south out of Vang Vieng towards Laos' capital at Vientiane the
mountains begin to melt away and you enter fertile valleys crossed by
tranquil rivers that flow to the Mekong.
legacy as a French Provincial capital is reflected in its architecture
including the Presidential Palace above. Today a city of contrasts, you
are as apt to encounter communist flags and slogans as up-market
restaurants and boutique hotels. Below, known to tourists as
Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe, this tribute to Laos' war dead is actually
called Patuxai. Lonely Planet points out that it was built with
concrete donated by our government intended for the construction of an
airport, prompting it to be dubbed "the vertical runway".
While in Vientiane we had to decide on our route going
forward. We had time left on our Lao visas, but we had all but ruled
out going on to Cambodia. The roads heading toward Siem Reap and
Angkor Wat from Lao were dodgy at best, and with my hip and the
situation with bike #2's gas leak it didn't seem that promising. We had
heard some mixed reviews about Savannakhet, another former French
outpost further along down the Mekong. Our other option was to cross
the friendship bridge right there in Vientiane and head down to Khon
Kaen and then on to Bangkok. We had already decided to sell the bikes
back in Bangkok on our way to the south of Thailand rather than heading
for the beaches and then all the way back up to Bangkok again to sell
them. That way we would be free to continue on to Malaysia without
having to double back on our tracks. Every town we had been in rented
small bikes and scooters, and we figured we could go that route in the
south for our day to day transportation.
In Vientiane we had no more than settled into our guesthouse when the fuel leak issue became an emergency. When Yut was assembling the bike I noticed a small rust spot on the tank right where the seat touched it in the back. We had Yut's guy put a little bit of paint on it to keep it from getting worse. With the seat rubbing against the spot though it had rubbed through and now in addition to the leaky fuel valve we had a bona fide gusher happening right near the very bottom of the tank. The young man who manned the desk at our guest house told us of a mechanic that was right across from his father's grocery store. I got over there and helped get the tank off and the man contacted a sheet metal worker (my former trade) about soldering the hole. He said he wanted to fill the tank with water for a day first to get all of the gas out before soldering, and after soldering he would dry the tank in the sun for a day to make sure no water remained. We also figured out a way to fit the spare fuel valve I had by removing the plastic knob for shutting it off. The only way I would be able to turn the valve on reserve would be to get off the bike and, with some difficulty, reach in with a needle-nose pliers and do it by hand. It was another "make do", but it did solve the leak. So, with the bike down for two days we hired a taxi and took a ride about thirty kilometers outside of town to one of the more surreal places we had encountered in Southeast Asia.
Khuang (Spirit City) is an eclectic mix of iconography that encompasses
the whole pantheon of Buddhism, Hinduism, and god knows what else (no
pun intended). Known simply as Buddha Park, Xieng Khuang is the vision
of a yogi/shaman who in the late 50s built this unusual tribute to his
own blend of Eastern philosophies and religions. Said to have been
built with the aid of unskilled artisans, the sculptures are actually
constructed of cast concrete. What follows are just a few examples of
one man's remarkable dedication.
Back in town, with no more leaks evident we decided we would continue along the Mekong to Savannakhet. This gave us the option to change our mind about Cambodia without running out of visa entries into Thailand.
|As we were
leaving Vientiane we made an early morning stop at Pha That Luang. This
important chedi, or stupa, which is Laos' most revered
symbol of Buddhism, also appears on the national seal. It
was not open to the public at this hour, but an accommodating guard let
me through the gate far enough to take a picture here, and of the
adjacent Wat That Luang Neua (below).