Vientiane : The slumbering capital.

Vientiane Travel Blog

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Vientiane.  The ‘City of the Moon’.  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?  Everything’s here.  Just in smaller, quieter quantity.  It feels like a capital that’s half asleep.  Half abandoned.  Not yet awoken to a sense of its own identity.  Many long years away (thankfully) from graduating to a Metropolis.

Buddhas at Wat Sisaket

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 café 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.

Prayer tree (detail)
  Tired, old damp-stained ferro-concrete buildings sit next to too, too clean-cut and newer cousins of the same uninspired architectural creed. 

I’m 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 ’Victory Gate of Vientiane’ (the city’s own Arc de Triomphe) which soberly states ’From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete’.  “Hey, you said it pal, not me.”

But of course sights there are to be seen.

The charming Wat Sisaket
  Pick of the incredibly large number of temples in and around Vientiane is probably Wat Sisaket.  It is the oldest Buddhist temple in the city by virtue of the fact that it was the only one to avoid annihilation at the hands of the Siamese when they razed the city in 1827 - 1828.  That said, it barely predates the attack having been constructed between 1819 - 1824.  There is a charming delicacy of age about it though with its hundreds upon hundreds of Buddha icons recessed into the walls of its quadrangle cloister, its collection of Buddha statues and the elegantly sloping temple roof, typical of Lao temple architecture.  The interior of the Wat contains some beautifully painted, illustrative murals.  Again, the oldest examples in Vientiane.
Asleep on the job again!... there's a lot of that in Laos :)
  Monks amble and sit about the temple and are always good for a friendly chat to practise their English.

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 ’COPE Visitor Centre’ 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 : ’a 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.

Sticky rice containers
’  The principle problem with weapons of war always of course is that once their intended function ends - the destruction of a perceived temporary enemy no longer being required - they continue to exist and are indiscriminate in their inanimate, insentient purpose to harm.

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.

A 'pineapple' bomblet, one of hundreds that are released from any single cluster bomb cannister.
  Principally the legacy of U.S. carpet bombing of the Laos and Cambodian border lands (with their respective governments’ tacit agreements) in a failed attempt to halt North Vietnamese Army supply lines between 1965 - ‘73.

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 ’Bombies’ or ’Bomblet’ 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.

A rather fab sculpture on the subject of cluster bombs at the COPE Visitor Centre
S. aerial sorties over Laos during the ‘Vietnam Conflict’.  Nightmarish figures.

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 ’iron weeds’ 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 , ’harvesting’ and handling of this metal crop.  COPE’s 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 ‘concrete monster’ 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 nation’s 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.

The self-professed 'monster of concrete', Patuxai 'Victory Arch'.
  That Luang was originally constructed around 1566 but has been destroyed many times over the centuries and now exists in a French reconstruction dating only as far back as the 1920s.  It is believed to contain a hair of Buddha… although I fear this may have been caught and blown away on a breeze at one time of destruction or another.  I’m only making a supposition! “Ssssh! Don’t tell ’em it ain’t there anymore!”.

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.

The golden stupa glory of Pha That Luang : National Symbol of Laos
  Before your eyes just a dry, cracked expanse of russet-brown nothingness.  Vientiane again robbed, for a time, of any potential for aesthetic appeal.  The many, many riverside bars as a result sit in a desultory, unpopulated and depressive state.

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 ‘Buddha Park’ (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.

Buddha statue (detail)
  This includes (latterly) an impressively sized (if not sculpted) reclining Buddha.  Again, this is all rather anaemic culture as far as I’m concerned.  Fairly ugly stuff although the subject matter of the many sculptures is often of an engagingly abstract nature and design.  But at the end of the day, it’s inescapably broken and weather-worn concrete and for this observer contained very little soul.  In many ways the rammed-to-the-hilt public bus journey was of greater colour and amusement on the day.

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 “OH MY BUDDHA!” introduces me to Noi.  An incredibly beautiful Lao lady who’s 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.

(Pha That Luang) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
  “Oh my Buddha, I do not believe!  So small.  So small?  Why, how is this possible?”.  Her English is excellent but a warble from me about genetic aberration or predisposition doesn’t really get anywhere.  Still, despite the reason for our introduction, she’s a pretty smart, funny and affable girl.  Almost undoubtedly a prostitute but after her third time of asking I agree to join her for a drink by the Mekong.  Sh*t I’ll do anything to make the time pass in this city! 

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 I’m 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.

Buddha park in all its... errr?... magnificence? :)
   Her top three favourite nations for more than conversational intercourse ( ‘cos you’re dying to know I‘m sure ) are 1st. The English ( “Result lads!” ) 2nd. The French ( “Sorry, beat you again mes amis!” ) and 3rd. The Dutch ( “At least ya made the list boys!” ).  I’m sure she wasn’t just pandering to my ego. Hmm?

The time passes pleasantly and without the need for me to shell out for anything more ‘interesting’ 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 weirdness at Buddha Park... this concrete 'turnip' can be ascended from within to get an overview of the park.
 

[ More information about COPE and their work can be found at : www.copelaos.org ]

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Buddhas at Wat Sisaket
Buddhas at Wat Sisaket
Prayer tree (detail)
Prayer tree (detail)
The charming Wat Sisaket
The charming Wat Sisaket
Asleep on the job again!... there…
Asleep on the job again!... there…
Sticky rice containers
Sticky rice containers
A pineapple bomblet, one of hund…
A 'pineapple' bomblet, one of hun…
A rather fab sculpture on the subj…
A rather fab sculpture on the sub…
The self-professed monster of con…
The self-professed 'monster of co…
The golden stupa glory of Pha That…
The golden stupa glory of Pha Tha…
Buddha statue (detail)
Buddha statue (detail)
(Pha That Luang) Muju [www.mujuwor…
(Pha That Luang) Muju [www.mujuwo…
Buddha park in all its... errr?...…
Buddha park in all its... errr?..…
More weirdness at Buddha Park... t…
More weirdness at Buddha Park... …
Some of the many thousand buddha i…
Some of the many thousand buddha …
Funerary stupas outside Wat Sisaket
Funerary stupas outside Wat Sisaket
US Airforce Bombing Data 1965 - 19…
US Airforce Bombing Data 1965 - 1…
Prosthetic limb sculpture
Prosthetic limb sculpture
Construction (abstract)
Construction (abstract)
Approcahing Pha That Luang
Approcahing Pha That Luang
Buddha shawl (abstract)
Buddha shawl (abstract)
(In the jaws) Muju [www.mujuworld.…
(In the jaws) Muju [www.mujuworld…
Gate at Pha That Luang (detail)
Gate at Pha That Luang (detail)
Pha That Luang stupa : National Sy…
Pha That Luang stupa : National S…
Worn out prayer mat.
Worn out prayer mat.
The dry season hasits effect on th…
The dry season hasits effect on t…
Not even Noi?
Not even Noi?
The large reclining concrete Buddh…
The large reclining concrete Budd…
(Xieng Khuan) Muju [www.mujuworld.…
(Xieng Khuan) Muju [www.mujuworld…
Walk through the gaping maw...
Walk through the gaping maw...
I just kinda thought this was cute…
I just kinda thought this was cut…
Vientiane (abstract portrait)
Vientiane (abstract portrait)
Melon
'Melon'
Mekong at Vientiane
Mekong at Vientiane
Moon over Vientiane
Moon over Vientiane
I look these spacey looking neon-d…
I look these spacey looking neon-…
Night Bus (abstract)
Night Bus (abstract)
Also they have these fab crazy col…
Also they have these fab crazy co…
Night Bus (detail)
Night Bus (detail)
My first reclining Night Bus!!! Pr…
My first reclining Night Bus!!! P…
Vientiane
photo by: skydiver