Vientiane : The slumbering capital.
Vientiane Travel Blog› entry 123 of 268 › view all entries
Vientiane. The âCity of the Moonâ. Population 600,000. Capital of Laos. And a curious feeling capital city it is too. As with Luang Prabang, even more surprisingly so given the size of the place, a sense of relative calm exists here. No crazy traffic. Traffic lights that work and are obeyed (?!!). Noise does not announce its presence from every street corner and doorway. The streets and pavements do not throng to overflowing with people or traders. Where are those 600,000 inhabitants hiding? Everythingâs here. Just in smaller, quieter quantity. It feels like a capital thatâs half asleep. Half abandoned. Not yet awoken to a sense of its own identity. Many long years away (thankfully) from graduating to a Metropolis.
But for all of this. This welcome inversion of many of the negatives one expects from a major urban centre, the city has not successfully gained any charm or appeal that might have otherwise been expected under such circumstances. The city feels a little lost to me. As a former French colonial administrative centre its wide boulevards, spacious town planning and slightly forced feeling cafĂ© culture somewhat speak of this past. But the boulevards are long and indecorous and the spacious areas of the city, with potential, just remain for now precisely that. Spaces. Blanks. Potential. But nothing right now. I feel no energy here. No dynamism. Architecture within the central areas of the city at least is mostly drab and unappealing.
Iâm not convinced anything finer was eradicated during the second Indo-China war. American bombs did not reach as far as Vientiane. A certain self awareness of this pervading lack of glamour or appeal is evidenced on a public plaque fixed upon the large Patuxai âVictory Gate of Vientianeâ (the cityâs own Arc de Triomphe) which soberly states âFrom a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concreteâ. âHey, you said it pal, not me.â
But of course sights there are to be seen.
Happily for me a poster attached to a lamppost outside Wat Sisaket draws my attention to what will be one of the most interesting points of my trip to the city. The âCOPE Visitor Centreâ located on Thanon Khu Vieng about another half kilometre east from the bus station is an area that houses the various projects of The Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise. A charitable foundation established in 1996 that with a base of 5 sites around the country attempts to alleviate the suffering and deprivations of the large number of UXO victims in the country whilst educating people on the subject. UXO stands for Unexploded Ordinance : âa generic term used for all munitions including mines that have explosive, incendiary or pyrotechnic or gas filling, which have not yet functioned as they were designed.
The COPE site in Vientiane houses a workshop/ factory for the production of orthotic and prosthetic mobility aids. Artificial limbs and the like. Also there is a disabled persons sports centre/ athletics arena here. For the visitor eager to learn there is the small but powerful Visitor Centre with information, videos and visual displays as to the issues around UXO in Laos. The problem of course exists throughout Southeast Asia following the various Indo-China wars.
The majority of UXO is constituted by unexploded mines or cluster munitions. The infamous (and still not banned!) Cluster Bombs were used extensively. Any 1 casing would contain up to 680 âBombiesâ or âBombletâ sub munitions that once released in mid-air could devastate an area the size of 3 football pitches. Tests apparently demonstrate that 30% of such munitions never explode as intended. This figure meaning an estimated 80 million unexploded from the 260 million dropped during 500,000 U.
And seeds sown for a rather troubling future crop, the price of which continues to be reaped in the many victims of UXO incidents each year in Laos. Often children owing to their playful inquisitiveness and lack of education as to the dangers of these âiron weedsâ amongst their homeland grasses. The problem also extends through hard market capitalism. Scrap metal/ iron is an increasingly valuable market in such a poor country as Laos. With sale price at between 2,000 - 2,500 Kip (approx $0.30 - $0.35) per kilogram, 50% of incidents are believed to be caused during the wilful locating , âharvestingâ and handling of this metal crop. COPEâs production of approx 1,300 mobility devices each year at least goes some way to alleviating the impact of the physical, social and financial debilitation that can ensue for the predominantly poor rural Lao families effected, should their loved ones and labourers fall victim to UXO.
Back on the culture trail I take a long stroll up past the âconcrete monsterâ of the Patuxai Arc and head northeast towards the golden grandeur of the That Luang Stupa. Of the many grandiose stupas to be found throughout Laos this is the largest and most revered. It is the nationâs national symbol and appears on the official Seal of the country. Before you reach this moment of light, again however one is confronted by the curious lack of concern for any aesthetic harmony that Vientiane suffers from. A purposeless ocean of asphalt (car park?) must be spanned before you approach the temple grounds. The stupa itself cannot fail to impress itself upon the viewer though with its several glittering golden tiers and many, many mini-stupa pinnacles.
Back towards home for the night Mixay Guesthouse (40,000 Kip/ $5.30 Kip 3 bed dorm inc. breakfast) I stroll along a rather bedraggled Mekong bank promenade. Vientiane sits on an impressively long crescent stretch of the great river but right now, at the height of the dry season, you have to stare and stare to even locate any of the rivers waters.
Man I am reeeeeeally struggling for things to do in Vientiane. Killing time here is hard work! A capital city no less, lest we be reminded. On my second day I catch the number 14 local bus (5,000 Kip) 25km south of the city to Xieng Khuan, more affectionately known as âBuddha Parkâ (admission 5,000 Kip + 3,000 more if ya want ya camera action). This is a small grassed area containing the result of a 1958 project by a Buddhist-Hindu fusion seeking shaman-monk who oversaw a small group of unskilled artists in constructing a garden collection of often bizarre concrete statues pertaining to the gods, characters and myths contained within the two religions.
Walking around by the Mekong again, aimless and counting the hours, the minutes until I can hop on the night bus out of here a loud declaration of âOH MY BUDDHA!â introduces me to Noi. An incredibly beautiful Lao lady whoâs just pulled up on her bike and dismounted to inspect what to her mind is an almost impossible contradiction of her idea that all westerners must be at least 6 feet tall and presumably not have bright orange hair.
We chew the fat for sometime as the sun starts to dip. The conversation bobs in and out of the overtly lewd and lascivious but Iâm cool with all that and she fidgets with her cleavage-boosting bra so much I begin to think her hands a pair of dexterous diplomats attempting to separate a couple of warring ferrets as they tumble about her chest.
The time passes pleasantly and without the need for me to shell out for anything more âinterestingâ than a coke and fruit shake and then its time to make my goodbyes. To Noi and her ferrets. To the Mekong once more. And to a city that I will one day maybe give a second appraisal to, but for now will be glad to move on from. Like Vientiane, I am tired and uninspired.
[ More information about COPE and their work can be found at : www.copelaos.org ]