It's remarkable how, as a city and a capital, Vientiane has really come into its own. More than once, I got curmudgeony on Juliah, reminding her, "I remember when this city didn't have a single paved road! I remember when there were chickens in the streets everywhere! Now look at this place: cars! pet dogs! cops with shoes!" You can't quantify the level of growth that's occurred here in the last 10 years, since back when the country had a single airport that supported a single daily flight from Bangkok. I'm nostalgic for my first memories of the country, but also thrilled for the Lao people, who are desperately in need of development.
On our second to last day, we took the advice of a boorish Australian who'd hated every place he'd been except a single temple just outside central Vientiane. Wat Si Muang is one of many temples rebuilt after Thailand sacked the country in the mid-1800's. Though Thais and Laos share the same religion, Buddhism didn't stop the Thais from burning wats and wrecking images of the Buddha, just as it didn't prevent the Burmese from wrecking the temples of Ayuthaya prior to that. Inside War Si Muang is the city pillar, laid during the official founding of Vientiane. Underneath this several ton stone, it is believed, is the crushed body of a pregnant woman: a self-sacrifice or human sacrifice that pre-dates current Buddhist practices.
Wat Si Muang is Vientiane's most active temple, not only because it is the city's temple, but because the grounds and images inside are believed to have special powers of protection and blessing. A 20 pound molten Buddha statue, destroyed when the Thai wrecked the city, rests on a pillow in a room just outside the main prayer chamber, where the devout come to pray and the tourists come to take flash photography. The practice is to raise the statue above your head while silently meditating on a personal wish, and to return to the temple later with offerings of wax flowers, bananas, and incense. Inside the main chamber, the room was stacked with elaborate offerings. Outside, a small procession of students, families, and crippled people waited their turn to pray, against the backdrop of monks blessing families, performing baasi ceremonies to bind together spirits to protect the health and souls of the devout.
We're back in Bangkok to meet Julie's sister and enjoy watermelon shakes before heading to Koh Chang, off the southern coast. Pictures will be posted shortly to this page, but in the meantime please check out some of our other photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/markandjuliah/
Mark and Juliah