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Published: March 3rd 2007
Pha That LuangTo plan or not to plan, that is the question
The most important national monument in Laos.
My preferred style of travelling is based on seizing the moment; don't lock yourself to a preplanned schedule, allow for sudden changes when something interesting shows up, and accept that you cannot see'em all. However, when leaving Chiang Mai (see The extraordinary friendliness of Chiang Mai
) and going to Laos, we should have been a bit more proactive. It turned out airplanes were fully booked on days we wanted to go and we ended up staying a bit longer than expected in Chiang Mai. As we had made arrangements with a friend of Remi, Anne-Line, to meet in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on 28 February, we consequently were in a bit of hurry to travel through Laos and Cambodia and thus lost a valuable day in Laos compared with the original loose plan.
We landed in Luang Prabang, a city in northern Laos, in the afternoon on 22 February. Optimistically, we originally thought that we could spend the rest of the day here and take an early bus to Vientiane, the capital, the next day. Instead, we changed our minds and jumped on a night bus just a few hours after landing, as the
View from our hotel room
The two-floor building straight ahead is the National History Museum. The grand building to the right is the National Gallery Hall.
bus trip took nine hours (!) and leaving the next day would cause us to lose too much time in Vientiane. In hindsight, we should have just flown directly to Vientiane, but there you go - lack of planning and lack of luck. Note that if we had had the option of leaving Laos from Luang Prabang, we probably would have skipped Vientiane, but there were no flights available. The reason is that Luang Prabang has plenty to offer; it is photographer's haven with its architecture, temples, and surrounding mountains, and in addition, there are lots of trekking and adventure activity tours arranged here.
After a very pleasant one-dollar meal at the Luang Prabang bus station, we left on the 7pm bus that had air conditioning instead of the 6pm one. Of course, it turned out that the air-con was implemented by opening the rooftop windows and we spent the next nine hours sweating in non-breathing polyester seats. If doing this trip by bus, opt for the VIP buses (unfortunately they only leave in the morning) that are only slightly more expensive!
Parts of the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (Route 13) has seen plenty of armed
National Gallery Hall
Our hotel is around the corner from this building (invisible from this angle).
robberies of buses and other vehicles. Still, I was shocked when we looked out of the window at the first toilet break and saw that we were accompanied by a young man carrying a machinegun! This also explained why we were driving around with all the lights in the bus turned off - to make it harder for possible attackers to spot us at a distance. The armed man sat next to the driver for our entire trip. He refused to let me take a photo of him because the flash could alarm robbers.
Upon arrival in central Vientiane around 4.30 we walked around with our heavy backpacks looking for a guesthouse or hotel that had a room available. There was none! Everything was booked out and we were told to come back after check-out time at noon. Just hanging around for six or seven hours seemed hardly an option since we were dead-tired and sweaty after the long bus ride. Thus, we got a tuk-tuk driver to drive us around searching further and eventually we ended up with a classy and pricey 35-dollar hotel room. At this stage we simply had no choice but to take it. We
had a pleasantly cool shower and dreamlessly slept until 11am. Again, the lesson was that you should plan a little ahead and in this case, book a room in advance! The US imperialist and its puppets
We had involuntarily done a city tour when we were searching for a hotel room in the morning, thus we easily made our way to the Lao National History Museum as our first stop of the day. The museum has a nice collection of fossiles millions of years old, but the really interesting part is of course the newer history. After being conquered by successively the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese (Thai), and the Khmer, the French took over the protectorship of Laos in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (1893-1945). It was also the French who added the 's' to 'Lao', and even today, most Asians will refer to Laos as simply Lao. When the invading Japanese left in 1945, a period of struggle followed, and the French granted Laos full sovereignty in 1953. Politically, the country was divided into two factions in a similar fashion as Vietnam: the communist Pathet Lao party supported by the North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union,
and the right-wing elite backed by the US government. The period from 1954 to 1963 saw a resistance struggle against American imperialism. The US then started carpet bombing the east and northeast of Laos to counter the presence of North Vietnamese troops (Viet Cong). This increased domestic support for the communists, and when the US withdrew in 1973, it took the communists only two years to take over the country. The Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR) was formed in 1975 and is still the official name of Laos today.
The museum contains a lot of photos and war exhibits such as guns and clothes as well as written information in Lao, French, and English, and lots and lots of photos. It is a very nice collection indeed, and it is heartbreaking to read some of the personal stories, some involving heroic acts, accompanied by the display of their clothes, gear, and weapons as well as chilling black-and-white photos.
In all written material in the museum, the USA is consistently referred to as The US imperialist
, or if involving other nations, The US imperialist and its puppets
. We found this a bit amusing, as it resembles somewhat of a
charicature feature of a Big Brother nation, although it is sadly true and disturbing as well, especially when we know that nothing has changed since then. Perhaps the duo of Tony Blair and John Howard should plan a trip to this museum? Unexploded ordnance (UXO)
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains a major problem in Laos. During nine years of bombing from 1964 to 1973, 2.2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped. This is more than the total bombs dropped over Europe by all sides during WW2. On average, a bomb was dropped every 8 minutes continuously for 9 years. 13000 people have died from stepping on unexploded bombs since 1973, and many, many more have survived to a life on the street when limbs have been torn off. Almost all of the people we saw begging in Laos had a disability related to UXO. If I were an American, I think I would be too ashamed, not to mention frightened
, to visit Laos, even today, more than 30 years later. Buddha's breastbone: Pha That Luang
After the museum we went to Pha That Luang, which is the most important national monument in Laos. It symbolises both Buddhism and Lao
One of the two remaining wats surrounding Pha That Luang.
sovereignty. The main stupa even appears on the national seal. According to legends, Ashokan missionaries from India erected a thaat
to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone sometime around the 3rd century BC. In true Buddhist style, the temple is magnificiently gold-covered and some say that a total of 145 kg of gold was used in its construction. We walked around and took some nice photos, though we didn't bother entering as there was an entrance fee and we were a bit sick of temples after Thailand. Another triumph for the French: Patuxai
Of course, no capital city under French rule without an Arc de Triomphe
! Officially know as Patuxai, the triumph arc commemorates the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Ironically, it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the USA for the construction of a new airport, and hence, expats refers to it as the vertical runway. We were able to climb all the way to the top, from which the view over Vientiane was excellent. Dining at the riverside
At night we caught a tuk-tuk to the river for a food stall crawl. A continuous stretch of open-air eateries of varying quality and price
sides with the river. We indulged ourselves at three different places, and as we so often have found on our trip, the food is usually just as good in cheaper places as the classy ones. As an added bonus, the cheaper ones are where the locals eat, and you get the true Asian experience rather than some spiced-down westernised meal (as if we can't handle the chili!). We ended the night at some local club where we were the only caucasians. Sitting down with a group of friencly Lao guys, we had a fun time drinking whiskey and beers. The next day we flew to Cambodia. It was a shame that we didn't have more time to see Laos, however, what we did see and experience made us want to investigate more. In particular, it would be nice to spend some more time in Vientiane as well as seeing what Luang Prabang has to offer.
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