For a capital city Vientiane is tiny, quiet and open. It’s not remotely high-rise or built up and it’s kind of amazing that this is the biggest city in Laos, but actually a huge percentage of the country’s wealth is here. You’ll see big, expensive new cars cruising around in some parts of town because this is where most government officials and workers live, ergo, this is where the money stays and is spent. Anyway, politics to one side, there are definitely a few tourist attractions you should check out while you’re in Vientiane. One of the best things about this place is, if it’s only a stop over city on the way to somewhere else, you can see all of these things in 24 hours!
COPE Visitor Centre
This is top of my list, mostly because it’s such an intensely moving museum to witness; I had no idea somewhere so small could be quite so powerful. So despite never having declared war on anywhere, Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world. Figure that. After the war this quiet, peaceful nation was left with up to 80million unexploded cluster bombs to circumnavigate. When fighter pilots had left over bombs during the Vietnam War, they simply dumped them over Laos because they’re unsafe and heavy (so bad for fuel economy) to carry home. Still today, every week, and probably every day, people in Laos are lighting fires to cook dinner and a bomb will blow up in their face, they are working their rice fields in bare feet when they knock a piece of buried ordenance, shifted by the rains and the continual turning of the earth for crops, and lose their limbs or their lives. Everyday existence out here is seriously treacherous for some. We watched a fantastic documentary in the film room called Surviving The Peace and it’s very much worth a watch – I’m not sure I have learnt as much in a long time as what I learnt in Laos. The lessons are positive too though, with programmes for mine clearance, like MAG, helping to educate the local people and also to employ them to safely dispose of the ordnance themselves, and those for rehabilitation, like COPE who help people gain back movement and dignity by providing incredible physiotherapy and prosthetics services. I feel like Laos is far from fixed but it’s definitely not a bleak future, and the people deserve to be freed.
COPE by AJFS Photography
Okay this monument is, well, interesting. The plaque explaining all about Patuxai refers to it as an ‘uglier version of the Arch de Triomphe’ which sort of says it all really. But it’s got a great view from the top, especially because the city isn’t so built up, you can see for miles. And it has some quirky, if not exactly, truly beautiful, architectural features too. It really reminds me of Charminar in Hyderbad, although the view is very different and I was roasting hot at the top of this one rather than being drenched in warm rain. There’s always something peaceful about being removed, perched above life and viewing it from afar.
Pha That Luang
The Pha That Luang temple is beautiful. It seems a very peaceful place as we walk round, there are cats playing in the shade, a group of nuns on some kind of field trip, and a lady who tries to get us to buy a bird in a tiny cage. My first thought is, what an earth am I going to do with a Sparrow (maybe a finch), I’m clearly a tourist, I can’t get it on a plane. But our guide explains that you pay her and she releases the caged bird, thus freeing a soul, which is a good deed and good for your kharma. I mean, go knows what’s happening to her kharma then, if she keeps retrapping and rereleasing the birds; both the birds and the kharma must be confused. But it’s an interesting thought. It’s very bright, amber and gold, in some places pale yellow and in others burnished orange; it’s full of shady spots and grass though and I find walking into the temple complex a bit like an exhale. It is calm. I find the architecture stunning too, sort of bizarre and alien but yet pleasing with all it’s curves and strange shapes making story-book silhouettes against the pastel blue sky. I can highly recommend this place.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket is believed to be the oldest temple in Vientiane. It is small but also very beautiful, in an intricate, delicate way and although it’s much less gold than Pha That Luang, it feels incredibly sacred. It is full of hundreds of Budha statues, of varying sizes and states of destruction, rescued and kept in semi-chaos, semi-reverence; it’s almost a scrap-yard for Budha statues, only they aren’t resold they’re kept with love and devotion. My favourite thing about this place was the dragons – our guide said that there are several different types of dragon and dragons look different sometimes in the different countries we went to. Whatever kind of dragon they were, these were beautiful and I just wanted to take one home.
Some photography by ajfsstuart.com