Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Vive La Vientiane: Part One

"All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim."

Where the Blue Begins (2006) by Chris Morley

On February 6, Cheryl and I landed on Laotian soil in its capital city of Vientiane, which I constantly misremembered as the capital of Vietnam back when I was studying high school Geography. In fact, even after I've visited Vientiane in person and confirmed to my satisfaction that the city was indeed Lao, I still keep making the same mistake in my head.

We spent only one day there before heading out to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang but on the 15th, we returned to Viangchan for two more days to unwind before leaving Laos (for now). We spent most of our time in the city in the central area. Pretty much all the sights and attractions clustered thereabouts and are easily accessible by foot or bicycle. We opted to leg it.

Cheryl on Tuk Tuk
Cheryl and I on one of Laos' "jumbo tuk tuks".

COPE Visitor Centre.

COPE Visitor Centre
Cluster sub-minutions or "Bombies" moulded from plaster of Paris.

Right after we unloaded our stuff at our guesthouse, we immediately took to the streets and walked to COPE Visitor Centre situated on Khouvieng Road, a kilometre from Talat Sao. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is a non-profit organisation that provides access to orthotics, prostheses and rehabilitation services to Laos' disabled, many of which were crippled by the so-called "Secret War", in which the US Air Force seeded an estimated 2 million tons of bombs on the country. An average of one B-52 bomb load was dropped every 8 minutes from 1964 and 1973 and an estimated 30% of them failed to detonate. Even today, UXO or "unexploded ordnance" continue to blow up in the faces of the Laos as they go about their daily lives - it is the war that just keeps killing. In 1997, the US officially acknowledged its role in the Laotian Civil War, 22 years after it ended.

And Americans wonder why everyone hates them.

COPE Prostheses
A row of disembodied leg prostheses sitting on a bench.

The Visitor Centre is one part macabre display of artificial limbs and bomb remnants, and one part a monument to humanity's ability to normalise and move on from the most horrendous of tragedies. Within the centre is a dark theatre that shows documentaries on loop, photographs of innocent farmers relieved of their limbs because they turned up an odd bombie with their ploughs, stories of children finding deadly toys in the dirt, and every day utensils like spoons and bowls fashioned from metal salvaged from undetonated weapons of mass destruction.

COPE Bombshell
A literal bombshell.

COPE sculpture
Sculpture made from 500 kg of UXO by Anousone VongAphay, a local artist, in 2008.

There's a gift shop filled with what I can only describe as "tragic kitsch" and a cafe aptly named Karma which serves delicious homemade ice-cream, the proceeds of both go entirely into funding COPE's projects in Laos. To contribute to their effort, I bought a keychain in the shape of an one-eyed multi-amputee. I mean, how can I resist?

COPE Keychain
Which I lost in Luang Prabang. Dammit.

COPE Hello Kitty
I really liked this but it only came in girl sizes and cuttings.

I highly recommend this place to any traveler visiting Laos. I can find no better representation of Laos as a country anywhere else. It is simultaneously depressing and uplifting. It carries the weight of Laos' past, praise the perseverance of its present, and squints blearily into a future of caution, where every road laid and every inch of soil farmed must be won with sweat and blood.

Wat Si Muang.

Wat Si Muang Side
The side of Wat Si Muang's sǐm.

Wat Si Muang Selfie with Buddha
Cheryl selfie-ing with Buddha at Wat Si Muang.
After a quick lunch of a baguette sandwich at PVO (Laos is a former French colony, so there's baguettes everywhere), we headed to the confluence of Rue Setthathirath, Rue Samsenethai and Rue Thadeua where Wat Si Muang was situated. It was said that King Setthathirath ordered the construction of the temple on this site in 1563 and the lák meuang (city pillar) was planted here, allegedly atop a pregnant woman named Sao Si because old-timey people are batshit no matter where you go. The large sǐm - built around the lák meuang - was destroyed in 1828 by the Siamese and rebuilt 1915. Then again, the same can be said of almost everything in Laos. It seems like Laos was pretty much that one kid everyone picked on in the Indochina playground.

Wat Si Muang Cobra Commander
Wow, Lao Buddha is a badass. He has a 9-headed Naga umbrella.

Wat Si Muang also had the distinction of housing the Phra Kaeo or the Emerald Buddha (actually carved out of a lump of nephrite or jade) once upon a time before Chao Phraya Chakri looted it and brought it back to Siam. It now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok where it continues to display its potent magical power of attracting tourist dollars.

Meanwhile, Wat Si Muang has to make do with a counterfeit version of the Emerald Buddha.

Wat Si Muang Emerald Buddha Copy
You can say that it is green with envy of the original.

Wat Si Muang Spire
Pointy roof ornaments on top of the sǐm.


We went during the sunset so it looks kinda pretty bathed in the dying light of day.

Next, we strolled down the busy Avenue Lane Xang to Patuxai, which literally means "Victory Gate" and it was built between 1957 and 1958 to memorialise Laos' fight for independence from the French - and if you think it is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, I would agree with you. I suspect that it was intended as the monumental equivalent of a slap in the face to the French.

The French amusingly calls it the Monument Aux Morts.

It's a lot bigger upclose.

It was built from using American funds and cement intended to build a new airport, but the then Royal Laotian Government decided to build this useless hulk of concrete instead so that future travelers to the country would have something to pose in front of in photographs.

Patuxai Dome
The ceiling dome decorated with reliefs of Lao mythical figures and creatures.

A sign beneath the looming grey lump reads,

"From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete."

If nothing else, it is a monument to the Lao people's honesty. The sign also informs sightseers that the gate is yet to be completed due to the "country's turbulent history". In fact, history was so turbulent that bees have set up several large hives beneath the eaves of its roof.

Patuxai Beehive
That was not a metaphor.

Inevitably, it is going to lead to Laos' first modern day cluster-bombing event after the war ended.

Patuxai Avenue Lane Xang
View of Patuxai down Avenue Lane Xang.

Mekong Riverside Night Market.

Mekong Riverfront Bazaar
Still better than Melaka's Jonker Walk bazaar if you ask me.

After dinner, we were walking around the central area when we stumbled across Vientiane's Riverside Night Market by the Mekong - which I feel is a naked attempt at recreating the success of Luang Prabang's Night Market. They even use the same bright red folding canopies that vendors in Luang Prabang use but unlike in Luang Prabang, there are no pretty half-timbre villas and regal temple sǐms in the background to lend it some much needed atmosphere. There were just lots of mosquitoes there and we didn't spend much time browsing, knowing that we would be heading to Luang Prabang eventually.

Wat Mixay.

The next day, because we had a couple of hours to kill before we have to board our charter van to Vang Vieng, we decided to do some sightseeing at a few temples around our guesthouse after our breakfast of coffee and croissants at Le Banneton. The first we hit was Wat Mixay which features a Bangkok-style sǐm, some kitschy bright-coloured murals and a large cross-eyed Buddha.

Wat Mixay Buddha and Mural
And he looks this way and that.

Outside near one of its Ngeuk-flanked doorsteps, we spotted another early morning devotee...

Wat Mixay Cat
Mmm mmm, Buddhism sure is delicious.

 ... and a young novice brandishing a smartphone.

I guess the list of poverty gear had been updated from just the robes and the alms bowl.

I understand that monks have to take a vow of poverty. I guess they just don't make poverty like how my granddaddy used to make 'em.

Wat Mixay Side
The side of Wat Mixay's sǐm.

Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan.

Our next temple was Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan or the Temple of the Heavy Buddha. If that name conjures up images of the happy Laughing Buddha (or Budai) that Westerners often mistakenly thought is the Buddha for you, you are barking up the wrong stupa.

The "Heavy Buddha" actually refers to its Phra Ong Teu, a 5.8 metres high, mostly-bronze Buddha statue cast in the 16th century.

Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan Largest Bronze Buddha Judging You
Looking down smugly on you from Nirvana.

Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan Largest Bronze Buddha and Smartphone Monk
Heavy Buddha watched as a monk texted on his phone.

Wat Ong Teu was destroyed during the 1827 to 1828 sack of Laos by the Siamese and was later rebuilt under the auspices of the French colonists. Unlike the Phra Kaeo at Wat Si Muang, I can only presume that Phra Ong Teu was too weighty for the Siamese to loot.

Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan Racy Door
I am not entirely sure what's going on here on this door but Heavy Buddha's watching this too.

Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan Tower
A ho kong or drum tower at Wat Ong Teu.

Wat Hai Sok.

We finished off our mini wat-tour at Wat Hai Sok, where we saw some monks having breakfast in the sǐm.

Wat Hai Sok Monks Breakfasting
There's some creepy matryoshka doll thing going on here with its Buddhas.

I don't know much about this particular wat, but I'd bet my last kip that it was also probably destroyed by the Siamese at some point and was later rebuilt - like everything else in Vientiane.

Wat Hai Sok Sim
Wat Hai Sok's five-tiered roof.

Souphaphone Guest House.

Cheryl and I stayed at the Souphaphone Guest House in Vientiane which I booked ahead from Malaysia and we liked it so much that we paid the deposit to have a room there again when we return to Vientiane a week later.

Souphaphone Guest House
I meant to ask them what Souphaphone means but forgot.

It cost us about 22 US dollars a night (that's 73 ringgit) but it bought us an air-conditioned room that's spotlessly clean with warm wooden floor and furnishing right at the top floor with an unbeatable view of central Vientiane.

Souphaphone Room
Bedroom, double bed, and a TV we didn't watch because who the hell does that when they travel?

Souphaphone Bathroom
The bathroom.

Its close proximity to all the sights and good eateries also adds to its value. The lime green Italian restaurant Ai Capone (that boasts of its actually Italian chef) was directly opposite and in fact, I find myself leeching off its WiFi often. Croissant d'Or (where I had my first and best Lao coffee experience) and Le Banneton were located on an adjacent street. The unbeatable L'Adresse de Tinay where excellent French cuisine could be experienced is just several doors down the road.


We saved the best that Vientiane has to offer for when we return to it one week later. The second part of this Vientiane travelogue will feature Wat Si Saket (allegedly the only temple in Vientiane not dismantled by the Siamese), the former temple-turn-relics-museum Haw Phra Kaeo, the Lao National Museum, and Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Laos.

Stick around.

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town 
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Solo Mountain Biking Trip to Kaeng Nyui Waterfall
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Tubing Down the Nam Song

Veni, Vidi, Vang VIeng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning Markets
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng ThongSabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City 

A visitor of Vientiane,
k0k s3n w4i


darshan said...

Please post some food porn shots ... baguette sandwiches, coffee, local delicacies etc! And what you paid for them in USD? BTW, either I need to see an eye doctor or I'm imagining too much, but Cheryl in the tuk-tuk looks like Joan Chen at dat angle.

k0k s3n w4i said...

darshan: Joan Chen? Really? Anyway, I'll be writing about Vientiane's food in the second part of my Vientiane travelogue, which I'll get to after I've blogged about Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang first.