WAT SOK PA LUANG
Famous for its herbal saunas, which are usually administered by lay people who reside at the temple, this wat paa or forest temple (War Mahaphutthawongsa Pa Luong Pa Yai; Thanon Sok Pa Luong) is in Muang Sisauanak. After a relaxing sauna, you can take herbal tea on the veranda while cooling off; expert massage is also available. You're not supposed to wash away your accumulated perspiration for two or three hours afterwards, apparently to allow the herbs to soak into your pores. The temple charges around US$1 for use of the sauna, about US$2 for an' hour-long massage. Nearby Wat 51 Amphon (Thanon Si Amphon) also does herbal saunas.
Wat Sok Pa Luang is known for its course of instruction in vipassana (Lao vipatsanda), a type of Buddhist meditation that involves careful mind-body analysis. The abbot and teacher is Ajahn Sali Kantasilo, a Thai who came to Laos in 1953 at the request of monks and laity in Vientiane. He accepts foreign students but only speaks Lao and Thai, so if you are interested you may have to arrange an interpreter. (See also Vipassana Meditation under Activities later in this chapter.)
Getting There & Away
Taxi, jumbo and tuk-tuk drivers all know how to get to Wat Sok Pa Luang. If you're traveling by car or bicycle, take Thanon Khu Vieng south past Talat Sao for about 2.5km until you come to a fairly major road on the left (this is Thanon Sok Pa Luang, but it's unmarked). Turn left here; the entrance to the wat is about 500m on the left. The temple buildings are back in the woods so all you can see from the road is the tall, ornamented gate.
For Wat Si Amphon, a few hundred rafters past Thanon Sok Pa Luang, turn right on Thanon Si Amphon; Wat Si Amphon is on the left.
The so-called 'Black Stupa' or That Dam (Thonon Bartholomie) is between the Hotel Ekalath Metropole and the US embassy. Local mythology says the stupa is the abode of a dormant seven-headed dragon that came to life during the 1828 Siamese -Lao war and protected local citizens. The stupa appears to date from the Lanna or early Lan Xang period and is very similar to stupas in Chiang Saen, Thailand. Despite a 1995 renovation, the brick and stucco structure still looks old and atmospheric.
Often called 'Buddha Park' (Suan Phutt. admission US$O.16, plus US$0.16 for parking; open 8am-4.30pm),this collection of Buddhist (and Hindu) sculpture lies in a meadow by the side of the Mekong River 24km south of the town centre off Thanon Tha Deua.
Now a public park, Xieng Khuang was designed and built in 1958 by Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunleua Sulilat, a yogi
-priest-shaman who merged Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, mythology and iconography into a cryptic whole. He developed a very large following in Laos and north-eastern Thailand, and moved to Thailand around the time of the 1975 Revolution. In 1978, he established the similarly inspired Wat Khaek in Nong Khai, Thailand, where he now resides. Originally, Bunleua is supposed to have studied under a Hindu rishi (sage) who lived in Vietnam. According to legend he was walking in the mountains when he fell through a sinkhole and landed in the rishi's lap!
The concrete sculptures at Xieng Khuang (Spirit City) are bizarre but compelling in their naive confidence. They include statues of Shiva, Vishnu, Arjuna, Avalokiteshvara, Buddha and every other Hindu or Buddhist deity imaginable, as well as a few secular figures, all supposedly cast by unskilled artists under Luang Pu's direction. The style of the figures is remarkably uniform. Children will enjoy cavorting around some of the more fantastic shapes, such as the deity with tentacles.
The large pumpkin-shaped concrete monument in the grounds has three levels joined by interior spiral stairways. The three levels are said to represent hell, earth and heaven. The rooms on the inside have been filled with small sculptures; you can either go in or look through windows from an outer hallway at each level. The last spi'ral stairway leads onto the top of the structure, from where you can view the gigantic sculptures outside.
AA few food vendors in the park offer fresh coconuts, soft drinks, beer, ping kai (grilled chicken) and tam maak-hung (spicy green papaya salad).
Getting There & Away
Buses (US$O.12) bound for Xieng Khuang depart from the Talat Sao terminal every 20 minutes or so throughout the day. Alternatively, a chartered jumbo costs around US$3.50 one way, US$4.50 return. Or hop on a shared jumbo (US$0.15) as far as the old ferry pier at Tha Deua and then walk or take a saamlaw (three-wheeled taxi) for the final4km to the park. You could cycle here fairly easily as the 24km of road is relatively flat all the way.