Tuesday 4 – Saturday 8 November 2008 - Vientiane
Vientiane felt less like a capital City than others visited..which was in some ways to its credit. It is a quiet extremely clean City set on a bend in the Mekong River. Whilst Laos is a communist country this isn't in evidence as much as in Vietnam and you tend to forget it especially here as there are a lot of Western influences around .. some excellent restaurants and beautiful old French architecture. In cities we have a break from camping so we stayed in a little guesthouse right next door to the museum with lots of room to park.
As we drove in we passed the Patuxai and decided to make this our first site seeing stop. This large monument is very like the French Arc de Triumph. Whilst it is a striking feature once you get to it and enter it is obvious that the rough edges were never finished off due to the war years when understandably other concerns dominated. There is a wonderful sign at the entrance which when describing the attraction reads in part "from a closer distance it appears even less impressive like a monster of concrete." This is very Laos. They are endearingly honest somewhat refreshing after the marketing spin of the west. For example when you go to buy something you are sometimes told that you could get it cheaper elsewhere! Wouldn't happen in Vietnam! The "monster of concrete" afforded nice views back over the City and surrounding parks …it wasn't so bad all in all with an interior curved staircase..though it was a bit like a car park inside!
When we arrived the city was in the throes of preparing for the Bun Pha That Luang or full moon festival. This week long festival takes place once a year in Vientiane. lt begins with hundred of monks receiving alms and floral tributes, includes various musical and firework displays and culminates in a candlelit procession around That Luang (of which more later!) We missed the festival itself but saw a lot of the growing festivities …a Chinese opera happening in the middle of town, monks hanging decorations everywhere and loads of beautiful flower arrangements. We saw a young monk at one of the city centre Wats really going for it on the drums ..pretty good he was too!
We then went to see That Luang which is truly beautiful. This is a sacred stupa a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Laos's sovereignty. Originally built in the 16th century the present building is a 19th century reconstruction after the original was repeatedly plundered (the Thais again amongst others!) The original was covered in gold leaf allegedly weighing over 1,000 pounds but whilst this one is just coated it still looks pretty impressive as the sun goes down. The ladies here, though poor always look immaculate in their traditional Laos skirts usually with a border at the bottom and as I was wearing shorts I had to hire one to go inside the temple compound.
There was a really nice party atmosphere the monks up ladders organizing the streamers people selling home cooked food and a fair ground in full swing. We were also set upon by school children wanting to practice English ….which has definitely replaced French as the language of choice for the new generation here.
Outside there was another statue where people were paying respects ..as they were to the Buddhas inside. It looked like a soldier so we guessed it was commemorating the war dead.
We had a bit of a wander around town taking in the nice old French architecture and the lovely old trees offering shade on the river. The Presidential palace was once the French governor's house and later used by the King and is an impressive building set on the river, though hardly used now, only for ceremonial occasions.
We had to go to the hospital to get Andrew's insurance documents translated and I have to say the hospital he went to in Pakse seemed a lot better - more modern and cleaner -than the one here. Most falangs go across the friendship bridge to Thailand and the excellent medical facilities there whereas locals don't often have the option financially. However you have to remember that people in Vientiane are a lot better off in this regard than those out in the sticks where few medical facilities at all exist.
Still on the tourist trail we had a look at That Dam .. this is a stupa ..once allegedly covered in gold carted off by the dastardly Thais as ever ..now known as the Black Stupa. We also crossed the street from our guest house to see the Lao National Museum. Containing some Khmer statues and a lot of information on Lao's turbulent history it was worth a look ..though a little worn around the edges ..I guess we are spoilt in the West. I hadn't realized how badly Laos suffered in Nixon's "secret war" when it was bombed more heavily than any other country. We have seen more evidence of this on our journey to Northern Laos so no doubt we'll elaborate on this later.
As we'd used up so much time being hospital bound we needed to extent our visas. This is a fairly simple matter from Vientiane you can either go to immigration and pay a $2 USD further a day or ..as we did take a drive over the friendship bridge. This bridge which spans between Laos and Thailand was actually built by the Australian government. Not wanting to get the car stamped back in and out we took the bus for the short distance 4,000 kip or 0.50c US as opposed to 500,000 kip or $60 USD + that they tried to get off us for an air conditioned bus! You can feel a different vibe back in Thailand much worldlier and likely to try to rip you off than the Lao people. We turned around and headed straight back and so now have a new 30 day visa.
We took a look around the Talat Sao a large market selling everything from beautiful textiles to deep fried crickets and did some Xmas shopping (no crickets sorry..they'd never let them in!)
We both love French films and so went to the French cultural centre a very well run set up that shows French movies with English subtitles. Sadly on the day we went it showed a Chinese film with French subtitles so it wasn't to be with our limited linguistic skills ..perhaps we'll catch one on the way back!
Vientiane was a nice city just to wander about taking in the ambience. Some of the pavements needed a bit of work …but we are hardened travelers by now and after Jakarta they were nothing! We enjoyed the street food ..lovely fresh baguettes with pate ..a French legacy ..and delicious roast duck (on different occasions!)
On Saturday 8 November having had a last look around and stocked up with water and fuel we began the drive north. We plan to do a loop around Northern Laos prior to exiting once more from the friendship bridge - only this time with the car - back to Northern Thailand.