There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Saturday, 1 March 2014

Vientiane (1), Wats, Stupas and a Heavy Buddha: Part 15 of Following the Mekong through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos

With a population of three quarters of a million, Vientiane is a small capital city. There are monuments and modern developments, but it is largely a city of narrow streets, low rise buildings and abundant temples. Relaxed, friendly and built on a human scale Vientiane is immediately appealing. The view from our hotel was typical; to our left a street of low, slightly ramshackle buildings; to our right a small temple with the Mekong River behind and Thailand in the hazy distance.
 
Chou Anou Road Vientiane
Looking left from the Laos Orchid Hotel

We dined in a street restaurant a brief step to the left (hidden in the picture). The restaurant was busy, the service was slow and the dishes arrived in random order but the warm fish salad with chips and chicken in sweet sauce were well cooked, the night was warm, there was Lao Beer and all seemed right with the world.
 
Chao Anou Road, Vientiane
Looking right from the Laos Orchid Hotel
Vientiane - pronounced Vianchang (the Latin transliteration is French which has no hard ‘ch’) - was an ancient Khmer settlement. In the 7th century, migrating Lao and Thai people from southern China arrived and made Vientiane a city state until the formation of Lan Xang, the first Lao kingdom, in 1354. In 1560 King Setthathirath moved the Lan Xang capital here from Luang Prabang.

In 1707 disputes over succession fragmented Lan Xang. Vientiane became the capital of its own small kingdom which subsequently became a vassal kingdom of Siam. In 1828 King Anouvong rebelled and the Siamese responded by taking the city, carrying off everything of value and razing the rest to the ground. Devastated and empty, Vientiane was reclaimed by the jungle.

 

When the French arrived they chose the site of the ravaged city to be the capital of the landlocked portion of their new Indo-Chinese protectorate. To their credit, the French carefully rebuilt much of Vientiane’s cultural heritage, but inevitably the oldest buildings are (with one exception) crumbling colonial mansions.
 
The Sim, Wat Si Saket, Vientiane

Wat Si Saket is that one exception, and it was there S, our guide, began his city tour. Built by King Anouvong in 1818 in Thai style, it became the Siamese army headquarters in 1828. Perhaps they could not bring themselves to destroy a Thai temple, but it was the only building of note to survive the year.

Modern tomb, Wat Si Saket, Vientiane
Outside, the graveyard is still in use and there are some expensive new stupas raised by wealthy families. Inside, a cloister surrounds the simple sim. Stupas punctuate the cloister....

Cloister, Wat Si Saket, Vientiane
.... while the walls are filled with Buddha images.
 
Buddha images lining the cloister
Wat Si Saket, Vientiane


Wat Pha Keo, just across the road, is a French rebuild of a sixteenth century original, and photographs inside show how much work was required to breathe life back into the shattered shell. The now beautiful building sits in a lush and peaceful garden.

Wat Pha Keo, Vientiane
Formerly the king's personal temple, it is presently a museum whose main exhibit is elsewhere. The temple once housed the Pha Keo, the ‘Emerald Buddha,’ but it was carried off to Thailand in 1799 and now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Considered one of Thailand’s most sacred images, it is touched only by the king when he changes its robes three times a year. There is little or no chance of it returning (and, to be fair, it may well have been Thai originally) but Wat Pha Keo is ready just in case. Cambodia also has a claim; they keep a replica in the Wat Preah Keo in Phnom Penh pending the original’s return. (see The Story of the Emerald Buddha, posted April 2015)

Inside, the collection of Buddha images includes an unusual ‘rain beckoning’ Buddha, he stands with his arms at his side, his fingers pointing to the ground.

Driving across the city centre took us to That Luang, Vientiane's largest stupa, most important religious building and the symbol of both the city and the nation.
 
That Luang, Vientiane

There may once have been a Khmer Hindu temple on the site, but in the third century BC the Indian Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries equipped with one of the Buddha's ribs to convert the locals to Buddhism. They built a stupa to entomb the sacred relic.

A later stupa was built by King Setthathirath whose statute sits in front of the current construction like a short limbed Baden-Powell in full Scout uniform. A 1641 account by a Dutch traveller gives an awe-struck account of this gold-covered pyramid.

King Setthathirath, That Luang, Vientiane
French explorers, Garnier and Delaporte, stumbled across it in 1867 and found it overgrown by jungle but largely intact. A few years later Chinese bandits stripped any remaining gold and reduced the stupa to rubble. The French built a new stupa in 1900, but the result was widely derided as looking like a railway spike stuck on end, so they had another go in 1930 using Delaporte’s sketches of Setthathirath’s stupa.

The cloister, That Luang, Vientiane
The 45 metre high stupa is surrounded by thirty small spiky stupas and a crenelated wall. The stupa is painted gold, but an ever increasing area is gilded.
 
That Luang, Vientiane

It is surrounded on three sides by monasteries, the decorations and the flowers being typically Lao and, I thought, more pleasing than the stupa.

Monasteries round That Luang, Vientiane

On the fourth side is a military parade ground, but parades are out of fashion so it is no longer used. Nearby a woman was grilling bananas and sweet potatoes. I asked her for a photograph and her reply was this beaming smile. Laos may be a poor country, but it is mercifully free of aggressive beggars, hustlers and scam-merchants. The default attitude of most Lao is a big smile, as though a sunny disposition was a condition of citizenship.

A Lao smile
S bought three bananas. I am not sure I needed a banana on a stick so soon after breakfast, but I ate it anyway.

As Vientiane was built by the French it naturally has a Champs Elysées. Lan Xang Avenue may be a country cousin of the Parisian original, but it is one of the city’s few wide roads. The French, though, failed to provide it with an Arc du Triomphe (see Four Arc du Triomphes) so the Lao built that for themselves ironically to celebrate their victory over the French in the 1950s. Called Patouxai, it was allegedly constructed from concrete donated by the Americans to improve the airport and is popularly known as the 'vertical runway'.

It is a quirky edifice and not exactly beautiful, but everyone up from the country must come to see it. The formal garden is the haunt of a dozen or so official photographers in numbered hi-vis jackets who record the memorable visits. They were doing some business, but digital cameras have become so cheap and widespread their days must be numbered, even in Laos.

Patouxai, Vientiane
Patouxai is bigger than it looks and two floors packed with stalls must be negotiated before reaching the roof. We bought a tee-shirt for our grandson with a hammer and sickle on the front. It will take him a couple of years to grow into it but whether he wears it with pride, irony or, most likely, incomprehension (he is only three) his mother will appreciate the opportunity to be controversial.

Inside Patouxai
 
From the roof we looked down the Champs Elysées one way.....


Avenue Lan Xang, Vientiane

..... and over the garden the other.

The garden, Patouxai, Vientiane
S next suggested we visit the mall. Neither of us regards shopping as a recreational activity, and a mall is a mall wherever you are. We went to the morning market instead which was at least different. The market sells household goods and handicrafts, including some wonderful, but appropriately expensive, carvings.

Afterward we chatted with S while the driver extricated his vehicle from the car park. His English was fluent, albeit with an American accent, and his listening skills were those of a native speaker, not someone who had learned English at college. He was born, he told us, in 1978 in a refugee camp on the Thai border. We had heard a similar story from C, our second guide in Phnom Penh. C’s parents had been fleeing the Khmer Rouge, S's the Pathet Lao. Unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Pathet Lao were not homicidal psychopaths, but they were revolutionaries and those connected to the old regime had good reason to flee.

Sponsored by a Catholic group, the family moved first to Peoria, Illinois, and then, five years later, to California in search of a more familiar climate. By 1990 the situation in Laos had normalised and his parents decided to go home. S, who was eleven and had spent almost all his life in the U.S., arrived in Laos believing he was there for a holiday. Understandably he found it difficult when he learned the truth, but in time became reconciled to his new life. His sister, however, returned to California and when he attended her wedding in 2006 she suggested he might stay. S, though, had made a life in Laos and did want to uproot his wife and child. Compared with laid back, amiable Laos, he said, the pressures of Californian living did not appeal. I could understand his point. Financially the gulf between California and Laos is almost unimaginable, but if you count wealth in smiles not dollars, Laos is richer.

Lunch was in a simple noodle shop, and very good it was, too.
 
Vientiane noodle shop

Nearby, on a quiet roundabout by the American Embassy, is That Dam (the Black Stupa). All sources agree that it is old - though none will say how old - and that a nine headed dragon is reputed to live beneath it. Currently dormant, he last appeared to defend the city during the Siamese attack of 1828. Considering the state Vientiane was left in, it was hardly an effective intervention. Some also suggest that the stupa may have been covered in gold, and if so, the Siamese nicked it.

That Dam, Vientiane

It is a short hop from That Dam to the National Museum, but nothing is very far in Vientiane. Housed in a fine, if ageing, colonial mansion, it covers everything from dinosaur bones through the clothing of Laos' ethnic minorities to the revolution. The captions date from revolutionary times and are long on condemnation of the French Colonialists and American Imperialist but short on balanced analysis. They make amusing reading, though, and the revolutionary spirit of certainty even seeps into the archaeological captions. The jars on the Plain of Jars, they state categorically, were used to house bodies until they had rotted away and the skeletons were then cremated. This is plausible, but in truth, no one knows.

Wat Ong Teu, the Temple of the Heavy Buddha, stands to the side and a little behind the temple opposite our hotel. It was built in the 1560s by King Setthathirath after he moved the capital here from Luang Prabang. Despite being destroyed and rebuilt several times it is still in its original Luang Prabang style, with a sim, drum and bell towers and monk's living quarters. Here, in front of the Heavy Buddha – the largest Buddha image in any Vientiane temple - King Setthathirath’s nobles swore allegiance to him. Two centuries later they were summoned to swear allegiance to Siam and 150 years after that they gathered here to swear allegiance to the French.

 
Drum Tower, Wat On Teu, Vientiane
There was no one there except us and a young monk sitting cross-legged in front of the Heavy Buddha reading sacred texts. As we looked around a stray dog wandered in. The monk paused in his devotions, selected a pebble from a pile beside him and threw it at the dog. The dog looked at him quizzically. He threw another and the dog ran off, yelping. ‘Would the Buddha have done that?’ I asked silently, though stray dogs are a nuisance here as they are in many other cities.

Young monk and the heavy Buddha, Wat On Teu, Vientiane
That was where S finished for the day. We took a stroll down Setthathirath Road towards the city centre, then cut down to the Mekong and walked back beside the river to an area where the Rough Guide claimed there were a collection of beer gardens. They were strangely elusive. It was hot, Lynne was reluctant to continue and several times I suggested we should just go to the next corner. Lynne did not fall for this ruse and was nearing open rebellion when we eventually found not the promised line of beer gardens, but one on its own. It was all we needed. Chilled Beer Lao on a hot afternoon after a slightly longer walk than intended is immensely satisfying.
 
Setthathirath Road, Vientiane


Later we headed for the nearest section of the Mekong. Passing the food stalls we made for a Belgian Beer bar we had spotted on our earlier wanderings.

Food stall, Fa Ngum Road, Vientiane

Sitting in front of a life size cardboard Tintin we drank pastis and mused briefly on the unintended benefits of colonialism. They had a full Belgian menu including (at a price) moules-frites, but after my lapse in Phonsavan I was back on local food and enjoyed my minced duck with mint and chilli. Lynne had pork fillet with mushroom sauce, chips and salad, which is hardly Lao, but at least she was eating properly again after her earlier problems. Despite their impressive range of Belgian beers, we stuck to Beer Lao. Were I an expat rather than merely a tourist, I might have made a different choice.



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