Tuk Tuks, Buddhas, and “Herbal” Saunas in Vientiane, Laos

Originally published on March 30, 2010 during my third Big Trip around Southeast Asia.


Sitting with J at 7 o’clock at night and gorging on delicious pizza pretty much erased memories of the entire day sightseeing in Vientiane, which was a very good thing. During the day we had some unfortunate experiences, including an expensive and painful tuk tuk ride, a disappointing (kind of) destination at the end of said tuk tuk ride and then near third degree burns in an authentic Lao spa experience. At then at the end of that, a massage.

A Loooooooong Way Around Vientiane

Our first task of the day was negotiating a tuk tuk ride around Vientiane and the surrounding areas for our day of sightseeting. The Lonely Planet stated that tuk tuk prices were fixed and our hotel desk guy mentioned a one-way tuk tuk ride to the Pha That Lhuag, the preeminent Buddhist stupa in Laos, was 40,000 Kip. This amounts to $5 and is a lot (in Laos) for a 4 km ride.

We found a tuk tuk and sure enough the driver showed us his price list and it was 40,000. The price list also showed two other sights we’d wanted to see: Xieng Kuhan (Buddha Park) and Wat Sok Pa Luang for meditation and a spa treatment. The prices to see all these listed about 230,000 kip or $40. If this was market price, then we were in trouble in supposedly “budget” Laos. We agreed to 160,000 for Phat That Luang and the Big Buddha Park. The driver cried, “loooooooooooooooong long way” but a very good price.

The Stupa was impressive all gold and grand and looming over two temples on either side. The guidebook said it housed remnants of Buddha’s breastbone from 3 A.D and was built in the 1500s. Laotians turned out to worship and wonder at the sight. We circled the building snapping pictures – everything was perfectly symmetrical and covered in gold paint. The neighboring wats were also impressive and followed the Thai/Pagoda style in shape and colors of red, gold, and white.

Still, the high price of our tuk tuk ride bothered us, especially since we had our similar-distanced taxi ride to compare it to and that was much cheaper. We did the math and agreed to bargain for one more destination for the same price. The driver was there at the entrance to meet us with the tuk tuk and was not really open to negotiate. But still I pressed on and tried to maintain my cool. We really wanted to see the Buddha park, home of a very big reclining Buddha, but were not willing to pay too much. The driver cried “loooooooooooooong long way” and “some for you, some for me.” His tone and manner implied he was reading from a script, so I kept on negotiating to include the last stop. Finally we got the nod and were off.

He’d driven us pretty slow to the stupa, but I’d figured it was because of city traffic and that on this ride, mostly highway, he’d open up the throttle and we’d get there in about 40 minutes as it was 23 km from the stupa. But no, he didn’t and we went painfully slow. The words, “Bad Idea” flashed across my mind several times as we put putted out of Vientiane. The back of the the tuk tuk is a small covered trailer with half-ass benches lining the sides. The front of the tuk tuk is a motorcycle harnessed to the connected trailer. I asked the driver to go faster, faster, but he motioned that it was too fast and dust would get in his eyes. We were stuck at this speed. J didn’t have sunglasses and succumbed to a lot of dust in his eyes. We both breathed in massive amounts of diesel fuel and dirt.

The tuk tuk pulled (slowly) up to the Big Buddha Park an hour later and we, with our sore butts and dusty faces, noticed that there weren’t any other tuk tuks in the parking lot. Just tourist minibuses. Of course not, what kind of jack asses take a tuk tuk at 10 km/hour this far outside of town? Only us.

Big Buddha Park

I used the word “Trippy” about 20 times during our walk through Buddha Park at the bank of the Mekong River. There were about 100 Buddhas and Hindu statues of varying sizes throughout the park, including one HUGE reclining Buddha through the center of the park. Jeff climbed a self-described “Indiana Jones-style” cement globe with stairs inside. On top of the globe was a tree-like sculpture about half the size of globe. The park looked old and had an ancient feel, but was actually only 50 years old and constructed of cement. As we sat having a snack and looked over the Mekong, we dreaded the ride back, but knew at the end of the ride we’d have a sauna and massage at the traditional Lao experience.

The ride back was more comical and ridiculous than the ride there because we were voluntarily doing it twice. The tuk tuk passed a man on a bike. We’d seen the man back at the park and smiled at him in recognition. It was funny, not ha ha funny, but ridiculous funny, when the driver stopped to take a drink of water and the biker actually passed our tuk tuk. We had been going so slow that the biker was able to pass us just 5 minutes after we’d passed him. Jeff and I made awkward comments like, “we’ll trade you rides. HA HA” I don’t think the biker was English native speaker because he just smiled. The tuk tuk pulled away from him, very slowly. I think we were maybe going about 2X his speed. Maybe. It was painful to watch the biker still in our sights for another five minutes.

A “Traditional” (read: very painful) Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage

After an butt-pounding hour later, our driver pulled up the our final wat where we hoped to get a relaxing sauna and massage in a traditional Laos way and setting. We walked 30 meters and found a bunch of white people coming down the tiny stairs of another wooden house on stilts. The tourists were clad only in tightly-held sheet dresses as they made their way precariously to some unknown destination. A loud Laos woman greeted us and told us to come up. We signed up for the “Herbal steam sauna and massage.” A blonde European (A Fin we found out) came at the same time we did and we changed into our sheets.

Herbal Sauna in Vientiane

The sauna was an 8 X10 wooden room on one side of the platform. Some tourists sat around a table of tea and watched people come in and out of the sauna. I opened the door and poked my hand through the curtain and touched flesh. Sorry I said and wondered how many people were in the steam room. I found my answer very soon when I stepped into the yellow steam (colored by the light). There were waaaaaaay too many people in this small hot space. And I couldn’t see a thing. Nor breath, the pleasantly herbal steam choked me. I stepped forward through the crowd of bodies thinking, “this can’t be safe.” The steam is provided by a big calderon of water being boiled below the sauna building. It must have been very close because I could not walk through parts of the sauna to find a seat, the steam was too hot. Some people left and I was able to negotiate my way to the back of the sauna. It got easier to breathe and see. All I could think of was that I was being cooked to serve to the neighbors in the evening.

J found his way in and, like me, couldn’t see or breathe while stunned by the steam and heat. We sat there suffering for about 3 minutes and he got up first to leave – it was not relaxing or refreshing at all. Unfortunately, there was a line of extremely hot steam blocking our path. J braved it and only said a strong, “ow” as he got out. I waited and made my way across –  a small woman was sitting between me and the door oblivious to my path of exit and constant pain (or anyone’s pain) and need to leave. I knocked into her and said, PLEASE MOVE. She did and I burst through the door into the sweet sweet fresh air. I looked at J, he was in pain and we limped to the bucket of cold water outside the stiled house and doused our sore feet.

Back at the hut we had some hot tea, not surprisingly, colder than the steam room, and decided that we’d rather brave a tuk tuk ride five times back and forth to the Buddha park that stay at this place and get our massage. The massages were all done by men in a group room. They had very bored looks on their faces and it looked like a massage farm. While we finished our tea, the Finnish girl erased all benefits of our herbal steam by lighting a cigarette. We dressed quickly and got the hell out of there.

J and I took it easy for the rest of the night and had a little massage. As we walked there I said, “Laos 2, Kristin 0.” I felt beaten up by a simple sightseeing trip. That night we found a little restaurant in the very quiet Vientiane and had some of the best thin crust pizza. The melty cheese and cold Beer Lao made everything OK. We went to the room about 8, watched No Country for Old Men on HBO and then went to bed.

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2 Responses to “Tuk Tuks, Buddhas, and “Herbal” Saunas in Vientiane, Laos”

  1. November 15, 2010 at 9:31 am #

    I’m feeling pain for you just reading about this day you spent. You have Herculean patience for sticking with that tuk tuk.

    Am actually planning a trip to Laos for winter so some of your insight is helpful!


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