Day 27: After a bit of a snooze-on this morning followed by lots of coffee, we were ready to head out and explore Vientiane. We marked up the main sights and places we wanted to see on a rather cumbersome large folded map, and set off.
First on our list was That Dam (or black stupa) one of the few ancient stupas that remain after the Siamese occupation in the 17th century. The stupa is located on a small roundabout in the centre of town (requiring a death-defying dart through speeding traffic), and overgrown with vegetation. Locals believe a seven headed water serpent, or Naga, lived here to protect the stupa, which at one time was covered in pure gold. In the late 1820s, during the Siamese-Laotian war, the gold was pillaged and taken to Siam (now Thailand).
Next we took a walk through the huge indoor morning market – mostly clothes, linens, tech and white goods. As we walked out we spotted the tourist information centre. Lil can never resist having a poke around tourist brochures and information – Jim found a copy of the Vientiane Times on the newspaper rack and settled down for a good read.
One of the newspaper articles provided an update on the new railway line China is building from Kunming in the Chinese Yunnan province to Vientiane, which will revolutionise Laos, a country so reliant on cars and buses. The 414km link is almost half compete, and scheduled to start running in December 2021. Laos is dependent on China bankrolling much of the US$7bn project. The Kunming-Vientiane link will eventually connect with a railway line to Bangkok, then south along the Malay peninsula to Singapore.
Next we walked to the Patuxai, which means Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph. Built between 1957 and 1968, the Patuxai is modelled on the l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It was built using US funds and cement, which were initially intended for a new airport however the Lao Government built the monument instead – earning it the nickname of ‘vertical runway’. 🙂
We were amused to read the information plaque outside the building, which knocks the monument, saying: “It is the Patuxay or Victory Gate of Vientiane, built in 1962 (B.E 2505), but never complete due to the country’s turbulent history. From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”
We paid our small entrance fee and walked up 5 levels to the viewing deck, with spectacular views across the city. We walked back down, took a last look up at the monument and realised that there were people wandering around above the viewing deck we reached – we’d missed two levels – so back we went to wave our tickets at the lady at the desk, and climbed up 7 levels to the top, to get the full viewing advantage.
We walked back down and through the garden, wondering why there were so many vans lined up with their back doors open and lots of equipment inside. Dozens of photographers were taking photos of tourists at the monument, then scurrying back to their vans to process and print them on the spot. Sounds old school, but here it seems to work.
We also visited COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise). COPE is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos, and has an excellent visitor centre with all sorts of information and displays about prosthetics and of course the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) that sadly makes so many prosthetic limbs necessary.
The centre is a real eye opener to the realities of the UXO impact on Laos. One display showed dozens of prosthetics that villagers had made out of various different items including wood, tin and fabric before receiving proper help from COPE. Pretty sobering.
We then went for some lunch (Jim declared “No more noodles or rice soup for me thanks, I’m over them”) – so we found a restaurant that served baguettes. Goodness knows how he will cope when we reach Thailand.
The afternoon was spent walking along the front by the Mekong River (Thailand is just the other side of the water). We walked past restaurants and bars getting set up to open for the evening, with lots more that are closed for the low season, and some in need of serious repairs. We nearly stopped at the ‘Reggae Bar’ for drinks, but somehow the state of the building made us think twice – it looked like it could tumble at any moment.
We walked back to the town – had drinks and dinner, then an early night. In total we walked nearly 28km and our legs were aching.
Tomorrow we leave Laos after nearly a month, to catch a 1.45pm flight to Bangkok Don Mueang airport. We’re staying in Bangkok for a week (some downtime will be good), and will be in Thailand for 3 weeks total.