Concrete and gilt in Vientiane

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January 7th 2010
Published: February 2nd 2010
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We arrived in Vientiane at 5.30am feeling very tired from a sleepless overnight bus trip. A tuktuk from the bus station left us standing (coincidentally) next to a fountain in the town centre. It was here in 2001 that we asked a tuk tuk driver to take us after pointing at the diagram of a fountain on the map of the city in our guide book. Today the fountain isn't even marked in the guide book - in 2001 it was the main feature of the town centre. The city has changed so much it's almost unbelievable. In 2001 there were barely any hotels and most of the roads were still unsurfaced. Today it looks like any city in the world, though there's not a lot of really tall buildings. Brand name shops everywhere though! And tourist cafes and hotels everywhere you looked. We had a good idea of where we were so were able to find a hotel on the riverbank before the city woke up. It wasn't cheap - there didn't seem to be much in the way of cheap accommodation as groups of backpackers that got off a bus near us were still wandering around town, with backpacks, a couple of hours later. The city was clean and looked prosperous.
We spent the day quietly - most of it in a bit of a fog from the sleepless night - but next day saw us out sightseeing early. We took a tuktuk to Patuxai, Vientiane's answer to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was built in the 1960's with money from America that was meant to be used to build a new airport. It's nickname now is the 'Vertical Runway'. We had visited it previously - and it had been surrounded by open spaces, tin shacks and dirt roads. Today you could see it from the distance at the end of a main thoroughfare through the city. It looked much grubbier, the cement was stained with mildew, but was surrounded with impressive gardens. We climbed to the top and could see the city spread out in the distance around us. A great view!
We walked back to our hotel from there, spending a short time at a local market, and stopping for coffee at a cafe next to That Dam, one of the oldest Buddhist stupas in the city. It had once been covered with a layer of gold which was stolen in 1828 by Siamese soldiers. We visited Wat Si Saket which really impressed me. It was built in the 1820's, is showing it's age, but that added to it's character as far as I was concerned. It is a plastered temple, tiled roof with lovely wooden exterior decorations - the interior ceiling was beautifully painted as were some of the interior walls - the rest were lined with hundreds of niches holding Buddha images. The main temple was surrounded by cloisters which were also lined with niches full of Buddhas, plus many larger Buddha statues, many robed in orange, gold or yellow fabric. Across the road we visited the Haw Pha Kaeo, another temple which now houses religious art. It was very large and beautifully ornate - lots of gilded carvings and detailed stonework. Plus many more Buddha statues!
Later that afternoon we visited Carol Cassidy's silk workshop where her partner gave us a tour of the premise's and a detailed description of silk production. We had heard most of it before but he was so enthusiastic! Carol Cassidy is an American designer who has been working with Laotian weavers for years - she has an international reputation and mainly makes fabrics for curtains, upholstery and wall paper - all for the super wealthy. Her fabrics sell for hundreds of dollars a metre. I spent a while drooling over her silk scarves - particularly one in rainbow stripes but didn't buy - we needed the money to finish our trip!
A visit to the weird Buddha Park followed next morning. We shared a tuk tuk with the lovely Danish family we spent time with in Savannakhet for the 25 klms trip to the edge of the city. The park was built in 1958 and is full of cement Buddhist and Hindu statues of varying sizes. Most seemed to be large though - especially the reclining Buddha which greeted you as you entered the gate. Yet another legacy of weird statues left by an eccentric man. We've seen many such legacy's on our travels. They are always fun to explore though - the Danish girls loved it! Another quiet afternoon in our comfortable hotel room - when we find a room with wifi, cable TV and air con it's always great to spend a day doing not much. It helps to recharge the batteries which are getting a bit run down after months of travel!
Our last day in Vientiane was spent wandering some of the nearby temples, nothing spectacular there, and shopping. Some of the craft work on display - especially the fabric articles - were very pretty. Lots of brightly coloured embroideries, and some fascinating appliqué pieces. Later that afternoon we caught a tuk tuk to the symbol of Laos, Pha That Luang. It's name means 'World Precious Sacred Stupa'. Yet another piece of Buddha's breastbone is supposed to be enclosed within. In 2001 we rode bicycles out along bumpy gravel roads to get there - I remember getting a puncture from the rough road - today it's surrounded by a large park full of tourist buses, souvenir sellers and sundry temples. It was still impressive, glowing in the afternoon sun, but seemed less so the closer we got. Again it is showing it's age and is stained in many areas. We joined everybody else and climbed all over it before walking back into the city. .We ended our few days in the capitol city of Laos in our usual way - enjoying a meal and a beer whilst sitting on tiny plastic chairs on the riverbank. We couldn't see the sunset here though because of building construction work along the Mekong's edge - probably a 5* hotel being built. The river was also busy 24 hours a day with machinery dredging sand from the riverbed - before the rains set in and the river flooding making it impossible to do. The sand was for cement factories - to build more shopping malls and hotels! The march of progress will continue - I wander what the city will look like in another 5 years?

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


Small part of walls which surrounded Wat Si SaketSmall part of walls which surrounded Wat Si Saket
Small part of walls which surrounded Wat Si Saket

There were thousands of Buddha images on display
Patuxai - Vientiane's Arc de TroimphePatuxai - Vientiane's Arc de Troimphe
Patuxai - Vientiane's Arc de Troimphe

Made from cement, given by the American Government, to use for the construction of a new airport

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