Nid Restaurant.  I was surprised when I took out my smart phone to find Wi-Fi and the waiter seeing what I was doing gave me a small laminated card with the password on it.  Ounkham had told me that Wi-Fi has only been introduced in the city two years ago and now all the tourist restaaruants and hotels offer free Wi-Fi and it has decent bandwidth.
For the dinner it was a set menu designed by the Tour Agency.  It started with a delicious vegetable soup, unique in that the carrot pieces and other vegetable pieces were crunchy and larger than the usual vegetable soup.  The main was a dish with chicken, cut green beans and a peanut sauce.  Dessert was the same as lunch and I had another bottle of Beerleo.

I was back to my room by 20:00 and in bed by 22:00.

Friday, May, 09, 2014: Cruise the Mekong River to visit Pak Ou Caves, Laos

At 03:33 I woke to a strong thunderstorm.  I don’t know what the significance was of my clock reading 03.33 but I rolled over and went back to sleep until 06:30.  The shower had very hot water after I ran it for a long time and just fair water pressure.

A little after seven o’clock I went to breakfast and had a waffle, fruit, juice and tea.  There was a large tree on the patio extension of the dining area and it had lost a large branch in the storm.  Returning to my room I prepared for my Mekong River cruise.  In the course of locking up my valuables in the safe I must not have set the combination correctly and I couldn’t open it.  I return to the front desk and a receptionist came to my room with a special key and unlocked the safe.  Ounkham was already waiting for me so we left early for the boat.

Dao drove us to the city ferry landing.  Along the way through the city we passed the Bureau of Administration building and a group of people, mostly ladies were out front tending to the flower garden that bordered the sidewalk.  They were dressed in business attire and when I questioned Ounkham he told me that the custom was every Friday morning the staff of offices clean up the area around their office before settling down to business.

When we reached the ferry landing I walked down to a group of house boats tied together.  Our boat was easy to get to.  It was 95 feet long with the wheel house in the bow and a kitchen and living area in the stern.  In between there were two couches and eight seats with small tables.  The seats looked like they came from an automobile.  They had a reclining handle on the side and adjustable headrests making it very comfortable for the cruise.  In back of the seating area was a bar and a cabinet of soft drinks and beer.  Behind the bar was a flush toilet.

I felt a little funny sitting in the big boat with just Ounkham and myself.  The skipper’s 5 year old boy was playing in the wheel house.  We pushed off into the river around 08:35.  As we cruised up the river I saw young boys swimming, fishermen in their small boats and fisherman on the shore.  There were a number of fish nets in the river marked with plastic bottles.  Boats the same size and style as the one I was in were cruising both up and down the river.  Cargo boats with double deck living quarters in the stern were coming down the river.  Ounkham told me they were bringing cargo, mostly cement from northern Thailand.

The river was near its lowest level and I was surprised by the number of rocks that protruded.  Some of them had concrete columns on them to mark their location when the river rises during the rainy season.  About an hour up stream we passed the state prison on the north side of the river.  It had two main buildings, one for males and one for females.  Below the buildings along the bank of the river the prisoner’s had vegetable gardens.  On the south side was a group of water buffalo in the marshes along the edge of the river and then ten minutes later we passed a fish farm where they raise catfish and tilapia on the south side of the river.  Further along on the south side were groves of teak trees.

At 10:10 we docked at the village of Xang Hai were I was shown how they make rice wine and liquor.  The village used to specialize in pottery jug making but with influx of tourist after the civil water they turned their jugs into containers for the processing of wine and liquor.  The village had an elaborate stupa and monastery with many gold Buddha and even a quarter size white elephant with a mother figure holding two children in gonad on top of the elephant driven by a man sitting on the neck of the elephant.  The compound also stored two racing boats with positions for 28 rowers.  One of the interesting figures in the compound was the figure of a hermit sitting in the lotus position meditating.  It had a long beard with a birds nest in it indicating his peaceful meditation.

From the pagoda compound we walked through the main street of the village with stalls on both sides selling tourists handicrafts back to a dock and boarded our boat.  We had spent only thirty minutes in the village.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at the Pak Ou Caves, named after the junction of the Ou and Mekong Rivers.  There were two caves.  We docked at the lower cave (Tham Ting) and had to climb about 50 steps to get to cave which was filled with 2,500 Buddha sculptures.

The following is a description of the caves posted on plaques in the caves:
The first use of the caves for religious purposes was at the time when local population worshipped Phi, or sprits of nature.  It is said that the caves are associated with a river sprit.
It is believed that the Lao people first entered the river valley in the middle of the eight century after moving southward from south China.  It was not until considerably later that Buddhism first spread into the area from the west.
By the 16th century Buddhism had been adopted by the royal families of Leo and the caves received patronage from that time until 1975.  Every year the King and the people of Luang Prabang made a pilgrimage to the caves as part of the New Year religious observances.  Artisans were commissioned by the royal family to prepare sculptures.  Many of the carvings in the cave date from between the 18th and 20th centuries.
Sculptures of Buddha
The more that 4,000 sculptures of Buddha now found in the Tam Ting caves have been placed there by worshippers.  For the most part they are carved from wood or molded from a tree resin, then coated with red or black lacquer, and then covered with gold leaf.  A few of the sculptures are carved from animal horn or made from bronze or a low-fired ceramic.
Common poses are three of the positions which depict important stages in the life of Buddha: ‘Calling for Rain’ with the figure standing and the arms pointing downwards, ‘Calling the Earth to Witness’ with the figure seated and one hand extended downwards and ‘Meditation’ where the hands are crossed in front of a seated figure.  ‘Stop Arguing’, where the figure is standing and the palms of the hand are extended outwards and the ‘Reclining’ positions are not common.
Lower Cave
The mouth of the lower cave is a prominent landmark visible from the Mekong River.  Paved pathways lead up to this cave as well as to the upper cave, some 60 meters above the river.
Approximately 2,500 sculptures are located in the lower cave.  A focal point for visitors is the altar closest to the entry where offerings of flowers incense and candles are made.  Lion figures guard the entry while a Ramayana sculpture of a ‘hermit’ associated with forest medicines sites immediately above the lower entry platform.  A large stupa-like structure surmounts the highest platform.  A smaller stupa on the cliff face to the south holds the ashes of a recently deceased villager.
A small spring in the cave supplied holy water which was used during the annual New Year ceremony.

After visiting the lower cave we climbed about 100 steps to the upper cave with was set back into the mountain so we were issued flash lights to see the sculptures inside.  They were more impressive than the lower cave and due to the steps to get to them they don’t get the traffic the lower cave receives.

Walking back down to our boat we crossed the river to eat lunch at the Manivanh Restaurant in the village of Tamting.  In the restaurant was a picture of the restaurant taken on 12/08/2008 when the river crested as the result of China releasing water into the Mekong.  The picture showed the water up to the table level.  In the lower cave there was a mark of the water height in 2008 and one in 1966 when flooding did damage all the way to Viet Nam.

For lunch I was served another set meal ordered by the Travel Agency.  It had soup with thin rice noodles and vegetables, now as good as the day before.  Spring rolls which I devoured with the peanut sauce and chicken and oyster sauce which I couldn’t finish.  Dessert was pineapple and watermelon.

We headed back to Luang Prabang at 12:50.  Going down stream was faster but we were cruising into the wind which helped dry my shirt from the perspiration I obtained from climbing the stairs in the caves.  At 14:00 we docked at the village of Xangkhong known for its textile natural dyes and weaving plus Ariya Paper making.  We walked around the village watching weaving.  I received a presentation on the Silk Worm Life’s Cycle.  They had baskets of each stage in the 45 day life cycle:
  • 1.       Egg
  • 2.       Worm
  • 3.       Larvae
  • 4.       Butterfly

I then was shown the process to make the silk into thread and the weaving of silk cloth.  They also showed me the various sources for dyes and the process to create the dye that can be used to color the silk thread.  It was a quiet little village and Ounkham told me every family in the village is in the business of silk production or paper production and they are well off.

Dao picked us up in the van and it was just a five minute drive to the hotel.  When I entered the reception area I found they were chopping down the tree that had lost its limb in the storm.

Back in the room I had thought of swimming but got engrossed with writing in my journal until 19:00 when Ounkham took me to dinner at the Pak Houay Mixay Restaurant.  It was more crowded than the restaurant I ate in the night before.  Two large tourist groups were sitting in the outside area with me and inside the tables were full of locals.  The food did not appeal to me.  I had some soup and crispy pork sausage and a little bit of the chicken dish.  I found the dishes bland and there were no sauces.  One of the dishes was a plate of ground up pork that I did not like at all.  The restaurant had some nice murals on their walls and I took some pictures and was back in my room by a little after eight o’clock.

I was able to make a Vonage call to Judy, wrote in my journal until 22:30 when I went to bed.

Saturday, May, 10, 2014: Tour Luang Prabang, Laos and then fly Luang Prabang, Laos to Vientiane, Laos

I slept until 06:00 when my alarm woke me from a sound sleep.  I guess the step climbing the day before had tired me out more than I thought.  After showering and shaving I went to breakfast and had two eggs over (I had asked for one) and one piece of toast (I had put two in the toaster and had a hard time getting them out so one of the waiters tried to help and what every he did it shot the piece of toast across the room).  I also had a muffin, fruit, orange juice and tea.

After breakfast I returned to my room and finished packing.  At 08:45 I called Judy on Vonage and then met Ounkham in the lobby.  As we rode toward the National Museum we rode past a row of vendors selling light meals and tourist items. Ounkham told me there were set up for the backpackers to buy a cheap breakfast.  Dao stopped short of the museum and Ounkham led me down the traditional market ally where the locals purchase fresh vegetables and fish.  It was not as hectic as other traditional markets I have visited.  The market ended near the side of the museum and we walked by a long row of tourist vans and busses on both sides of the street.  Rounding the corner to the entrance of the museum grounds I saw large crowds of tourists.  The stairs to Mt. Phousy was across from the museum entrance and streams of tourists were climbing up and down the mountain in addition to streaming into the museum grounds.

I stood in the shade of a tree while Ounkham bought the museum tickets.  The museum was in the former palace of the King so the grounds were very elaborate.  A new pagoda recently built to hold the original Lao Buddha was included in the compound.  It took almost 10 years to build.

No cameras were allowed in the museum and no shoes but socks were allowed.  I asked for a brochure and they were out of stock.  (Bummer)

The building was built by the French in 1905 as the King’s Palace so the layout inside was centered on the throne room.  The front entry room was a ceremonial room facing the throne room and to the right was the King’s reception room.  The reception room walls were adored by a panoramic painting of Lao life. At the end of the room were busts of King Ounkham (1872-1889); King Khamsouk (1890-1904) and King Sisavanguong (1905-1959).

The throne room had two thrones on display.  The larger of the two was built in 1967 by King Sisavangvatthana (1959-1975), the last King of Laos.  On the wall in back of the thrones were figures in colored glass.  In the back of the Place was the Queen’s bedroom, the King’s bedroom and the children’s bedroom.  The later had been converted to display musical instruments.

To the left of the front ceremonial room was the Queen’s reception room which now contained a display of the gifts the royal family received from various countries.  The United States gifts on display included a moon rock presented by President Nixon.  Adjoining that room was a room with full size paintings of the last King, Queen and Prince painted by a Russian artist.

We exited the museum and retrieved our shoes and my camera and then walked around the building to a garage building that contained the Royal Cars Exhibition.  Inside photos were not allowed.  On exhibit was a 35hp speed boat with a Johnson & Johnson outboard motor; a 1972 Toyota Jeep; a 1960’s era; a 1950’s era Lincoln Continental III limousine; a 1958 Edsel Citation; and a 1950 French Citroen.  At the end of the building were pictures of the chauffeurs that drove the cars and the information that the chauffeurs preferred the stick shift cars over the automatic transmission cars.  I can imagine that the roads in the 1950’s and 1960’s favored the control that stick shifts provided.

Leaving the car exhibit we walked to a huge circular pond filled with tilapia. Some were quite large.  Just past the pond was the Royal Ballet Theatre.  They have performances of Laotian dances four days a week during the tourist season.  The pictures displayed indicated they would be very colorful performances.  Heading back to the center of the museum compound we passed a giant statue of King Sisavanguong.

Across the compound from the theater was the new pagoda.  We were not allowed to enter but I was able to take a picture from below the steps of the standing Buddha that was recently moved from the museum to the new pagoda.  The Buddha was cast in Sri Lanka in 1359 and eventually presented to the King of Laos upon his conversion to Buddhism.  It is named the Prabang Buddha and is genius of the city’s name of Luang Prabang.  It is also called the “Pra Bang” or "Pha Bang" Buddha.  A description of the Buddha and its history follows:
The statue is an 83cm [32 inches]-high standing Buddha with palms facing forward, cast in bronze and covered in gold leaf.  According to local lore, it was cast in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) sometime between the 1st and 9th century. However, the features of the image suggest a much later Khmer origin. The Phra Bang arrived in Lan Xang in 1353 from Angkor and was used to spread Theravada Buddhism in the new kingdom. In 1359 the Khmer king gave the Phra Bang to his son-in-law, the first Lang Xang monarch Fa Ngum (1353-1373); to provide Buddhist legitimacy both to Fa Ngum's rule and by extension to the sovereignty of Laos.
The Phra Bang has long been seen by devout Buddhists as a symbol of the right to rule Laos, as only a commendable and virtuous government deserves to be caretaker of such a sacred image. In 1778, the Siamese (now Thai) invaded Viang Chan and captured the Phra Bang, taking it back to Bangkok. There, political upheaval and misfortune were attributed to the Phra Bang, and in 1782 it was returned to the Lao people. Again in 1828, the Siamese captured the Phra Bang but again returned it in 1867 after a similar of political upheaval.
Each year, on the third day of "Pimai" or Lao New Year, the Phra Bang is taken in procession to Wat Mai. There it is exhibited at a shrine where the Buddha image is ritually bathed by devout laypeople during Lao New Year festivities.
The Phra Bang has long been seen by devout Buddhists as a symbol of the right to rule Laos, as only a commendable and virtuous government deserves to be caretaker of such a sacred image. In 1778, the Siamese (now Thai) invaded Viang Chan and captured the Phra Bang, taking it back to Bangkok. There, political upheaval and misfortune were attributed to the Phra Bang, and in 1782 it was returned to the Lao people. Again in 1828, the Siamese captured the Phra Bang but again returned it in 1867 after a similar of political upheaval.
There remains doubt whether the image is the same object that was given to Fa Ngum.  Some suggest that the image on display is a copy and that the original is kept in a bank vault in Vientiane for safekeeping.  Another local rumor suggests that the Phra Bang was given to the Soviets in 1975 in exchange for aid during the Cold War.  Whether or not there is any substance to the rumors, the Phra Bang remains an object of veneration and a reminder of the rich traditions of Luang Prabang.

We left the museum grounds and walked back to the street were all the tourist vans and busses had been parked.  Along the way we passed a man playing a beautiful tune on a native string instrument.  All the more reason I would have enjoyed attending a Royal Ballet performance.  When we turned the corner the street was almost empty of tourist vehicles.  The sun was hot and I guess their climbs to Mt. Phousy and visits to the museum were over.  Dao delivered me back to the hotel by 10:45.

I shed my shirts and hung them up to dry.  When I opened the door to the porch I cut my finger on the latch and couldn’t get it to stop bleeding.  My big bag which contained bandages had already been moved to the reception area so I had to ask the desk clerk for a bandage.  They gave me several and I was back in the room where I plugged in my laptop and wrote in my journal.

At noon I packed up and lugged my carry on down to reception and met Ounkham.  I officially checked out and Dao drove us to the Misaiphon Restaurant for lunch.  I was surprised to see the Thai family that had sat at a nearby table at dinner the night before sitting at a nearby table having lunch.  They had caught my attention because one of the women was spoon feeding what looked like a ten year old boy who was totally engrossed playing a game on his iPad.  This time the boy was facing me and blowing bubble gum and not eating.  He then got up and wandered around the restaurant while his family ate.  He would occasionally return to the woman and hug her.  What appeared to be his older brother ate quietly across the table and what I guess was the father sat frowning.  He appeared to me to be a very spoiled child.

For lunch I was served, tempura vegetables, cabbage soup, a chicken dish, a stir fried vegetable dish and rice.  This time I limited the soup not because I didn’t like it but I didn’t want to fill up on it.  I ate all the tempura and chicken dish.  For dessert I had water melon and papaya pieces.  Ounkham joined me.  It would be our last time together because he was picking up some new clients at the airport and his wife would accompany me for my check in at 17:00.

When we left the restaurant we stopped at the Kaysone Phom Vihane Monument.  He was a Pathet Lao hero and the first President of Laos after the revolution.  I was back at the hotel by 13:30, bid farewell to Ounkham and set up my laptop in the reception area to work on my journal.  At 16:45 Or, Ounkham’s wife arrived to escort me to the airport.  She was one of the most beautiful young ladies I had seen in Laos.  She works as a ground agent for Bangkok Airways at the airport but was on maternity leave having had a baby girl three months ago.  Having her as my escort in the airport made the process a breeze since all the airport employees knew her.

The terminal was large but not very busy and had limited air conditioning and no Wi-Fi.  My flight to Vientiane was scheduled on an A-320 and they used an air bridge to board the passengers.  The plane was very clean and in excellent condition.  I was assigned to a window seat and had a young Japanese lady sitting next to me.  She spoke excellent English and was just completing a ten day vacation in Laos.  We talked about travel and working in foreign countries.  She has worked in a number of interesting places and has visited Los Angeles several times.

The flight only took thirty minutes and we were so engrossed in conversation that I forgot my day pack when I exited the aircraft and had to send an airline employee back to retrieve it from under the seat.

I was met by Boungsong (‘Song’), the guide I would have for the next two days.  He took me to a restaurant for dinner before checking in to the hotel.  The restaurant was the Kualao and it was very busy with a four piece band and native dancers.  Their performances were very similar to Thai dancing.  The meal was again designed by the travel agency and it turned out to be one of the best.  For once they served me a normal sized bowl of soup.  I wish I knew the exact ingredients but it was delicious.  Then they served deep fried pieces of fish with a delicious sauce.  Next they served chicken and ginger, rice and sticky rice.  The best part was dessert which was a cooked banana in honey and a scoop of vanilla and of chocolate ice cream.  I finished in less than an hour at 20:30 and arrived at the Sengtawan Riverside Hotel ten minutes later.  

The hotel was dated, the room sparsely furnished with a very hard mattress.  The shower was in the middle of the bathroom with the drain near where your feet are when you sit on the toilet.  At least they had a flush toilet but no amenities’, no soap, no shampoo, barely toilet paper and a towel.  I had to unplug the TV to get an outlet for my laptop.  There was an open outlet near the bedside table for my CPAP machine.  Later I discovered the amenities across the bedroom in a little basket tray.  Further testimony to the type of hotel it was is that they list an Inventory of all the items in the room with their value.  They didn’t list the amenities.

The Wi-Fi was initially weak in the room so I couldn’t enter the password.  I went down to the lobby and it was strong and I was able to call Judy on Vonage.  When I returned to the room both my laptop and smart phone were able to connect.  I wrote in my journal and retired at 22:30.

Sunday, May, 11, 2014: Tour Vientiane, Laos

My alarm woke me from a sound sleep at 06:00.  The shower was interesting since it was in the middle of the bathroom.  It took a long time to get hot water and I had to be careful to not spray the toilet paper and dry towels on a rack at the end of the bathroom.  I survived the encounter and went to breakfast at 07:00.  The hotel restaurant was on the top (5th) floor of the hotel.  It had a nice view of the muddy Mekong and of the Thailand side of the river.  No tables had place settings I had to ask to find where they stored the silverware in baskets with a napkin covering them.  I had a precooked fried egg, toast, fruit and tea.  The Wi-Fi was strong so I called Judy and found she was out shopping and the call was forwarded from the house number to her cell phone and eventually the signal was dropped.

I returned to my room and prepared for the day’s tour and processed email.  The tour was scheduled for 08:30 and I lost track of time and didn’t shut down my laptop until 08:45.  Song was at the front desk trying to call my room when I arrived in the lobby.

Our first stop on the day’s tour was the Tat Luang complex.  It was a huge area with the Pha That Luang stupa looming over the complex at one end.  To the left was the newly built beautiful convention center.  In the center of the complex was a statue of King Sayasetthathirath sitting on a throne in warrior dress with a sword across his lap.  The stupa’s profile was once the symbol on the Lao flag and is still considered the national symbol of the country.  Song told me that it was originally built as a Hindu temple in the 3rd century.  Buddhist missionaries brought a holy relic (believed to be the breast bone) of Lord Buddha to the stupa.  It was rebuilt in the 13th century as a Khmer temple which fell into ruin.  In the mid-16th century, King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and ordered construction of Pha That Luang in 1566.

Song got me a brochure that provided the following:
Pha That Luang was destroyed by the Thai invasion in 1828, which left it heavily damaged and left abandoned.  It was not until 1900 that the French restored to its original design based on the detailed drawings from 1867 by the French architect and explorer Louis Delaporte.  However the first attempt to restore it was unsuccessful and it had to be redesigned and then reconstructed in the 1930s.  During the Franco-Thai War, Pha That Luang was heavily damaged during a Thai air raid.  After the end of World War II, Pha That Luang was reconstructed.

In its early form, Pha That Luang was not as high as it is now, but after Lord Buddha’s ashes were placed at the site and a new stupa was built around the original obelisk, the monument took on its current shape and grew in importance as a place of worship for Lao Buddhists.

The following newspaper article written in 2011 was on display describing the stupa:

That Luang Stupa: The legend
According to legend, which is supported by physical evidence found from the reign of King Jayavoraman VII, the original obelisk was indeed an ancient Cham construction that was built sometime between the 9th and 14th centuries.
Many artifacts have been discovered at the site including a statue of Jayavoraman VII dating from between AD 1181 and 1219, which is presently located at the northern end of the inner cloister.
The story of Pha That Luang became clear at the beginning of the 16th century, which is known among historians as the middle of the ancient Lao period. King Saysetthathirath ordered the construction of the current stupa in AD 1566, six years after designating Vientiane as the capital of Laos.
Previously, the capital was situated in what is now Luang Prabang (then known as Xiengthong). King Saysetthathirath built the grand stupa so the new capital would have an equally splendid place of worship similar to the Grand Stupa in Chiang Mai, which at that time was the capital of the neighbouring Lane Na kingdom, now northern Thailand.
The king wanted to project himself as a patron of Buddhism and to achieve enlightment like the Lord
Buddha, but before doing so he needed to make merit in all aspects of his life.
He also wanted a site where he could hold an annual festival that would provide an occasion to test the loyalty of his chief administrators from all corners of the Lane Xang kingdom. This festival would also pay homage to the gods and to King Fa Ngum, who is attributed with bringing the third wave of Buddhism to Laos.
Through this annual event, the king wanted the people of the Lane Xang kingdom to come together to make merit and observe religious practices, celebrate together and consolidate solidarity, strengthening the kingdom to ensure it remained intact.  The festival (now know as That Luang Festival) has been held every year since. 
Because King Saysetthathirath wanted to be a Bhothiyana, an enlightened one, he came up with the idea of surrounding the main stupa with 30 smaller stupas of equal size known as Palami (fulfillment of goodness) stupas.  At the base of each small stupa, a flattened plate of gold was inscribed with words depicting ariyasat (the four noble truths - the essence of Lord Buddha’s teachings). These plates also contain information of the date of the renovation of the stupa to its current size and can still be seen today inside the cloister at the eastern entrance of That Luang.
The wording on the fourth line of plates reads: “This stupa contains the ashes of Lord Buddha and was built by King Saysetthathirath. May it last for more than 5,000 years."
The revered sacred place has been worn out over time and damaged by wars perpetrated by foreign imperialists. Whenever the country was invaded, religious and sacred places of worship such as That Luang were among the first targets for looting and indiscriminate destruction.
This article originally appeared in the Vientiane Times on 7 November, 2011. 
By Ms Phon Khikeo

Song led me around back of the stupa where a large golden 390-foot-long reclining Buddha lay.  Next Song took me to a pagoda where instead of building a pagoda or restoring a pagoda to mark your life people could paint elaborate paintings on the ceiling or walls of a temple.  I took some pictures of the very colorful temple from outside.  That was our last stop at the Pha That Luang complex.  I boarded the van for a drive to Patouxay.

Patouxay means meaning Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph as it resembles the Arc de Triumph in Paris.  However, it is typically Laotian in design, decorated with mythological creatures.  It was built between 1957 and 1968 when Laos was a constitutional monarchy and was originally known simply as the "Anousavali" ("memory"), dedicated to the memory of the Laotian soldiers who died during World War II and the independence war from France in 1949.  The monument was built using American funds and cement intended to build a new airport.  The Royal Laotian Government instead built the monument, which earned it the nickname of the "vertical runway".

I climbed the stairs to the top observation point where I had panoramic views of the city.  They had one stairway to go up and a different one to go down.  There was a handicraft store at the top of the seven flights of stairs.  At that point a circular iron stairway led to the very top.  After my picture taking I descended and saw the following sign:
At the northeastern end of the Lane Xang Ave. arises a huge structure resembling the Arc de Triumph.  It is the Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane, built in 1962, but never completed due to the country’s turbulent history.  From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.  Nowadays this place is used as leisure ground for people of Vientiane and the seventh floor on top of the building serves as excellent view point over the city.

Song took my picture in front of the fountain on the south side of the monument and then we rode on to the Lao National Museum.  Again no photographs allowed.  It had two floors with four main galleries.  On the first floor was Pre-History including:
  • ·         Ancient Geology
  • ·         Ancient Anthropology
  • ·         Stone Ages
  • ·         Clan Based on Meuang
  • ·         Principality like Meuang
  • ·         Mixed Cultural Society

  • The other first floor gallery was Present Development in Lao P.D.R. Since 1975.  

  • The second floor had a gallery for Ancient History which included:
  • ·         Founding of Lane Xang Kingdom
  • ·         Lane Xang Kingdom with Xiengthong (Luang Prabang) as Capital
  • ·         Lane Xang Kingdom with Vientiane as Capital
  • ·         Division of Lane Xang Kingdom
  • ·         The three Lane Xang Kingdom under rule of Siam

  • The other second floor gallery was Modern History which included:
  • ·         French colonialism
  • ·         American Imperialism
  • ·         Period of National Development

I was interested in the close relationship between the Pathet Leo and Ho Chi Ming.  There was one picture I would like to have taken showing in red on a black and white map the areas that were bombed during the Vietnam War.  Laos is thought to be the most bombed country in the world.  What was not mentioned was they were not supposed to be taking part in the Vietnam War but let the North Vietnamese freely use the roads in eastern Laos as the Ho Chi Ming Trail to move men and supplies down to Cambodia and to attack South Vietnam.

The other display I liked in the museum was the Plain of Jars because I couldn’t visit it on this trip.  It explained the development theories and use of the jars that I had always been curious about.  All told I spent about an hour in the museum.

Our next stop was at the Sisaket Temple and Museum built in 1818.  It featured a cloister wall with more than 2000 ceramic and silver Buddha images.  The images were neatly lined up and at the end of a galley was a cage of broken images in a pile with a sign that said:
Store Room
These [are] broken pieces of the Buddha statues.  They were destroyed by the war.  These broken statues were found underground, during excavation in the Vientiane city.

Walking through the site we came upon a ‘Hang Hod’.  Hanging from the ceiling.  An explanation of a hang hod is as follows: During important religious ceremonies and Lao New Year, worshippers pour perfumed water through the hang hod, which flows onto heads of monks or Buddha statues.  Continuing our tour we entered the President’s Palace area with neatly trimmed grounds and beautiful stupas.

Our next stop was the Talat Sao Mall.  It was similar to a Hong Kong mall of old times.  One area had cell phones, another area had cameras, we walked by an area with just shoes, and of course clothes.  The mall was also referred to as the Monday Market.

It was then 12:30 so Song stopped for lunch at the ‘Khop Chai Deu Restaurant Lounge Bar Where the World Meets’.  It was a Sizzler style restaurant so I ordered the Sizzler-Lao style steak.  It was delightful change after the Indian and Thai style food I had been eating.  I topped it off with scoop of Honey and Ginger Ice Cream.

After lunch we rode out of the city towards the end of the freedom bridge across the Mekong River.  When we passed the entrance to the parkway to the bridge the road turned to dirt and was very rough but Song wanted me to see the Xiengkuane Buddha Park.  It was developed as a major tourism site.  The Wat Xiengkuane temple inside the park was erected in 1958 by the venerable Bounlua.  A very large reclining Buddha was included.  At one end was a dome shaped structure that represented hell and at the river end of the park was a tower that represented heaven.  In between there were so many different figures and structures I lost count.  It was mind blowing that someone would design and construct so many different items in the last sixty years.

After the visit to the park we started back to the city.  Along the way we passed a mansion under construction.  Song told me it was being built by the contractor that built the Freedom Bridge.  He made a lot of money on the construction.  Song delivered me back to my hotel at 15:30.  He gave me money for dinner since he lived a far distance away and the restaurant was walking distance from my hotel.  We stopped at the Spirit House restaurant and made a reservation for 18:30.

When I got to my room I felt overheated.  I shed my clothes to cool off and planned to work on y journal but decided to lie down.  At 18:15 I arose, got dressed and walked along the sea wall area through sidewalk restaurants to the Spirit House.  There I ordered Vietnamese spring rolls and Thai satay.  When the food arrived I had lost my appetite.  I picked at the food but requested the bill and left without taking the food to go.

Back in the room I was shivering and my first thought was I had suffered sun stroke.  I quickly went to bed at 19:30.  My flight to Bangkok was not scheduled until 18:30 the next day but the hotel required that I vacate my room by noon.

Monday, May, 12, 2014:  Fly Vientiane, Laos to Bangkok, Thailand

I had a very bad night.  I had to get up several times to go to the bathroom and found each time I was soaking wet.  I suffered hallucinations and nightmares that I was going to miss my flight home.  At 09:00 I got up and shower and went to breakfast just before they closed at 10:00.  I was able to eat some cereal, fruit, toast and tea.  Back in my room I finished packing, set my alarm for noon and went back to sleep.  At noon I vacated the room and proceeded to the front desk to check out.  The clerk wanted to charge me for the room and I told him my guide would pay him when he picked me up at 15:00 to take me to the airport.  The original schedule had me touring the area on my own.  I had decided I would use the time to work on my journal.  Both options went out the window and instead I sat in a chair and went to sleep.  The staff woke me at 15:00 to tell me I had a phone call.  Song was on the line and informed me that he was having trouble with his motorbike and the driver would pick me up and deliver me to the airport.  I told him about the hotel bill and turned the phone over to a desk clerk.  The driver soon arrived and it turned out my hotel was not that far from the airport.

Song met me at the airport and he helped me check in.  I went to the departure area and waited for the flight.  It was an ATR 72-500.  It left on time and they served a nice box meal of tuna sandwich and an interesting coconut cupcake for dessert.  I was reading the English language newspaper when my seatmate pointed to an article about Veena, a talented singer.  She told me that she was her half-sister.  Veena is a former Miss Lao New Year in 2008 and was just releasing her first album.  As we approached landing my seatmate removed all her rings and other jewelry telling me she was concerned wearing it in downtown Bangkok because of the uprising against the government that was taking place.

At the Bangkok airport the processing was a little faster and more efficient than the last time I had arrived.  The bus didn’t drive all over the airport like the last time and I encountered no line at Immigration and the baggage carousel was close to where I exited from Immigration.  The exit from customs was close to the exit where the Novotel bus parked.  As a result it didn’t take me long to get to the hotel and as I walked in one of the staff told me to follow him to the Business Center for a personalized check in.  I was still very tired and liked sitting while someone did the check in for me but then when they finished they told I had to stay in the Business Center because members of the Royal Family had entered the hotel and the Secret Service and a soldier outside the Business Center would not let anybody leave the room.  I was so rundown I dozed off in my seat for I don’t know how long but finally a the young lady that had checked me in woke me and told me I could go to my room.  Back out in the lobby I was led to the baggage storage room to identify my stored bag.  They then led me to my room.  For the second time I was assigned a room as far from the lobby elevator as one could possibly be.  I walked slowly to the room and the Bellman was there waiting for me to open the door.

I quickly opened my big bag and setup my CPAP machine, shed my clothes, put on my puffy coat, took my pills, set my alarm and crawled into bed about 22:00.  I knew I was running a fever but there was nothing I could do about it except shiver.

Tuesday, May, 13, 2014: Fly Bangkok, Thailand to Los Angeles via Narita, Japan

I had another weird night with hallucinations, nightmares and bed sweats.  I got up to the alarm at 04:00.  Showered, packed and called for a Bellman.  I didn’t have any energy.  I thought my fever had broken during the night but I was still shivering so I wore my puffy jacket over my travel vest.

The Novotel bus delivered me to the ANA/United terminal entrance.  I slowly found the Star Alliance Gold check in lane and no one was in it so my check in was quick.  From there I slowly passed through Immigration and Security and started to look for the Star Alliance Lounge.  I didn’t see the signs so I proceeded to the gate, processed though security again and sat down and dozed until the flight was called.  As a Star Alliance Gold member I was one of the first to board the coach section of the aircraft.  I found the seat very roomy.  ANA must also have a similar configuration as United’s Economy Plus seating.  I was assigned to an inside aisle with an empty seat next to me.  I can’t remember if a meal was served because I slept the whole almost six hour flight.

I was really dragging when I left the aircraft and walking very slow.  One of the nice young airline staff members looked at me and asked if I needed a wheel chair.  I thought it would help so she summoned one and I had them wheel me to the Star Alliance Lounge where they parked me in a sort of isolation room.  I was too tired to set up my laptop but I was able to call Judy on Vonage and tell her about my condition.  When it was getting close to boarding time an attendant arrived and wheeled me to the gate where I passed through security and I was wheeled onto the plane before even the First Class passengers. Again I had an inside aisle seat in Economy Plus.  The plane was the same (I check tail numbers) B-787-8 that I had flown over on.  When we took off I noticed that people were having trouble with the window shading.  A bright ray of sunlight was beamed on my TV screen and bouncing back in my face from about three rows behind.  I got up to ask the person at the window to darken the window.  It turned out it was an Indian woman sleeping.  She didn’t understand English and her daughter had to reach over from her aisle set and hold the button to darken the window.  After returning to my seat and not having the light in my face I fell asleep and slept for over nine hours.

When we landed in LA I stayed on the plane until everyone had left.  I then had the flight attendant get my carry on down and I slowly made my way to the exit where a wheel chair attendant was just arriving.  The attendant had a little trouble getting me to Immigration because he needed special access to an elevator.  I didn’t mind the wait and I breezed through the Global Entry check point.  My bags were just coming around on the carousel and I quickly exited the baggage claim area.  My car service driver called to inform me that the parking garage at the International Terminal was closed, he wasn’t aware that I had arrived at United’s terminal 6.  I informed him about my location and he arrived in a short time.  I thanked and tipped the wheel chair attendant and slowly walked across the street to the parking garage and the limo.

My long trip was over.  I had visited ten Asian countries in 43 days.  Four for the first time and that completed my visits to all the UN countries in Asia.

Post Scrip

I arrived home before 11:00 and contacted my doctor.  They were able to get me an appointment with another doctor who diagnosed my problem as a recurrence of an infection I had been treated for in February.  He prescribed antibiotics which had cured it before.  I knew it would take two to three weeks for my system to get back to normal and I would be ready for my last trip scheduled in June to visit Kiribati and Samoa, the last two UN countries I hadn’t visited.  I should complete my goal of visiting every country in the UN by mid-June 2014.

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