- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

VIENTIANE, Laos — A slow, thumping drumbeat summoned about 15 Buddhist monks wrapped in orange robes as the sun began to rise, and they gathered at a massive gold stupa called Pha That Luang — the most important national symbol in Laos.

It was 6 a.m., and I met the drowsy but smiling monks as I began a one-day tour of Vientiane, the Laotian capital that wraps around a bend in the Mekong River, one of the world’s great waterways.

A flat, dusty city of about 133,000 people, Vientiane is so laid-back that chickens peck and scratch along the roads in the town’s center. It’s the hub of the region’s poorest and most isolated country, gripped by a creaky, often uptight communist system.

Vientiane, which means Sandalwood City, is full of surprises for travelers expecting to find a shabby, depressing city stuck in the 1970s. By wandering the capital for a day, visitors can see bustling markets, quirky museum exhibits, beautifully restored temples, cyber-cafes, pubs, steamy noodle shops, pizza joints and friendly people who never seem to stop smiling.

The best way to get around is to hire a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled taxi, for about $10 a day.

I started my day of rambling at Pha That Luang, or the Great Stupa, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane. The huge gilded monument with a cluster of pointed stupas — Buddhist shrines — looks like a square missile launcher surrounded by thick, tall walls. The main stupa in the middle is 148 feet tall.

Stupas originally were built to house a Buddha relic, and legend has it that Pha That Luang holds a chunk of the Buddha’s breastbone brought by Indian missionaries about the third century B.C. However, some excavations suggest that the monument, which is featured on Laos’ official seal, marks the spot of a monastery.

As the sun rose and the drumbeat called the monks to the stupa, they lined up single file and began walking through neighborhoods of wooden homes with corrugated steel roofs. The air was thick with one of the common smells of the developing world: people burning the previous day’s trash in small fires outside their homes.

Women in long traditional skirts stood by the roadside waiting for the monks with bags of bananas, plates of dried fish and baskets of sticky rice. As the monks filed by, the women placed the food in their alms bowls and knelt down; the holy men chanted for a few minutes before moving on to the next home.

I broke away from the Buddhist parade as it passed a crowded morning market just a few blocks west of Pha That Luang. The market has rows of fruit and vegetable stands, and my nose was bombarded with smells: salty dried squid, steaming fragrant rice, piles of fresh mint, and charcoal fires under bubbling pots of broth.

Vendors sat behind large piles of pumpkins, cucumbers and bright red chilies, calling customers with the soft, nasal sound of the Lao language.

After an hour wandering the market, I headed over to central Vientiane for breakfast. Along the way, I passed an odd mix of low-rise architecture. Concrete storefronts were next to colonial-style buildings with verandas and tall shuttered windows — leftovers from five decades of French rule. Many were crumbling, but some had been skillfully restored.

One of Vientiane’s main landmarks is the Fountain Circle, an area packed with Western restaurants and guesthouses popular with the backpacking crowd. I stopped at a guesthouse to have a cup of strong coffee; fruit salad; and warm, crusty French bread, some of the best I have ever had in Asia.

The rest of the morning was spent at the Lao National History Museum, a few blocks east of the Fountain Circle. The museum is housed in a weathered white two-story mansion with faded blue shutters that was built in 1925 for the French governor.

The museum displays range from dinosaur bones and sandstone sculptures of the Hindu god Shiva to machine guns and black-and-white photos of guerrillas fighting U.S.-backed troops before the communists came to power in 1975.

Most exhibit labels have English translations and refer to Americans as the “U.S. imperialists.”

The French also are portrayed in an unflattering way. A large undated oil painting shows a French soldier throwing a boy down a well as another prepares to hit a woman with his rifle butt as he rips a child out of her arms. A village burns in the background.

Despite the “imperialist” references and the depiction of French soldiers, Americans and Europeans — along with their cash and their backpacks — generally are welcome throughout Laos.

After the museum, I had a light lunch at one of the noodle shops that seem to be everywhere in Vientiane. I had the popular dish foe, rice noodles with slices of beef served with a plate of fresh mint, lettuce, bean spouts and lime wedges. The vegetables are mixed into the soup along with sugar, fish sauces and chili powder.

Afternoons can be sweltering in Laos, so I decided to tour the shady Wat Si Saket in central Vientiane. Built in 1818, the wat, or temple, is surrounded by a wall. The wall’s interior features thousands of niches or tiny grottos that contain silver and gilded clay Buddhas. The wat also includes a sim, or ordination room, with an altar displaying more Buddhist sculptures.

Across the street is the Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple built in 1565 that has been turned into a museum for religious objects. The museum displays some of Laos’ best Buddhist sculptures.

During the afternoon’s peak, I tried to stick to air-conditioned places. I checked my e-mail at one of the many cyber-cafes in central Vientiane, and I got an hourlong massage for $4. I also browsed the neighborhood’s numerous antique and silk shops.

As the sun began to set, I went to a restaurant on the Mekong and watched the burning orange orb gradually sink below the tree line on Thailand’s side of the river.

I dined on beef with red curry sauce, a spicy minced chicken dish and a Vietnamese salad with clear rice noodles. The setting would have been perfect if I didn’t have to share the food with a swarm of persistent flies.

I ended my day with some pub-crawling that took me to the British-style Samlo Pub just a few blocks from the river. Teak shelves behind the bar were well-stocked with the big names of the liquor world. The bottles were neatly organized around a television that played a DVD of the “Lord of the Rings.” Stereo speakers blared “Pretty in Pink” by the Psychedelic Furs.

The day had begun with drums, a Buddhist alarm clock for monks. It ended with a Western pop tune. Perfect musical symbols for the broad spectrum of experience in this sleepy but often surprising river town.

• • •

The official Web site for travel and tourism in Laos is www.visit-mekong.com. November to April is considered the high season for travel to the country, for it is dry then.

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