We rode to Vientiane on a rickety afternoon bus, and pulled into town in the mid evening. Though we hadn't given it much thought, we knew from ads we saw earlier in Laos that the Southeast Asia Games were in Vientiane starting on the 8th. Not too surprisingly, it was hard to find a place to stay - after passing by about 15 places that were full, we settled into the first vacancy we found. It was more expensive than we're used to (about $15) and they were full for the next day, but at least we had a spot for the night.
The next day we went to Buddha park, which is a really cool, really small park full of Buddhas and Hindu god sculptures. The park is 15 km out of town and only the size of a city block, but has hundreds of impressive statues. It is one of very few recently built attractions (only about 50 years old) that is truly worth visiting. The largest sculpture is a 30 metre reclining Buddha, but there are a huge amount of amazing pieces, of which a fraction are pictured below.
After getting back we took in some of the main sights of the capital city (population 200,000, in a country of 6 million people). I liked their version of the Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxay. It is similar to the original, but with a bit of an Asian twist to the design. It also has the brilliant distinction of being built of concrete donated by the US in the 60s for the construction of an airport runway. Unfortunately local officials don't hold as high an opinion of the structure as I do: the sign below is posted at the base of the Arc ("Built in 1962 but never complete due to the country's turbulent history. From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.") Seriously, it's not that bad. Also, apart from a few steel rods poking out near the ceiling there is no evidence that the structure was never completed.
The black stupa, an old part of a temple that seems out of place surrounded by modern buildings close to city center.
The city has one of the world's fanciest Culture Hall buildings.
Part of dinner: one of 3 frogs we bought on a skewerfrom a roadside stand. One tasted fishy, but the other two were actually pretty good.
We were in the capital for a few days over the beginning of the SouthEast Asia Games, a sport competition in which 9 countries compete (Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, East Timor, Cambodia). On the first day we went to see Tae Kwan Do, with 5 medals contested. It took us an hour to find out where to take the bus, and another hour to get to the venue including the 2.5km walk from the bus stop. Luckily, we were still hours early. It turned out they were only doing katas (sequences of moves, everyone does the same thing) that day, but it still got pretty exciting. Medal winners come from 4 of the 9 countries, as there are 2 bronze medals for all sports where braketing is possible rather than having a bronze medal match to decide who takes 3rd and 4th place. They win a stuffed animal in addition to their medal. It's exciting.
Back home in the evening, after deciding that we'd sleep at the bus station if we don't find a place to sleep, we were able to find a single room in a guest house. The price was right and everywhere else was full, so we decided to stay a couple days. Sue was so happy to see the Full sign when we went down after checking in, and she laughed whenever we saw people lugging around their big backpacks going from place to place looking for a vacancy.
The next day we went to see thai boxing, but arrived 8 hours too early. So we went to karate a couple kilometers away. It was katas, similar to what we saw at tae kwon do the day earlier, and they adjourned for a few hours when we got there. So we ended up going back to tae kwon do. To our relief they were fighting that day, and we arrived just in time to see the gold medal finals. We still don't know how scoring works, but sometimes the coach would use a card and get 3 points, which seemed a lot like a video game move.
Laos Superfan #1 and Superfan #2 (with flags found at the side of the road the prior day)
Vietnam guy winning his fight. Immediately after he won gold, rather than running around the arena with his flag like he ran to the stands. We thought he was going to see his coach or president or something, but no, he was picking up a cheque for 5 million dong (roughly $320). The same happened each time Vietnam won gold (which was one other time, plus one time it nearly happenned and they got the novelty cheques out then put them back away).
We saw some table tennis, which in southeast asia is not at all competitive -- almost all matches are won 3-0, which is an impressive gap between each team for a league with 9 teams. The stadium was not at all inviting: here is a pic of Sue using what I think is the main entrance to the stadium grounds.
Dinner in our cheap guest house's fancy dining room. The table and chairs are each tree stumps, and we're eating 2 fish, some rice, and some vegetables.
Our last night there we downloaded a detailed schedule (with times) so that we wouldn't arrive at the wrong time like we had half the time in the last few days. So we got up in time to get to the Diving preliminaries at 10am. We got there just after 10 and the cheering squad was there, with a few divers practising on the boards. A bit odd but whatever. Then the cheering squad left, and we waited for it to start until 1pm. We saw some good dives (and some bad ones) for half an hour, before leaving early so we could see Thai boxing. So unimpressed with their scheduling and transport.
Finally we arrived at the Muai Thai arena, which we were really happy to see since we hadn't seen Thai boxing when in Thailand and these were world-class competitors. It did not disappoint - it's a vicious sport, and especially after seeing Tae Kwon Do I can see why most successful MMA competitors are trained in Thai Boxing. It's also a bit like pro wrestling, in that there are a couple minutes before each match where the competitors dance or work the crowd. There is an asian band playing music in the background as the fight goes on. These last two points hold true even in international competitions. Wonderful.