The reviews we heard of Vientiane were not terribly flattering. It was big and Lao and there were certainly temples and some interesting sights, but the word on the travel circuit was dire: bedbugs, expensive restaurants, entirely too few magical enchanted forests on top of giant waterfalls.
We arrived via clattering wonderbus at an enormous, cacophonous station filled with dozens of people screaming in our faces. Like most bus station in southeast Asia we were pretty far out of town, necessitating a transfer to a local bus and an efficient, speedy gouging. The sun was blistering hot, we had just ridden in a bus for seven hours, and weren’t capable of negotiating.
But we were in the capital, and damn it, we were going to enjoy it.
Of course, this is not to say Vientiane did not challenge our determination. We had stalled too long on our visas for Vietnam and had to spend the better part of a day tracking down information online, lest we be detained indefinitely at the Hanoi airport. The night markets were packed and thrumming with unimpressive buys and street food we could never quite track down. The city itself was just big enough to be kind of faceless, but too small to have a busy, overwhelming feel.
Our hostel was pleasant and run by a kindly Vietnamese woman, but it did tend to smell like sewer gas, and also all of the neighbours kept roosters on their rooftops. We slept soundly that first night, but while we readied ourselves the next day, Faith spotted an intruder slithering across the sheets: a bedbug.
We began our meltdown. Were the bedbugs in our bags? Were they in our clothes? Had bedbugs crawled beneath our epidermises, laid eggs, and were now plotting fiendishly to take over much of eastern Vietnam? We considered changing hotels, but after consultation with other travelers, were assured that every other hotel had the same problem. Perhaps we could wrap ourselves in cellophane before bedtime.
The city had started to become sour to us. After the magic of Luang Prabang and the completely methless splendour of Vang Vieng, Vientiane seemed a paltry, charmless comparison. The world seemed de-saturated, without the greatness to which he had become accustomed.The people were still nice, and the food was decent, but we couldn’t even find an absurdly cheap baguette to eat! And where were all of the prohibition era moonshines? We had been spoiled by the quainter portions of Laos, and the big city was not living up to our priggish, high-nosed expectations.
We needed something to wow us. We hated the idea of a city being wasted time, we hated the idea that we had become so jaded by awesomeness that this city could do nothing for us. We needed something. Something more colourful than a local temple, more stunning than the local boardwalk, more weird than dance club/shoe-shanty that was running during the night market.
After picking up another old chum from Korea, we scoured the travel wiki and a Lonely Planet brick for ideas. Something spectacular needed to be found to shake us out of our funk, to stop our existential pouting.
Buried amidst the recommendations was something called The Buddha Park. Many kilometres outside of town, nestled theoretically in some forgotten forest, was an open parkland. In this parkland were dozens of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, worn down either naturally or artificially, to appear as though they were centuries old abandoned statues.
I imagined, of course, a kind of dumping grounds for well-loved religious iconography, an island of misfit toys in the traditional Buddhist oeuvre. Here the remains from old temples and places of worship were sent to age together, a kind of holy retirement home, looking over the Mekong. What did these statues think? Did they yearn for the days of old, when they were visited by thousands, by hundreds of thousands, when they were worshipped and loved? As the sun crossed overhead, shining on both Laos and Thailand, did they long to cross the shores, to be whole once again? Or did they wish to crumble here, among their brethren, forgotten but for particularly gung-ho tourists and a nice lady outside who sold cheap ice cream?
We immediately chartered a mini-bus and piled in. The road out of Vientiane was long an arduous, and overtime pavement became gravel, which became dirt, which became dirt with a lot of potholes. Dustclouds were kicked up as few vehicles traversed this road, and our driver wrapped a bandana around his face. These lost statues had erected some sort of forcefield, a test of the truth and dedication of those journeying to see them.
After an hour on the road, we arrived, shaky-legged and clutching our cameras, at a huge expanse of land crowded on the perimeter with dark, tall trees. Sturdy chain-link fences guarded the grounds, and after getting through security, we entered into a rocky dreamscape.
Statues were everywhere, grey and bejewelled and yellowing from age. Fingers and limbs had fallen off, whether by time or through careful, purposeful destruction, and the mottled flesh of ancient gods turned black and sepia. An enormous Buddha slumbered along the length of the park, reclining daintily with his head on one hand, as dozens of apsaras were captured mid-dance around his body.
Durga rode a tiger astride Shiva, while Kali stood nearby with dozens of weapons and heads. A great Ravana erupted from the ground, while Rama perched on a pillar and fired stone arrows at one of his many faces. The grass was wet and muddy, and the statues looked everywhere like they might be swallowed up by the earth. I wondered if maybe there was a statue of Sita somewhere, already taken in by the ground, received by her mother, in the world like in the legend. (Ramayana deep cuts, y’all. Anyone want to discuss the Uttarakanda in the comments? I have to use my degree for something.)
At one end of the park, visible even in Thailand, was the main attraction. A huge, terrible gourd had been erected, its stem a great curlicue of ebony ripping into the slate sky. We saw people atop this beautiful monstrosity, and knew we had to find our way to the top.
The entrance was a great demon’s mouth, cramped and stony, and once you had gotten inside the abominable pumpkin you were confronted by a depiction of hell. In the central chamber were statues in agony, clawing and warped, writhing in clay and stone. It was terribly dark, and there are cobwebs everywhere, and the only light on this level issues from the demon’s mouth. These shapes are shadows within shadows, and it is almost impossible to see.
After climbing to the level depicting earth, still more statues, more anthropomorphic, are arranged in another chamber. Here, light poured in from the windows, caressed their faces and their hands. It is slightly less creepy, although there are still a number of cobwebs.
At the very pinnacle, atop another set of perilous, dusty steps, was a cramped opening, completely dark. One had to wriggle into the depth of this spooktunnel, wedging bodily inside, until you could see the light on the other end. Another demon mouth, and then you were at the heaven level, high above the gods and Buddha and standing alongside the weird gothic rod of the sky.
You make some gambles while travelling, you see cities based on impulse and convenience and hearsay. Sometimes things don’t end up as you want—sometimes you have to suffer for a few days and move on to more interesting locales. And then sometimes you climb through the innards of a giant stone pumpkin in the middle of a forest outside of the capital of Laos surrounded by crumbling statues of Hindu gods, and then things don’t seem like such a waste.