Jan. 22nd, 2017

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Wednesday 14 December

Defago had to work on the Wednesday, but told me that we could meet late afternoon. This meant I had most of the morning free to explore the rest of Vientiane, deciding to start the day at around 10am with a trip to Patouxai, a rather triumphant arch at the northern end of Lane Xang Avenue. Looking a little like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Lane Xang is very much the Champs-Elyssees of Vientiane, dating back to a time when the French colonials were here, building the city. Indeed walking north along this street as I did, you can see a number of old colonial style buildings, while on the eastern side of the road there are a few temples and markets, which I will come back to later. Having not had any breakfast, I stopped off at the local convenience store M Mart, only to discover that the only sandwich of interest they had was pulled pork that looked quite like cavity wall insulation. Consequently, I just grabbed some crisps and went on my way, with the large brown concrete arch coming closer and closer into view. It definitely looks a little like the Arc de Triomphe although the masonry at the top is definitely more of an Asian style with its trio of turrets. In the base of the arch, there are four columns inside which vendors sell a range of goods, from tat to food and drink. The ceiling is adorned with reliefs of Hindu deities - Rahu eating the Sun, Indra, Brahma and Vishnu, adorned in gold on a rather pleasant sky blue hue. Up close, the structure does have an element of being unfinished, but the climb to the top for a nominal fee does afford excellent panoramic views of the city and so was definitely worth doing. One of the reasons why it appears unfinished may be because the Communists chipped away at some of the Hindu iconography that was symbolic to the former royal family, with the name changed to Patouxai (VIctory Gate) at this time. The original monument was built in the late 1950s and is quite a good use of space. You climb up a dingy spiral staircase, the only light coming from ciruclar portals with images of gods carved into them, which usefully block most of the light from coming through. Halfway up, there is a huge hall dedicated to market stalls, with vendors selling a baffling array of tourist tat before you get to the top, with its 360-degree views of the city. There are four small stupas up here and a central complex, which again contains more tourist stalls and a final spiral staircase right to the top. There was a small school party of children up here when I went, making conditions somewhat cramped, and to take a photograph I had to put my bottle of water down. Due to the lack of space, I accidentally knocked it off the staircase and onto the floor below. It landed with a heavy thud, with a shocked security guard somewhat unhappy by the disturbance of the solitude. Fortunately, I wasn't in trouble but I did fear it for a while. This allowed me to take in the views with greater ease, and it was fascinating looking out at this rather compact city from all angles, seeing it sprawl a little to the north but stop dead at the river to the south, beyond which there lies Thailand. I also got to see the Presidential Palace, which is on the soutern side of Lane Xang Avenue. This was the best view I could get really as the palace is closed to visitors, while there is a huge gray metal barrier erected across the front gate, assumedly because they are repairing it. This meant that this vista was probably the best I was going to get of the building, built in the French Beaux Arts-style by the former colonial power. Today it's used for government ceremonies.

After this, I headed back down Lane Xang Avenue on its eastern flank, darting further east when I saw an interesting golden portal adorned with naga dragons with a Buddha sat atop with a striking red background that took my fancy. There is much gold in Vientiane due to the Buddhist temples and it glistens profoundly in the tropical sun. It turned out I was heading towards Wat That Foun near the UN compound, with the diplomats using the temple grounds as a car park. There was a range of impressive structures here, largely whitewashed walls with stunning golden roofs with intricate carved detail. I also saw two temples being built here, with the concrete shells before they were painted on display. This was fascinating as it was a glimpse at how these wonderful buildings are constructed. Furthermore, outside one of the more impressive temples, there was a frieze on either side of the entrance, one detailing the benefactors who had contributed to the construction of the temple and the other detailing the temple itself. It looked old, but it had actually been built between 2010 and 2013 at a cost of just over £200,000. This altered my perception somewhat, as many of the temple constructs look like they had been there for centuries, but clearly the vast majority of them had been relatively recent. It was a testament to just how important religion is in Laos, like we had seen in Georgia the month previously with the number of churches they were building. I ambled my way around here for half an hour, enjoying the solitude of the grounds as there were very few people about, before leaving out of another entrance, turning right and rejoining Lane Xang Avenue further down. My next stop was just a short walk away, the indoor morning market of Talat Sao, which was set back behind the main road, slightly shrouded by more modern developments. The market had a strong 1960s concrete feel about it, and there were many vendors there selling a wide range of things, from pens (one of the brands had a logo which was a horse's head coverted into a pen, which was freaky) to flat screen TVs and everything in between. The market was on two levels, but very few shops were open on the top floor, with rows upon rows of jewelry sellers in particular shuttered down. It was a good market though from the point of view that I was never pestered, meaning I could bimble along at my own pace taking in the sights and sounds. It was moderately busy, but not overly so, although I didn't stay too long as I didn't want to get lost in the labrynthine nooks and crannies of the place. Interestingly, to get out, I had to duck under a large metal pipe which was placed near the entrance, but duck I did, emerging into the bright sunlight which took some getting used to, due to the lack of windows or anything inside.

The next stop was the charmingly neat Wat Sisaket, built in 1818 and completed ten years later. Destroyed by "the foreigner" as the entrance signed proclaimed and rebuilt in 1935, it's a charming square containing a small temple on its southern side. Around the periphery of the square there is a covered walkway in which there are many identical stone statues of Buddha. In the walls themselves, there are little arched nooks within which contain more statues, while there were also a few other wooden items on display such as the hang hod, which was used for water blessings, it being a long trough carved in the shape of nagas. There was also a stele there, which details the construction of Wat Sisaket (which was then called Wat Satasahatsarama) while there was also a stone carving of a horoscope on the date construction began, Thursday 4 March 1819. While I was walking around, I noticed a couple getting some professional photographs taken. They were both dressed in seemingly traditional garb, with the gentleman having a sword and the lady in a dark blue and gold kimono-type dress. I am not sure whether they had just got married, or whether they were starring in a show or something, but I thought the courteous thing to do would be to get out of their way. I think it was here where I popped into the temple and noticed one of the monks teaching a couple of students, so I bobbed out pretty quietly and headed over to the aforementioned Presidential Palace, sneaking a view of the pastel green building as I best I could before heading to the museum of Haw Pha Kaew next door. Haw Pha Kaew used to be the king's personal Buddhist temple, dating from the mid-sixteenth century. However, it was destroyed by the sacking of Vientiane in 1828 and rebuilt by the French. It now houses the modest museum of art and antiquities, an ragtag collection of largely Buddhist artefacts which have no labels in any language other than Lao, making it all rather confusing. With no guide either, it was very much a case of looking at some random objects with very little context. The exterior of the building is arguably its strongest feature, with the gold leaf on red background particularly striking. The wooden doors and windows were ornately carved and the level of craftsmanship was exemplary. It was quite peaceful walking around the pagoda, shoes off of course, but the splendour of the exterior wasn't really matched by the inside which was rather drab. The temple is named after the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew), which was one of the most scaared icons in the country. Pilfered by the Siamese in 1779, it currently resides in Bangkok and I am not sure whether or not I have seen it there. The bronze Buddhas are probably the most impressive sight in the museum even if some of the inlay decorating their eyes and navals has been removed while the Buddha in the beckoning rain position with its jewel-encrusted naval was one of the most priceless arefacts there. Dominating the room was the wooden naga throne, which was highly decorated and once was a pedestal for an image of the Buddha while an elaborate candleholder was also present and dominating this rather small box-like space. To be honest, I got around it in twenty minutes and so left pretty swiftly, stopping to catch the bronze statues of a kowtowing boy and girl on the lawn outside.

With the time approaching 1:30pm and thus around the time Defago said he would be free, I had just enough time to walk along the river to Chao Anouvong Park. It was quite desolate, with only a couple of people skating, meaning I got the perfect view of a rather impressive fountain containing a number of naga dragons around a central larger dragon. The dragons around the exterior were all staring at the narly dragon in the middle, who had quite a gob on and looked somewhat scary. Behind this, looking out towards the river and Thailand beyond was the statue of Chao Anouvong who led the Laotian Rebellion against the Siamese and was the last king of the country from 1805 to 1829. With sword in one hand, his arm points out towards the Thais in a symbol of defiance while it is also interesting to note that he was the king who completed the construction of the previously mentioned Wat Sisakat. Along the base of the statue there were rows of donkey and elephant statuettes, placed there by various devotees one presumes although I am not sure of the purpose. There was also a man sleeping by the base of the statue and he looked up at me, nodded and thenwent back to his slumber. There was little else in the park aside from a trio of attractive Spanish tourists, who spent a little time at the statue before heading into the city centre. I followed them, walking back to my hotel via Nam Thou Place, with the fountain now switched on and looking quite resplendent. I grabbed a small sandwich from M-Point Mart along the way before heading back to the hotel to have a flop on the bed.

It turned out Defago was somewhat delayed, meaning I managed to have a quick snooze before heading back out into the city and around the corner to the Lao National Museum. I only had about an hour, which wasn't really enough to get around it, resulting in me having to rush the last four rooms only to discover I had been locked in and I had to find the nice attendant to let me out. It is rather dusty, with a drab Victorian feel to it, along with the feel of it being obviously state sponsored. Set in the former maison of the French resident superieur, the museum details the history of Laos from the neolithic period to the present day. There is quite a teleological feel to it, with everything culminating in the "inevitable victory" of 1975, with the final rooms dedicated to the perfect state and the perfect national character, which was fascinating in itself. The language used to describe foreigners, particularly the French, was quite strong while the Thais and Burmese were labelled "fedualists". The Japanese and Americans were also given a thrashing, with black and white photographs detailing the horrors of World War II and the overspill from the Vietnam War. Many of these incidents were depicted in paintings on tapestry, with the scenes clearly embellished for political purpose. In one section there were black and white photographs of "National Heroes" but there were no explanations so I couldn't find out what they did. The bronze frog-drum was the definite highlight of the museum, dating from ancient times and being one of the first things you come to, while the Khmer sculpture of Ganesh was another exhibit which stuck in the memory. The transcription on wood of a traditional Lao folk song was also of interest, particularly due to my love of language, while the collection of golden Buddhas locked in a wrought iron cage were not dissimilar to those I had seen earlier in the day. Anyway, I had to skate through this quite quickly and another fifteen minutes or so would have been preferable, but it was worth the trip and I was glad I had made the call.

I went back to the hotel again at this point, to discovere that Defago would soon be on his way. We met at around 5pm, just before sunset, and headed out to the west of the city where some riverside restaurants were. It was quite busy down here and in the fading light, we opted to grab a beer and go down to the beach to try and catch the sun falling. Unfortunately, it was already quite dark by this point so there wasn't an awful lot we could see, although seeing the lights of the restaurant terraces above us and those in the distance of another nightlife area was certainly fascinating. There were only a handful of people on the beach so it was rather quiet, although it was interesting that as we were going down, the vast majority of people were coming the other way. Once it had got fully dark, it was quite disorientating and we thought it best to get back onto the shoreline and have a wander. We stumbled across one of the night markets along the promenade, with a number of identical red tents snaking their way along the pavement, with the vendors inside selling a range of goods. The market was quite popular and we had to push through the crowds on occasion, although usually there was enough space for a gentle stroll. The market sold a range of things but primarily clothing, although I did manage to pick up a number of souvenirs including a little pink squirrel keychain for about £3 and some delicately created paper pop-up cards of some of Laos's key tourist sights. While walking, we also stumbled across a little fairground game, where you had to throw three darts at a wall of yellow balloons. The aim of the game was to pop three balloons with three darts, which sounded easy but it was easier said than done, even from a nominal distance of about 3m away. More often than not I burst two balloons rather than three, meaning I didn't get a prize, although it was great fun participating for a while.

The rest of the evening was made up of eating and drinking. Our first bar was Chokdee Cafe, the only Belgian beer bar in Viantiane and very popular with the small ex-pat community in the city. Indeed, the vast majority of people there were not local, but I was surprised by the sheer range of beers they had available, both on tap and particularly in bottle. Many of these bottles were displayed in the entrance where ghekos were crawling all over them, looking all sweet like ghekos usually do. We grabbed a meat platter here along with the beer and chatted a while, just drinking in the charming atmosphere and the warm night air. We then headed back to the car, stopping off at a little sweet stall that Defago knew well. Here they served a range of fruit-flavoured jellies in bowls of coconut milk. The jellies were made from a range of different fruits and were displayed similar to an ice cream trough you would get in an ice cream parlour in Europe. Most of the fruits were unidentifiable to me, so I asked Defago to pick out three for me to sample. Served with ice, which added a crunchiness to the creaminess of the milk and the smoothness of the jelly, the dish surprisingly worked and I would be lying if I said I didn't fancy more.

After this, we got back to the truck and headed to a burger bar that Defago knew. Burgers aren't particularly popular in Laos, and we occupied only one of the two occupied tables here, but the burger was exemplary. It was here that I got to meet one of Defago's colleagues, a Danish guy who had lived in the country off-and-on for about fifteen years. He was really nice and soon we were headed over to the last stop of the evening, Wind West, where there was drinks aplenty and live music from some very talented musicians. You could request any song you wanted and they would play it for you as part of their mammoth two-hour set, and there was a range of Laotian and English songs. The ambience was fantastic and the acoustics really amplified the music, although the price of the beer was rather steep. I made something of a faux-pas as I accidentally spat my beer out at the Danish guy when Defago made me laugh, resulting in embarrassed apologies from me. He left soon after and I hope I didn't offend him, while Defago and I stayed for another beer before slipping out shortly before 11pm. He drove me back to the hotel, where I grabbed a final beer from the hotel bar before heading back to the room after another long but wonderful day.

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