Vientiane, capital of Laos, is often described as laid-back and in the middle of nowhere. The French who occupied the country for about 50 years, did redesign its layout and restore some of the monuments that had been destroyed in earlier conflicts, but then largely ignored it. Even the Communist regime that has been there for some time has not put a harsh footprint on it.
So Vientiane is a pleasant sort of place. It’s compact so you can walk just about everywhere. There are some lovely structures left by the French such as the outstanding hotel on Khun Bu Lom Road that I stayed in, which was such as bargain at $35/night and included a breakfast with just the best coffee and croissants. There was also a very cozy French restaurant around the corner from it where I had a meal most days.
The sights of Vientiane don’t demand your attention so you can wander about, knowing you’ll easily see them all by the time you leave. It’s a very Buddhist place and some streets are lined with wats. Each day I would follow the shore of the Mekong River across town and return to my hotel walking along a street of temples.
Sometimes I would find a place in the shade outside a temple and just watch the people bring their offerings, usually flowers and fruit. Often they would release a bird or sprinkle holy water on the grounds outside the temple. At one temple known for its powerful magic I saw a family bring two white laundry baskets full of assorted household goods.
I eventually made it to the National Museum, a rather nondescript place where the guard joined me on a bench outside to practice his English using a mimeographed book of phrases. After that it was Ho Phra Keo, a former temple of the king that was built in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha that now finds its home in Bangkok; today it’s a museum with Buddhist statues.
I did a long walk over to Vientiane’s widest boulevard, Thanon Lane Xang, to see the Victory Gate, Patuxai, a war monument honouring Lao’s independence from France and resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris although purposefully built a little larger.
From there the must-see is the national monument, Pha That Luang, a three-layered golden stupa.
A tuk-tuk driver talked me into going to Buddha Park with him, although I did not have enough money on me to pay the negotiated fee. “Give it to me later”, he said (and I did). The 25-km drive there was agonizing for the road is full of potholes and a tuk-tuk bench has no springs.
For a country full of temples it is perhaps surprising that this place has none—just 200 Buddhist and Hindu sculptures situated in a meadow by the Mekong River.
The sculpture that gets the most attention is the giant pumpkin. You go through the pumpkin’s mouth, shaped like a demon, and climb stairs until you come out on top where you have a view of the whole park. In the process you climb from hell to heaven with earth in between.
The reclining Buddha gets lots of attention, probably because it’s so big. The king riding the three-headed elephant certainly is interesting.
Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Buddhist monk who also studied Hinduism, built the park in 1958. There is a similar one on the Thai side of the river.
So that’s Vientiane, hazy, lazy and memorable in its own understated way.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014