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Andy’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 23 Dec 2006

Location: Vientiane, Laos


My legs have been getting such a workout these past few months thanks to all the walking and cycling i've been doing - they have almost stopped resembling knitting needles with apples spiked halfway down (my knees). Almost.

Vientiane is such a small capital that most of the sites can be tackled on foot or bike. We chose the latter because at least it provides some modicum of relief from the sweltering heat.

On our first day of sightseeing we visited Wat Si Saket. Built in 1818 this is surprisingly the oldest temple in the city. In 1788 Vientiane became a Siamese vassal state, pledging loyalty to its stronger neighbour to the south-west. 1827 witnessed a failed rebellion against Siam led by King Chou Anouvong. The uprising was crushed with impunity, effectively razing the city to the ground. Thanks to an architectural similarity to early Thai temples Wat Si Saket was spared whilst all around it was levelled.

Recently temple fatigue had set in. I had visitied too many. Most travellers suffer from this at some stage; a shrug of the shoulders, a glazed vacant look when confronted with undoubtedly beautiful and meaningful religious buildings, statues and symbols.

But i was impressed with this example. It's not grand, illustrious or large, in fact its quite small, humble and ever so slighty ragged.

Perhaps that's why i admired it. After the lavish trappings of the Grand Palace this was a refreshing change. It did not strive to be beautiful. It didn't try too hard. Swiss Tony would surely agree when i say that visiting temples is very much like making love to a beautiful woman - you don't want her plastered in make-up and with everything on vulgar display.

The temple is rustic and aged beyond its years. It looked the quintessential Buddhist temple. The inner sanctum is dark and cool, its walls are badly deteriorating revealing patches of exposed brick beneath the peeling and faded murals of the battles Prince Pookkharabat won with the assistance of a magic fan. Indeed.

Tarnished gold and silver plaster mouldings decorated the dark wood ceilings and creaky ill fitting doors and window shutters.

Cobwebs hung from the rafters and lights.

Around the temple sat small images of buddha all missing a head or limb, and larger images cast in gold, their shine robbed by thick layers of dust.

The courtyard was decorated with rotting wood engravings and pillars and colour-faded tiles. This sacred ground of the temple was enclosed by cloisters lined with buddhas. The walls were impregnated with row after row of 2000 tiny images of the reverred figure. I finally learnt that this recalled the great miracle of Sravasti - an event in the life of the historical buddha when he mystified a powerful group of sceptics by magically reproducing himself seated on a lotus.

It was my favourite temple so far; old, smoky, dusty and intensely spiritual. It compared so favourably to Wat Phra Kaew which now appeared garish and somewhat tacky.

Onward then to Laos' answer to the French Arc de Triomphe which was situated on a large square at the end of a long straight road. The Patuxai is an imposing structure, not least because its surrounding buildings are small and insignificant.

The monument commemorates the laotians who died in pre-revolutionary wars (i.e. those before 1975) and was built in 1969 with cement donated by the United States to upgrade the Vietntiane airport - hence its nickname: the Vertical Runway.

We climbed up to the top through its bare and cavernous interior only to find small souvenir stalls selling (well, they wished) tacky, ridiculously amateurish plates and mugs which tourists can imprint their faces onto with the monument behind - I wanted a whole dinner set but Ruth stilled my outstretched hand. We already had one of those plates from the Floating market in Kanchanaburi. Other stalls sold clothes, umbrellas, jewellery and other bric a brac. A very strange place to have a market. We were the only people in their and the store owners were generally asleep or sitting idle. Bless - they became naively optimistic when we showed up. It was very surreal and not a little pitiful.

The views from the top were pleasant. Vientiane can never be termed impressive. But that is not necessarily unwelcome. It really is small, a town rather than a city. A blisteringly hot, dusty and unassuming town. I liked it.

Our last site was Pha That Luang, one of the most important national monuments in the country; a symbol of Buddhism and Lao sovereignty reminding me that nationhood and religion so often share the same bed.

We cycled up a long slightly inclined hill, a killer in the midday sun. Even from a distance it was striking. An overeager man with a whistle who took his job as parking attendant very seriously ordered us where to place our bikes and we walked through a large concrete area which looked like a car park but which i think was an untended city square.

The monument is a beautiful 45m high gold stupa which appears on the national seal and some bank notes. It consists of a tall spire which broadens out into a wide, gently sloping base and around which are numerous evenly placed and identical smaller protrusions. All bright, shimmering gold. It looks so incongruous. Gold is precious, rashioned, so often seen in small quantities; rings, candle holders or plates. Not buildings!

We saw the monument at exactly the right time when the afternoon sun was strong but softened. The stupa practically glowed, as if luminescent or attempting to outdo the sun. Against the clear blue sky it was really fabulous.

Afterwards we cycled back to the Mekong and sat enjoying the late afternoon sun.

All three were a great start to Laos. Vientiane does not have many sights to see but the few it does are enchanting.

Onward then.