Laos: Surprise in Vientiane

10-12 January 2013

If I’m going to visit Cambodia then I might as well go up to Laos. It was a looooooong trip from Siem Reap to Vientiane. Siem Reap to Bangkok by bus + walk across the border then long wait in Bangkok for the train up North before bus again and a car ride into the Capital of Laos. Eventually, I made it.

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Approaching Thailand

It was noon and as I was about to step into my hostel, guess who I bumped into? Fishe! The cool Malaysian girl who I first saw in Phnom Penh then Siem Reap. How often do you get to meet another great traveller thrice in three different cities and two different countries?

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Great to see you Fishe and we must travel together someday!

Vientiane or the “City of Sandalwood” has roughly 760,000 people. It lies on the banks of the Mekong River and is only a short swim from Thailand. It became the capital of Laos in 1563 due to fears from a Burmese invasion and then once again in 1899 after the French took over. Since it was the administrative capital during the French rule, significant economic growth was achieved which subsequently led Vientiane to become the economic centre of the country. The French added Laos as a protectorate of French Indochina (1893-1953) but didn’t place too much great emphasis since Laos only acted as a buffer to Thailand which was heavily influenced by the Brits. Vientiane fell with little resistance and was occupied by the Japanese. The French arrived again and reoccupied the city on 24 April 1945 (OMG- flashbacks to HCM City Vietnam)! All was not peaceful since after external forces, a civil war broke out and Vientiane became unstable again. In December 1975, the communist party took over Vientiane and renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

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To start off my Vientiane Day 1, I hanged around a small Buddhist temple and watched the monks carry on with their everyday lives. The structure is relatively the same- beautiful windows with intricate Buddhist designs and paintings.

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Meditation Centre

At the Buddhist temples, there are always meditation centre, a main Buddhist Temple, surrounding gardens, smaller Buddhist statues/shrines and the serpent.

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Offerings

The seven-headed serpent Naga is an important symbol in Laos ( also in Cambodia). Naga was responsible for telling the Prince to build a new city on present-day Vientiane. A symbol of strength and a protector of the country, many Nagas grace Laos and were rebuilt alongside the various Buddhist temples and shrines. Many of the ancient architecture survived through various wars and looting. The French rebuilt the city and repaired all of the Buddhist Temples. One could only imagine what the city looked like before the attacks by foreign armies, the looting and internal wars.

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The cute capital has a laid-back feel to it. I spent the first afternoon wandering around some smaller temples and paying a visit to the presidential palace as well as the Laos/Thai border (the Mekong River banks).

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Since the majority of Buddhist temples are in Luang Prabang and the city is itself a UNESCO WH site, I’ll stay there for a bit longer. Before I leave Vientiane though, I must see Pha That Luang (Golden Stupa) which fits perfectly into my itinerary since there are a few more interesting sites along the way. Right opposite the Presidential Palace is probably the oldest temple in the Capital- Haw Phra Kaew (5000 Lao kip for entrance fee). First built in 1565 after the capital was moved from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, it sits on the grounds of the royal palace to house the Emerald Buddha. In addition to the main Buddha attraction, there are also shrines, statues and stupas which turned out to be headstone for the deceased. I absolutely love the serenity of this place.SONY DSC

SONY DSCI felt like I was at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Unlike the other Wats in Laos where monks reside in,  Haw Phra Kaew was for personal use. The Emerald Buddha rested in the temple for over 200 years before being seized in 1779 by a Siamese General. There are different versions to how the statues managed to survive after all the looting and destruction done by foreign forces to the city of Vientiane. Some say that the Siamese General ransacked the temple and only took away the Emerald Buddha. Some say that the temple reminded the Siamese army of their own temple so they did not burn or destroy the hundreds of Buddha statues that call the temple home. Whatever version it may be, one thing is for sure- the Emerald Buddha was taken to Thailand and Vientiane was destroyed and looted after it fell in 1828.

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Ruins of Ho Phra Keo Temple by Louis Delaporte

This is what the temple looked like back in the late 18th Century. Drawn by French explorer and artist Louis Delaporte, the temple sure looked much more majestic back then. By the 1970s, the temple no longer was a place for worship. It became a museum where great examples of Laos religious art is displayed for the world to see. It is also a reminder that people are cruel to one another especially when a prized artifact is involved.

SONY DSCSo smack in the middle of the courtyard, what do you find? – hundreds of Buddha statues. Placed on the terrace and within the walls of this holy temple, there are many wood, silver, bronze and stone statues. The stone ones are the oldest (dates back to the 6th to 9th century) while the others including the standing and sitting Buddha were added in later.SONY DSC

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Placing a flower petal in the palms of Buddha

There is a number next to the Buddha statues and although their hand gestures are the same, their expressions still looked different. Some stare right back at you while some are in deep reflection. 80% of the statues are sitting ones and there are carvings at the base of these statues.

Many more Buddha statues are displayed in the five-tier roofed main hall also known as the Sim. Located in the center of the courtyard, this is the place where ceremonies are held in. There are more Buddha statues and a faded yet beautiful mural detailing Buddha’s past lives.

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In front of the Sim with the beautiful wooden door

The carved wooden doors with amazing craftsmanship and details are original to the old temple. As one of the few original and surviving structures, it formed the basis for another restoration project solely conducted by the French during their rule over Lao. The information pamphlet made one thing very clear: the rebuilt temple is more Thai in style.

It was a nice walk amongst these Buddha statues especially seeing other artifacts such as the hang hod and the broken statue room.

SONY DSC So what is this hang hod? An anchor? a coat hanger? WRONG! It is actually a  wooden trough with a Naga head used for water blessings.

SONY DSCSONY DSCI peeked inside a wooden room where many Buddha statues lie in a broken and destroyed state. The plaque indicated to visitors that these were found during an underground excavation in Vientiane and are all a result of war. If only I can take one home with me.SONY DSCBefore I left, I sat alone… facing the sitting Buddha. I need them to help me achieve inner peace. I love how Laos isn’t swamped by busloads of tourists. I love that quiet moment when I came face to face with history and spirituality.

On my way to see the Golden Stupa, I passed something that reminded me of Paris, France and Pyongyang, North Korea. Yes…Laos used to be a French colony so yes..e there is another Arc de Triomphe /Victory Gate called the Patuxai.SONY DSCConstructed in 1957 and completed in 1968, it offers a great view of the city. Located on Avenue Lane Xang with palm trees and a foundation surrounding it, it is perhaps the only arc in the world (located in the capital city of their respective adopted countries) which allow visitors to climb up to the top.

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The bird woman also known as the Kinnari is a very Lao motif.

I love looking up at the roof/ceiling of a structure. It’s another obsession of mine. In fact, I love lying flat on my back and see various structures from a different perspective.  Unfortunately, doing that at my old age is no longer cute but insane so I’ll let my Milou (camera) do the job for me.

Ok fill in the blank: Angkor Wat is to Cambodia as ____________ is to Laos. The answer: Pha That Luang also known as the Golden Stupa – a significant cultural monument and national symbol of Laos.

SONY DSCBuilt in 1566 by a King and standing at 45 m tall, it is believed to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha. Unfortunately,  the stupa also fell to the hands of foreign looters (Siamese, Burmese and Chinese). It was badly destroyed by the Siamese in 1828 and was soon abandoned. It wasn’t until 1900 that the French restored the stupa based on drawings made by Delaporte.

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Before making the 4km walk back to my guesthouse, which is in the much more busier part of the city, I couldn’t resist checking out a few more temples and Buddha statues and of course getting smacked with joy with all the beautiful decorations and colorful murals.SONY DSC

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My last day in Vientiane ended in absolute joy. As I turned into the street, a familiar voice shouted out: “Darling! It’s you!”. I looked around and nearly bursted into tears. “Mara! Oh my goodness – how is this possible?”

Mara is the Korean girl who I first bumped into in Hanoi then HCM City a year prior to my Laos trip- A YEAR!!!! We manage to bump into each other in the same city at the same time after a year! What a small world! We spent the afternoon chatting about life and watched the sunset before saying goodbye.

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SONY DSCThat was painful! Ok, note to myself: must visit her in South Korea!

My tiger balm saved the day for an elderly woman from Malaysian who felt a bit nauseous during our night bus ride to Luang Prabang. My neighbor Ree, a French teacher from Thailand also helped out. We chatted away in French before dozing off to sleep. A few more hours and I’ll be in Luang Prabang!

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Random Facts and Observations

  • 1USD=8000 Laos Kip
  • Total literacy rate is 73% (2010)
  • Laos is “Simply Beautiful” (their official slogan) and the tourism industry has grown rapidly so much to the point that in 2010, 1 in every 10.9 jobs was in the tourism sector.
  • The Lao economy depends heavily on investment and trade (electricity+ natural resources) with her neighbours especially China.
  • Subsistence agriculture accounts for half of the GDP and provides 80% of employment.
  • Laos has a low-income economy. A third of the people live below the poverty line (less than $US 1.25 per day).
  • Foreign investments have been slow due to high-level of corruption and problems with the rule of law. Apartment blocks and signs of development are common but many seem to be halted.SONY DSCLaos is a one-party socialist republic.
  • French is studied by a third of students. It is also used in the government.
  • The red flowers with thorny stem, just like the ones I saw in Cambodia, can be found inside many temples. My Cambodian guide Tang Reng told me that the flowers are for good luck as it keeps spirits away. It kind of makes sense why they are within the temple grounds- a form of protection.SONY DSC