Wednesday, 3 April 2013

... Indochina: Je Ne Sais Quoi

Vientiane is where the French settled as a hub of Indochina at the end of the 19th Century and renamed as the capital of Laos. Through its colourful history it has suffered looting, ravaging and being controlled by the Burmese, the Khmer, the Siamese and the Vietnamese and then was swarmed with CIA agents, Ravens (US Special Ops pilots) and Russian spies at the start of the Vietnam War. And now it is trying to make a name for itself as a place to visit with an explosion of global restaurants, chic guesthouses and boutique hotels, yummy bakeries & coffee shops, tree-lined boulevards and a newly developed river front. All with a certain je ne sais quoi about it.

The 3 main streets of the central inner city make it easy to see most of the sights and the above mentioned are also primarily located on them. This is also good when the temperatures get as high as they have in the past two days - a high of 105 degrees!?! Th Samsenthai, Th Setthathirat and Th Fa Ngum are parallel to the Mekong River, across which is Thailand.

I found it very easy to walk around the major sights of Vientiane by foot. However I also drank my weight in water, or it certainly seemed like it, and if it didn't drink it I certainly sweated it.

After my visit to COPE yesterday I tackled the NE portion of the city centre. The Patuxai monument makes you feel like you're in France... Ok so may be for just a nanosecond. It's a rather kitsch looking Arc de Triomphe replica complete with a singing fountain (although apparently that's only on weekends... Shame *cough*). It is built with cement that was actually brought for construction of an airstrip in the 60's by the Americans. Yet instead it now stands to honor the dead who, rather ironically, fought for the country's independence from the French when it was still a colony. You can pay to go to the top for, by all accounts, a pretty good view of Vientiane. I didn't do this perhaps somewhere in my subconscious I was asking myself why I would want to bring myself closer to the Sun! Whilst not necessarily a fan of ugly concrete myself, this was an interesting combination of Lao and French architecture.

About 1.5 km along Th That Luang from Patuxai is the most important national monument in Laos. The gilded Pha That Luang's legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a stupa here some time in or around the 3rd Century BC. A stupa is a Buddhist commemorative monument usually housing sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saintly persons. It is believed that this stupa encloses a piece of Buddha's breastbone.

Although it is one of the holiest places in Laos, it was surprisingly empty when I went - although given the heat that was perhaps not so surprising. The golden stupa in the centre is quite impressive. Unfortunately, there is not much documentation so it is best to read up in advance if you're interested in knowing what it is you're actually looking at. Admission is 5000 Kip. Just watch yourself in the places where you have to remove your shoes - I appear to have cooked the bottom on my feet, thanks to the tiles that were transformed into hot plates by the Sun.

Dinner at the trendy Khop Chai Deu saw the progression from bland steamed rice to a purely vegetarian non-spicy otherwise spicy Tom Yum with tofu with a quick prayer to the Gastrointestinal Gods beforehand. It tasted like the best thing I had eaten in days. Probably because it was.

After breakfast this morning, consisting of dry bread and the egg white of a boiled egg, I headed out once more for my final few hours in Laos to see the last few sights in Vientiane situated towards the river. Walking along the promenade in the already stifling heat, Thailand seemed like only a stone's throw away. To be honest I was kind of feeling a bit overdosed on temples however I did pay a visit to the oldest temple in Vientiane, Wat Si Saket.

The temple has over 2000 Buddha images, the vast majority being made from silver and ceramic.

Wandering the labyrinthine streets for one last time it was soon time to head back to the guesthouse to grab my backpacks and head to Wattay International Airport for my flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Laos was certainly the stuff daydreams are made of.

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