We arrived in what must be the world’s most laid-back capital city; temples; national monuments; a moving rehabilitation centre, and we’re getting in to the swing of this backpacking malarkey.
Saturday night | Vientiane | Laos
We got off the bus from Vang Vieng in the centre of the city just before sunset. It was Saturday night in the capital so I assumed it would be buzzing but everything felt oh so chilled out.
We walked the wide tree-lined boulevards in the old quarter; everything looked so methodical, not a horn beeped, and only the black spaghetti of taut telephone wires above the lampposts and the raggedy tamarind gave a sense of disorderliness.
The city is even pronounced more laid-back than it reads; locals call it in just two syllables, Vien-chung .
The city’s sounds, scooters’ high pitch buzzing, engines rumbling and the swoosh of tyres on the wet roads, are conspicuous for the absence of horns. It’s just not a polite thing to do to here, to go round beeping, hurrying along, making your time more precious than others. So un-Buddhist.
There are hints of French colonial days; the cafes, the grand old buildings and the baguettes. We strolled the wide promenade by the Mekong riverfront; it’s like an old friend suddenly appearing now and again when we’re on scooters or on a bus, but here it appeared reticent, a distant channel where flat boats glided beyond flood plains and sprigs of bulrushes. It’s dry season now and the Mekong won’t start to swell till next month.
The city people mingled at the riverfront, families came to buy clothes at the night-market, youth to play fair-ground games; big restaurants lined the promenade advertising on large flashing LED displays and there was an aerobics class for people of all ages, everyone around a huge speaker.
The next day we went to see some sights and started off with Vientiane’s own version of the Arc de Triomphe called patuxai (the victory gate). It was built in the 1960s to commemorate independence from the French.
(Poor Vientiane everyone’s seemed to have had a go at it, and has suffered invasions from the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, Khmer and, in the 19th century, the French who established it as the capital and a key trading port of their Indochina empire. Each successive invasion left their mark in the form of ancient temples, stupas, Buddha statues and baguettes)
It’s really rather pretty under the arch showing a mix of both Hindu and Buddhist iconography.
The concrete for the arch was supplied by the Americans to fund an airport runway but the Lao government decided to use it for the arch and called it a vertical runway. That’s creative accounting.
A sign under the arch says ‘it was never completed due to the country’s turbulent history … from a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.’
It’s rare to read such honesty in an official sign describing a national monument and it’s probably testament to the characteristic humility of the Laotian people.
What if we had such frank descriptions for our national monuments?
Let’s just explore this…. what if other countries had such candour with descriptions of their own national monuments, like the Lao people have of their own victory arch?
- ‘… a symbol of Paris, but it was only supposed to go up for a temporary exhibition and from a closer distance looks like an oversized radio mast.‘ Eiffel Tower, Paris
- ‘… impressive from afar but from a closer distance you’ll see it’s actually a statue of a small pissing boy.’ Manneken Pis, Brussels
- ‘… on closer inspection it’s just a collection of handprints in concrete.’ Hollywood wall of fame, Los Angeles, USA
- ‘… the famed painting on closer inspection … actually let’s not worry about closer inspections because you won’t get close to it due to the crowds in front of you.‘ Mona Lisa, Louvre, Paris
- ‘… the statue represents everything great about our country, freedom, justice … on closer inspection it was made in France. Statue of Liberty, New York, USA
Laos is the most bombed country per head, in the world.
Now on to some serious stuff …
We spent some time in the COPE visitor centre (Cope helps to rehabilitate bomb victims and makes artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs) and it was inspiring to see their marvellous work.
During the Vietnam War, the USA dropped 270 million bombs on Laos despite never officially being at war with it; the reason for the bombing was that a major supply route from North Vietnam, called the Ho Chi Minh trail, was partly in Laos. People in the USA were not told about this bombing so it became known as the Secret War.
Today 80 million bombs are estimated to be buried in the ground in Laos and still live, each the size of an orange, but completely lethal. People today still accidentally step on them, or trigger their trip-wires, or even take the metal home to make utensils, with sometimes fatal consequences. The craters they leave are a metre deep and often victims cannot be identified easily.
More than 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, people here are still feeling its violence. To find out more about COPE and their great work here’s the link.
The most important monument in Laos is the Pha That Luang; in the 3rd century BC King Ashoka sent his missionaries here and the people kept a relic of Buddha in the golden stupa. There is no hint of its ancient origins, today it’s been completely restored, looking brand new and the top is still in real gold.
We also visited two more important temples, Wat Si Sakhet and Wat Si Muang.
Getting in to the backpacking way of life again
We are starting to get in to a rhythm. As we’ll have been travelling now for over 30 days in to our 90 days gap-quarter-year around Southeast Asia I think we’ve got in to a bit of a routine.
Something’s haven’t changed since I first backpacked as a teenager. Waiting around in hot bus stations, rushing for the bus as soon as it pulls in, tripping over your bendy flip flops, hauling 20kgs of baggage on to a bus; that’s still all the same.
But in those days it was harder; you’d need to check transport timetables in thick directories; you’d get off the bus and have no idea where to go next; you’d need to find an FX booth to cash Travellers’ cheques (Millennials don’t worry about this), and find the right coins for a pay phone booth to call a hotel and find out how to get here. And if you didn’t have the right coins you’d have to go and buy some gum to get the change.
Now smartphones have done all the heavy lifting and Sarah’s done a great job booking hotels on the bus minutes before we arrive and google maps take us right there. We sometimes even advise the tuk tuk drivers.
We’ve had a few rough journeys like a seven hour bus ride between Vientiane and Thaket where the windows didn’t open, there was no air circulation and it got to 35 degrees on the bus.
All the tourists were umphing and arrhing; only the locals and Sarah just sat uncomplainingly. For a first-time backpacker she’s really taken to it. I never thought she could pack a 3 month case in under 15 kg. Even more impressively, I never knew she could use hair straighteners to iron her clothes.
On our final night we shot some pool at The Dunk, a bar which also has a 80s arcade machine and then we went for some excellent pizzas at Via Via in the old quarter. As the lovely joyous and beautified one was unable to finish hers, she asked for a doggy bag, but I knew it was more like a catty bag.
I had visions of her waking up in the morning before the city woke, looking under cars and around bins for strays, holding a slice of Margherita and saying in an English voice, “Here Kitty Kitty.”
Next stop: we’re taking the road less travelled to southern Laos …
This post is part of a blogging on-the-road series about backpacking called 90 Days in South East Asia
This post was first published on http://www.heyloons.com and was written on the road while travelling in-country.