Vientiane: You Are Now Entering The Twilight Zone

You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead. Your next stop:

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Vientiane is unlike any other Southeast Asian city I’ve been to. The pace is very slow, shop keepers don’t try to drag you into the shops, the tourist destinations are surreally empty and quiet, and people are calmly driving around instead of buzzing around like the world is coming to an end. Even the river itself seems to have got the memo to chill out – it’s nearly empty most of the year and the water gently floats by without any boats in sight. So peaceful and serene. Then I felt like I was in an episode of the original black and white Twilight Zone. You know the one where the guy wakes up in a city and everything seems normal until he goes about his day, then strange unexpected things show up everywhere and in the end he finds out he is part of an alien experiment? Yep, that’s exactly how my day went – minus the aliens.

Things started to get a little weird once I got to my first temple. The buildings I saw seemed to be a alternate reality version of their foreign counterparts: proportions seemed off, window sills and spires didn’t quite line up, the geometries were wrong, and they were in bizarre stages of disrepair – one spire would look shiny and brand new while the next would have 30 year old paint flaking off of it.

Phra That Luang

The first structure I came across, a bizarrely empty and quiet temple near Phra That Luang. I noticed the door to the right was open so I ventured in.

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The interior. Ah yes, ancient temple. Wait, what the heck is this place? There were no signs anywhere and the floor was immaculately shiny.

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Ah yes, Phra That Luang. The national symbol of Laos!

The huge plastic looking the 16th century Buddhist stupa was built over a 13th century Khmer structure. It looks half freshly painted, half abandoned, and entirely bizarre. The spires didn’t even line up right, the whole thing felt like a valiant attempt that fell short. And yes, I was photographing it in the middle of the day… and yes, the colors were this fakey-gold.

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Taken from inside Phra That Luang. Notice the complete lack of tourists. Also notice how everything feels a little crooked. No matter how I positioned the camera I couldn’t make all of the lines and spires to converge.

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Some detail of the spires… even they felt off. Not gold, not concrete, they almost looked like painted plastic.

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Behind the temple was a beautiful little garden full of snakes and spiders. I snapped this photo and got the heck out of there since I was wearing open toed sandals and wasn’t looking forward to a snake bite in Laos.

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Most monks in Southeast Asia seem to be able to own possessions – I saw even the poorest buddhist monks browsing and buying DVDs, but many of the older monks in Laos rocked some serious camera gear. I’ve seen over a dozen with such equipment. I struck up a conversation and apparently this monk had visited New York City a few times. He and his friends each had at least US$5,000 in equipment on them – a 5D Mark II, 16-35mm f/2.8 lenses, 24-105 and 24-70 f/2.8s, and at least one of the brand new 70-300s. They definitely had even nicer camera gear than me.

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I heard you like taking pictures so I’m taking pictures while you take pictures so you can take a picture of me taking pictures. Or something.

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Monks gone wild!

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Yep, straight out of the Twilight Zone. What should be super cute came across as exceedingly bizarre and creepy. Even the pose seemed like this doll was an outcast. Shuuuuuuuuun the nonbeliever!

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Wat Sisaket Museum

What looked like a stunning monastery turned out to be a museum. It was filled tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Buddhas of all sizes. There were niches, alcoves, and cloisters full of them everywhere you looked. It was almost like there was a competition to see which room could maximize the number of Buddhas per square foot.

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This Buddha statue was one of my favorite for some reason. The yellow sash felt straight out of India.

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You want Buddhas? We’ve got Buddhas!

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Oh, but the fun doesn’t stop there. More Buddhas! Nobody that worked there could explain to me why some of the alcoves were empty.

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Another favorite yellow-sashed Buddha, this time headless.

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Nearly all Buddhist monasteries and temples I’ve visited have either a central Buddha surrounded by a number of smaller buddhas, a single hall of buddhas in a row, or individual Buddhas in different rooms. This one was packed to the gills. The room with the most Buddhas was, of course, off limits for photography.

Ho Phra Keo

Across the street from the Wat Sisaket Musem was Ho Phra Keo… yet another museum and this one even had a red carpet.

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Whoah, whoah, slow down there…

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The inside of Ho Phra Keo was unreal as well. Countless Buddhist relics were crammed into the smallest possible space and most seemed to be tossed about haphazardly. There were more “No camera” signs than signs describing what we weren’t allowed to take pictures of. Not at all what I would ever expect.

Xiengkuane Buddha Park

Ah yes, the pièce de résistance of this bizarre day, Xiengkuane Buddha Park. Located 30 minutes outside of Vientiane by tuk-tuk, this huge park is hands down the strangest collection of Buddhist and Hindu inspired statues I’ve ever seen. I’d wager to say it’s the strangest collection of ANY statues I’ve ever seen.

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This was the entrance to a multi-level structure that represented the builders idea of heaven and hell. It even had plants for hair. To get to the top of the structure you had to enter through the mouth and climb through cramped statue and spider filled corridors.

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One of the many rooms on the way top the top. Notice the stone staircase in the center and the discarded basket.

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The park easily had hundreds of statues and many included elements I’m not used to seeing – such as these cartoon skulls that looked like they belonged in a Mexican Día de Los Muertos or Brazilian Carinval celebration.

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In all of my travels I’ve never seen anything in Hindu or Buddhist philosophies that even remotely resembled this statue until now. Reminds me of the Shrike from the Hyperion series of books…

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Even the public squat-toilets were different – this adorable sign was telling people to leave money in the unattended money box to use the WC.

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Beyond this was a restaurant that looked abandoned aside from the two women who were staffing it. I sat down and they didn’t bring menus. I got up and got my own drink and they ignored me. The wind cut through the trees and huge pods of something came raining down on the corrugated steel roof for a few minutes and it sounded like a hail storm from hell in the middle of the day. Next to the restaurant were two kids mindlessly sweeping up the dust. There were no leaves or sticks to rake or sweep, they were raking the dust like it was a chore of theirs – a chore that made no sense to me at all.

Yep, Twilight Zone.

Back to Reality?

As my incredibly strange day came to a close and the sun started to set, things started to feel normal again. For example, this street food looked entirely normal!

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What appeared to be a normal cat. Wait, this kitty looks completely healthy. Most cats I’ve come across on this trip have missing or broken tails, have horrible flea problems, have inconsistent fur, or look generally sick. I seem to have found the one cat who was healthy. Perhaps he is one of the alien overlords observing the grand humanity experiment that I was a unwittingly part of? :: cue Twilight Zone music ::

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I still haven’t shaken the strange feeling I got in Vientiane, Laos. Some other tourists I spoke to said they felt put off by how ‘odd’ everything was but to be honest I quite enjoyed it. One of the great benefits of traveling is being exposed to new things and Vientiane was absolutely full of the unexpected – a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.