PHOTO: Laid Back In Southeast Asia (Vientiane, Laos & Bali, Indonesia)
I've been missing Asia quite a bit lately. Other than a trip to the Republic of Georgia in 2016 (which is arguably not really Asia even though it's geographically there), I haven't been to one of my favorite corners of the globe since September 2015. And sadly, at this time, there's nothing on the books in the future that would take me back either. It's the eternal struggle of a dedicated traveler - do you branch out and see new things, or return to your old favorites? I'm currently in "new things" mode, but that doesn't mean I don't miss my old favorites.
I suppose I'm lucky that my current backlog of posts has me working through a bit of my adventures in Asia. As I mentioned in other posts, my fiance and I made a trip through southeast Asia to Cambodia (Siem Reap), Laos (Vientiane), and Indonesia (Bali) as a celebration of his completion of an MBA. I'd been to Cambodia previously but he was keen to set his eyes on Angkor Wat. Vientiane and Bali were both new destinations for me and I have to admit - they both surprised me with how much I enjoyed myself in each location.
I didn't know what to expect in Vientiane. All I knew prior to arriving was that it was often listed as an "okay if you skip it, to be honest" destination and the temperature was set to be over 105 degrees Fahrenheit our entire stay. I was half expecting to be bored after the first day but instead fI ound myself enjoying the sleepy, laid back atmosphere around town. We rented bicycles and made our way around town over the course of a few days casually pedaling to pagodas, temples, and along the banks of the river. Is it one of the world's great cities? No. But it's definitely a place where you can lose yourself for a few days and really immerse yourself in a city because you're not under the pressure of seeing every monument and scenic outpost on your to-do list. I didn't leave feeling like I saw Vientiane, it was more like I felt it.
Bali I expected to hate, though I still tried to arrive with an open mind. Rumors of endless noisy partiers filling the beaches at all hours of the night didn't sound like my wheelhouse, which is why we booked half of our stay on the isle in the highlands around Ubud. Oddly enough, I ended up finding Ubud to be a bit of a tourist trap, but found our time at the beaches later in the trip to be quite serene and peaceful. Ubud isn't a terrible place, but you do have to look a bit past the tourist veneer to find its real charm. As for the beaches - just do some research and pick a good area to base yourself. As long as you make sure to avoid the beaches popular with partiers, you'll get an experience you can enjoy.
Keep in mind that these photos were taken prior to my interest in more serious travel photography and blogging, so the quality isn't great and I didn't exactly go into the experience with an intent to document places and things to do. So this is more of a photo essay overview than a "how to" guide.
So, without further ado - here's a few of my favorite snapshots from our time in Vientiane and Bali.....
One of the most visited landmarks in the sleepy little hamlet of Vietiane is Putuxai - also affectionately called the "Vertical Runway". Off the bat this robust archway doesn't seem to have much in common with aviation with its traditional Laotian design and intricate kinnari (half-woman, half-bird) standing guard. But when you learn that the money used to create this landmark was originally provided by the US Government with intention of building a new runway at Vietiane's airport, it makes a bit more sense. Regardless of where the funds came from, Putuxai sits quiet and proud in the midst of manicured shrubbery under the relentless southeast Asian sun.
Locals take shelter from the heat under its massive frame, lounging on benches built into the base. It's attractive from a distance but definitely looses a bit of its charm the closer you get. Concrete is not the most graceful of materials for a grand structure like this, and it shows. That isn't to say there isn't a raw, blunt beauty to the structure - some of my favorite sights in the world are made of this utilitarian material.
The juxaposition of the brutal concrete exterior with the bright colors and intricate artwork inside the vaulted interior of the archway is playful and a bit out of place. Bright blues and glittering gold are the staples of several murals of Laotian history and society that add a pop of color to an otherwise drab interior. You can climb the stairs to a viewing balcony at the top to get a 360 view of Vientiane, though I really much preferred buying an ice cream cone from one of the women with a cooler nearby and sitting with everyone else under the shaded archway and relaxing for a spell.
If you've ever traveled, you've had regrets. "I regret not taking an extra day to really immerse myself further into Paris." "I regret eating that dodgy meat dish on the streets of Mumbai." "I regret not paying the extra $59 to book a ticket with one connection instead of six." If you don't have regrets, you're probably not traveling with the carefree abandon that leads to adventure and good stories.
One of my biggest travel regrets involves not purchasing an article of clothing that was offered at Vientiane's Night Market. A stretch of vendors and stalls lined up along the banks of the famous Mekong River, this market was much more calm with much less sales pressure than youwould normally find in the region while making a casual stroll on a steamy Thursday evening. So little pressure that it was downright enjoyable to shop! We ducked in and out of tent covered tables featuring a variety of knickknacks and tourist kitsch when suddenly - there it was. A cotton halter-top style shirt with "BOSTON" boldly plastered from shoulder to shoulder. Below it was a poorly constructed American flag with too many stripes and not nearly enough stars. The most beautiful part was the completely butchered spelling of the US state of Massachusetts. It was perfect in its imperfections; the kind of memento that makes you laugh and smile. Sadly, despite mulling over a purchase for a few minutes, I passed.
I'll take that regret to my grave. Count on it.
When it comes to flashy buildings, stunning temples, or even just moderately exciting sites to keep a tourist enthralled, Vientiane isn't the brightest star on the well-trod southeast Asia path. It's not even the brightest star on Laos' path to be quite honest, with the French colonial charm of Luang Prabang and the wild parties of Vang Vieng catching the gaze (and money) of the tourist jetset. That being said, Vientiane does have some allure up its sleeve.
Xieng Khuan, also referred to as the Buddha Park, is the site of an eccentric collection of statues on the outskirts of the city on a patch of land along the Mekong River. Home to over 200 statues depicting deities and imagery from the Hindu and Buddhist faiths, it was first started in the 1950s by a local Laotian man that advocated the mixing of Hindu and Buddhist theology. Now curated as a tourist attraction by the government, you can make your way along a bumpy, unpaved road to the park to spend an hour or two wandering through the trippy, freaky statutes. If you get too hot (and it's Laos, so you will) you can always seek shelter inside the park's giant "pumpkin" - a three tiered sphere intended to mirror the concept of Hell, Earth, and Heaven. You enter through a demon's open mouth and slowly make your way up the levels until you exit through a small opening at the top. There's not much in the way of "safety" regulations here, so be careful not to slip.
Also, don't spend too much time trying to figure out why there's a tree sculpted into the top of this "pumpkin" as that's likely to distract you enough to cause a fall in and of itself.
Bali can be a mixed bag.
Depending on the person you're asking, it can range from an over-hyped tourist trap filled with people trying to "Eat, Pray, Love" their way out of reality to a gin-soaked underworld of skeezy backpackers running rampant. Like most things in life, it's all of those things but it's certainly not only these things. A decade of travel has taught me that all places have value and that generally things are what you make of them. So we gave Bali a chance and were pretty happy with the results.
Above is the scene at Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, one of Bali's most picturesque sights. Built to honor the Hindu deities Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva along with a lake deity named Dewi Danu, this temple is nestled along the shoreline of Lake Beratan way up in the highlands of the isle. We happened to arrive as a storm was rolling in, which helped some of the mobs of tourists milling about to disappear when the sky started to look a bit more ominous. The central pagoda juts out from the shoreline and the bright flowers and lily pads surrounding it are some of the more serene views a traveler could hope for. Sadly what you don't see are the paddle duck boats on the opposite side of the tower. Combined with the swarms of tourist, it can be a bit jarring to see something so calm and peaceful encased in a roiling cauldron of chaos.
None of this means it isn't worth visiting, and I suspect that if you time it right (i.e. show up very early or very late), you'll be treated to a much more relaxing experience.
One of Bali's most iconic sights are the many tiered rice paddies that dot the highlands of the isle. While many think of it solely as a beach destination, Bali's interior has some of the more interesting and stunning scenery you can find. Of course we took time to venture out and look for some of the mythical rice paddies, meandering through the hills and valleys in search of endless green fields.
There's a section of rice paddy that everyone seems to love, though this picture below ended up being my favorite shot from the visit. I love the vibrancy of the fields contrasted against the storm clouds rolling in over the valley. In the distance you can see the rain start to pummel the earth while just beyond the briefness of the event is forecast by the streams of sunlight breaking through the clouds.
Tanah Lot Temple is another one of the most photographed locations on Bali, and I'm sure you can see why. We had to choose between Ulun Danu Beratan and Tanah Lot for our sunset viewing and decided this was where we wanted to be. Not a bad choice right?
While you can make your way over to and up into the temple complex if you like, we decided against that route as it was (like many things in Bali) over run with people. Instead we hoofed it over to another less populated outcropping down the beach a bit and let the sun sink slowly into the distance. Cloud cover was excellent, and the lighting ended up just right. I was taking photos on an old iPhone 5 so the quality is never as good as I want it to be, but still, I thinkt the beauty of Bali shines through here.