On my initial visit in 2001 we took our first evening stroll along the Mekong to watch the sunset and goings on. There were a group of makeshift stalls serving various local foods and the ubiquitous Beer Lao. It was wonderful food, cheap, and with an ambiance that was otherworldly. Fishermen plied the Mekong, lumber boats heading South full of teak, monks chanting evening prayers from nearby temples and the lights of Thailand coming up on the other shore all accompanied with a golden, steamy sunset.
I learned later that the government would bulldoze these stalls every few years, it was still outside of the law to have a private business they didn’t approve of. But as the tourist trade started to increase they, officials saw the value and have let these businesses develop. The number of proprietors has increased from 6 or so options to over 50. Their structures are becoming more permanent and the fear of bulldozers have become a thing of the past. Today you wouldn’t call them food stalls with their wood floors and platforms, substantial kitchen improvements and running water. The menus are printed and the decorations there to stay.
My favorite meal is fresh Mekong tilapia, rolled in salt, stuffed with lemon grass and grilled over cocoanut husk charcoal. A side of spicy stir-fried morning glory and a watercress salad with dried buffalo make the meal complete. Beer Lao is still the beverage of choice and goes so well with that steamy sunset. A full meal and big Beer Lao is still less than $5US. Priceless.
Spirit City, as the Lao name Xieng Khuan infers, displays the fantasy and focus of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Lao monk with a vision. Buddha Park, the name given by tourist guides is an easy excursion from Vientiane.
Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) was a priest-shaman who integrated Hinduism and Buddhism into his work. The 200 plus statues are made of cement and are ornate, and sometimes bizarre, in design. The statues appear to be centuries old, though they are not, the park was started in 1958. There are numerous sculptures of Buddha and characters of Hindu lore. There are also sculptures of humans, gods, animals and demons. One notable sculpture resembles a giant pumpkin. It has three stories representing three levels, Hell, Earth and Heaven. You enter the mouth and climb the staircase through the three levels and worlds. On top top, there is a vantage point where the entire park is visible. Another sculpture, an enormous 130ft high reclining Buddha is also a park attraction and muse. At one end of the park is the "Savan" or Heaven where the spirits of good Lao are known to reside and bring harmony to the land.
Any taxi or Tuk Tuk will take you there. It’s around 30-40 minutes out of Vientiane along the Mekong. You’ll pass the Friendship Bridge to Thailand and go through some beautiful rice fields and small towns. The more adventuresome way to reach the park is to take bus number 14 from the main bus station from Talat Khoa Din next to Morning Market. Tell the driver where you are going and he will notify you at the right stop. Don’t be afraid to ask twice.
Luang Pu went on to other monuments and visions. With followers he fled from Laos to Thailand after the revolution of 1975. There he created another fanciful sculpture park, Sala Keoku in Nong Khai.