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January 18, 2004

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The Mekong River connects every major city in Laos; it should be called National Highway 1. We followed it to Vientiane, the capital city, a name pronounced as Wieng Chan and which means "Sandalwood." French colonials, drop outs from spelling school, translated Wieng Chan into Vientiane and we can't find any sandalwood trees. These days cobblers make sandals from old rubber tires, not leather or wood. Laos came late to the game of nationalism. Fifty years ago most villagers wouldn't recognize the Laotian flag. Vietnamese communists introduced nationalist feeling into Laos and a Communist government remains in power. Vientiane supports 130,000 people in a city setting that would snuggle into a back neighborhood of any other capital city of South East Asia. The good news is that it's hard for a visitor to get lost and any city destination lies within walking distance.
Communists governments imprison people for strange behavior. This must be a myth because no one threw me in jail.
Here stands the most powerful symbol of Laos religion and nationalism, wrapped up in a single monument called the Great Stupa or Pha That Luang. Kings and monks have worshipped within since the 16th century. The tall spire represents a lotus bud and each small spire recollects one of the Buddhist perfections, starting with alms-giving and ending with equanimity.
Jill, as a budding monkette, stands on the first level of the faithful. During festivals, worshippers stick balls of rice to the walls.