Lots of people we met, and all the information we read online suggested it was only worth spending one day in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, as there aren't many things to do. Most people tend to use it as an entry point to Laos before moving on to the more popular destinations of Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang or Luang Namtha. Somewhat counterintuitively we decided to stay for a week.
Vientiane is probably the most chilled out capital city in Asia, and with a population of just 750,000 it's little wonder why. There are no skyscrapers, no chaotic traffic problems and no world famous attractions. But contrary to popular belief there are in fact plenty of things to do in Vientiane. You just have to know where to look!
PIN ME FOR LATER!
Whilst researching how to fill our week in Vientiane, we came across reports of a little known temple called Wat Sok Pa Luang about 2km from the city centre that had a traditional herbal sauna in its grounds and offered traditional Laos massage as well. What better way to spend a relaxing afternoon, we thought! So we hired some bicycles and headed off to find it.
We promptly got lost.
Finding Wat Sok Pa Luang
The journey was mostly along a single main road heading out of town, but it was when we actually arrived at where we thought Wat Sok Pa Luang should be that the problems started.
We made our way down a little side street that was covered in loose gravel, it was cratered with dozens of potholes the size of dustbin lids and was wholly unsuitable for the suspension-less town bikes we'd rented.
To our left was a row of plush houses zealously guarded by packs of vicious dogs that snapped at us as we cycled by and to our right was a large white wall that appeared to contain a forest.
We finally got to the end of the road, only to find that it was a dead end that cut off by a building site. But this is where the map said Wat Sok Pa Luang was! Slightly confused, we navigated the dusty road back and forth a couple of times as the raw midday sun relentlessly beat down on our heads. This was not the relaxing afternoon we'd envisaged.
Finally I noticed a couple of workers emerging from the building site, so in desperation I went to ask them where on earth this sauna was. Despite neither of them speaking English and my Laos only extending to a couple of basic phrases, I eventually managed to get across that we were looking for Wat Sok Pa Luang, at which point they began motioning in the direction of the large white wall. So we were in the right place but on the wrong side of the wall.
We began to make our way back to the main road to look for an entrance when about halfway down we spotted a small opening in the wall leading into the trees on the other side. Hitching our bikes over a large step and through the archway we emerged onto a mud path, again not very conducive to cycling.
Sarah was slightly nervous at what the forest might be hiding so I headed off alone in search of this elusive Wat, following the path until I came across a wooden structure built on tall stilts high into the forest. Looking up I saw a monk dressed in the distinctive orange robes, sat on the veranda. Through my unrivalled powers of reasoning I figured that a monk in the forest must mean that Wat Sok Pa Luang was nearby, so I went back to collect Sarah who by this stage was getting slightly concerned that I'd been gone for so long.
After retracing my steps back past the solitary monk, we finally saw Wat Sok Pa Luang emerge from the trees.
Arriving at Wat Sok Pa Luang
It's a fairly small temple in comparison to others that we've seen and consists of a cluster of ornately decorated white and gold buildings spread out amongst the trees. As we cycled around the grounds enjoying the scenery and now searching in vain for the sauna, we were greeted by three young "novice" monks.
They spoke to us in English, introducing themselves and asking if we were there for the afternoon meditation. Not knowing what they were talking about I told them we were there for the sauna and a massage and asked if they knew where we could find it. They looked equally as confused.
At a loss, we chatted for a while with our new friends and they explained to us that every Saturday afternoon they hold a meditation session at Wat Sok Pa Luang which is run by the novice monks. The first hour involves speaking with their guests in English as a way for the young men to learn and improve their language skills, followed by an hour of meditation. Always open to new experiences we decided our search for the sauna could wait and we'd join in with the meditation session.
Discovering Meditation in Vientiane
A steady trickle of people began to arrive until there were about ten monks and the same amount of visitors. At around 3pm we were led into an open air structure where the session would take place.
We sat around in small groups on the floor and spoke for around an hour. Some of the younger monks were obviously just beginning to learn English whilst the older ones were all fluent, clearly the sessions were extremely effective.
After an hour or so of getting to know our hosts it was time for the meditation to begin. They explained that we were to do two forms, sitting meditation and walking meditation and described what each involved with clear instructions on how to do them.
If you've never tried meditation then let me tell you it's a lot harder than it looks and sounds! Just sitting in the same position, cross legged for ten minutes without moving starts giving you aches and pains you couldn't imagine, which in turn makes it difficult to concentrate and empty your mind. The walking meditation was much easier on the body and overall it was great to experience all of this in such a relaxed and welcoming environment.
Traditional Laos Herbal Sauna and Massage
During the English conversation session I had found a monk who knew where the sauna place was! Apparently it used to be in the grounds of the Wat itself but had been moved to the other side of the wall a while back. So we'd actually been in the right place all along!
With the instructions from the monk fresh in our minds we managed to find it easily, hidden away in a secluded fenced off area just off the pothole filled road.
We were handed sarongs to change into and jumped straight into the herbal sauna. It was a small dark room separated into female and male sections each with a capacity of about 6. The steam itself was generated from a wood fire that was raging underneath the building producing a sweltering temperature, far hotter than any sauna I've been in before. Outside there was an area to sit and enjoy freshly brewed tea as well as bucket showers to douse ourselves in cold water.
A few sessions of this was as much as we could take, so after about half an hour we moved to the upper floor of an open wooden building for a massage. Laos massage involves a lot of being stretched into various positions as well as the masseuse using their body weight to press down on you. This was genuinely one of the best massages we've had in our entire time in Asia (and we've had a few!) and a crowning end to an unplanned adventure.
As we cycled back to our guesthouse in the pitch black we reflected on what had turned out to be a fantastic and unexpected day.