02 January, 2007

Photo essay of LAOS (Chapter 3 of 3):
Vientiane, the capital

Patuxai. Vientiane’s own “Arc de Triomphe”.

Monumentally hideous but vaguely impressive, this cross-bred French-Laotian Roman arch was built by the French in nostalgic reminiscence of Paris. It has 4 arches, not 2. It was built in the 1960s with cement purchased by the USA with intentions to construct a new airport – hence it’s known locally as ‘the vertical runway’. Once you get closer, you realise it remains unfinished. And beware the thousands of t-shirts on sale as you wend your weary way up the stairs to the top to get a panorama of the city.

Interior decoration in the Patuxai. Not quite Versailles.

From the top of the Patuxai you look in the direction of the Mekong River down the broad boulevard intended to be the equivalent of Paris’ “Champs Elyssees”. I felt the vandalised iron-work was the perfect mataphor for the cultural and political confusion of Laos' last 100 years.
The view down Lan Xang Road, Vientiane's "Champs Elyssees".

At one point of the war, the leaders of two Laotian factions joined forces, and in their enthusiasm to herald the event with a big parade, decided to lay new tar on Lan Xang Road (above). They got soldiers to do the job the day before the parade. Trouble is, it rained that night, so the tar remained un-cured by the time of the parade. When the troops came marching down, their boots collected more and more tar until finally most of them were too heavy – or bogged – to proceed. So most soldiers left their boots behind, still glued to the road, and continued barefoot. Hundreds of vacated boots must have been a humorous sight.

But I digress... Vientiane’s all rather French, with an Asian twang... all that’s lacking is the Tour Eiffel and a gendarme or two. But you do spot some voitures typiquement français like ziss vun:

Oh la la! …c’est un Citroen CV2, n’est-ce pas?
Madame Marie la Belle falls in love and considers making an offer.

…and another charismatic old French maison with a herbacious roof.

While we’re on architecture, check the Lao National Culture Hall. This is the 'Show Pony' of Lao government buildings, most of which are pretentious facades of affluence. This consumately ugly-weird monolith hosts everything from cinema to dance, but there’s no publically available schedule of events… there's not even a phone number! Whenever we walked past, it was locked. The Vientiane times apparently does print occasional announcements.....
The National Lao Culture Hall. Frank Lloyd Wright, eat your heart out.

More traditional Buddhist wats are, by contrast, an aesthetic relief to the eye. Here’s a very old one, built before the roads were planned, so it was left jutting out into the road with the white fence in an unusual position. Marie can be seen strolling past on the footpath, bottom left:

(Sorry, I don’t know this Wat’s name - there were so many)

These bundles of silk threads were in the local morning market ('Talat Sao') on the "Champs Elyssees":

Finally, adjacent to the main market was a grubby little precinct set apart as if it were a contagiously diseased poor cousin. Its roof was a faded patchwork of layers of plastic or tarps, frayed and aged with grime, supported on bamboo poles leaning drunkenly in all directions. I had to bend double in places as I picked my way along the rough earthen floor, squinting in the shadows to avoid tripping over the wet-season stepping-stones.
I finally worked out that it was the Traditional Medecine market, piled with hundreds of plastic bags of herbs, bark, dried possum spleens, medicinal roots, powdered reindeer antlers, and plastic screw-top jars of prepared potions. This was the Medibank Private of Laos:

Note the animal horn, bottom left, clearly a coveted item.

Overall, Vientiane's not got the charm of Luangprabang, but it is a good spot to chill out and slow down. Find a restaurant on the bank of the Mekong and watch the sunset reflected in the river. There are some decent buffets along the river road too, particularly one upstairs place. The best coffee? Try the latté at the Jo-Ma Cafe or the Scandinavian Bakery, both near the Nam Phu fountain, but do check your change carefully - the Laotian 1 looks like our 9. Also, on Setthathirat Road near the That Dam ('Black Stupa') there's a new fresh fruit juice bar with good deals and NO MUZAK - woo-hoo!

Click here if you’d like to see more of our photos from Laos.

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