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20060113_P_0034
Golden Pha That Lua
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Buddhas galore

We both had a much better night’s sleep and feel that we are on the mend. Our aim of getting up and out early before it got too hot did not quite materialise though and it was almost ten before we hit the streets. Our first stop was a bank, to try again to change our remaining Chinese currency, which again failed. Our next task was to book onward flights tickets both internally within Laos, to Phonsovan, and then on to Hanoi, our first stop in Vietnam.

Diethelm Travel, an agency who seem to deal with Germans (not that the name is much of a give away on this one) was close by so we gave them a try. They could not get us onto flights tomorrow for Phonsovan so we looked at a detour down south to Pakse and Champasak to fill time. It was an expensive detour and not what we really wanted to do so we left saying we would think about it and go back. Round the corner was the Lao Airways office so we stopped there on the off chance that they may have different options, and they did. They came up with flights that Diethelm seemed to have no knowledge of and before long we had tickets for what we wanted.

That gave us the rest of the day free to do some sight seeing around Vientiane. A tuk tuk took us up to Patuxai which is on the outer edge of the town centre plan in Lonely Planet. It was probably only about a kilometre from where we were but in the midday heat walking was not a sensible option. We were both again surprised at how small Vientiane is, considering that it is the capital city of Laos. With a population of around two hundred thousand it is the size of a smallish town in the UK.

We went up Th Lan Xang, one of the main streets which had a few lanes of traffic going in either way. There are rules of the road here but lane markings are a waste of time. Patuxai is a Marble Arch/Arc de Triomphe style construction spanning a junction in the road. It was built out of concrete bought by the US which was meant to be used to build a new airport, hence the expats “vertical runway” nickname. From a distance it looks pretty impressive but close up you can see that forty years worth of weathering is taking its toll and parts of the concrete are starting to fall away.

It has been built in typical Lao style with temple like roofing and motifs. Where it has also been decorated there are highly coloured murals and some glass mosaics. The upheaval and bombings the country faced in the late nineteen sixties and nineteen seventies meant that the project was never completed and most of it is just bare concrete. You can walk up to the top from where there are good views out and across Vientiane.

A little further out of town is Pha That Luang which is a large Buddhist stupa set in a walled enclosure. Re-gilded in 1995 to celebrate the Lao People’s Republic’s twentieth anniversary, it shimmered away in the midday sun. The wall surrounding it is a cloister which provided some welcome shade from the heat. At four points around the stupa steps lead up a level and you can walk around the stupa itself seeing the different decoration at various levels of the structure. In the cloister local artists had their work on display for passing tourists to admire and snap up. It was punishingly hot in the sun and we did not linger here for long.

Our tuk tuk took us back into town to Wat Si Saket, a temple built in 1818 and one of Vientiane’s oldest surviving temples.  As with Patuxai and Pha That Luang there was a gringo tax to get in and at all three the price for foreigners was 250% of the price for locals. It is the first time we have come across this in China and Laos, although it was quite common in India. The outer temple buildings are free to access. Here there are the monk’s quarters (a big new block is in the process of being built), the library and various stupas. The library was a small wooden building raised up on stilts. Inside was a large wooden cupboard, a couple of metres square and probably three metres high. It was decorated in red and gold on the inside, black and gold on the outside. Here the monks would store all their books and religious texts.

The centre of the temple was again in a walled in cloistered enclosure. Here the cloister is home to a large collection of Buddha statues and the archivist of the temple (which is called a museum) has totted up that there are about two thousand two hundred in total. The walls of the cloister are full of small niches each holding two small Buddha statues. Larger statues line the cloister all the way around. In the left hand wall there is a store room of damaged statues of all sizes. They have been rescued from temples from around the Vientiane area and were damaged during the various different wars and sieges that have beset the city.

In the centre of the enclosure is the sim, the main building of the temple. Inside the walls are covered with frescos, most of which are now in a poor state of health and need lots of tender loving care. At one point they have taken photos over the last few years and what was a two inch hole in the plaster five years ago has now grown to a hole about a foot long and a couple of inches wide. It is quite a stunning place to see though. Here for the first time since we left Canada I was also aware of the sound of birds twittering. We have not really come across any in Asia, no doubt an effect of bird flu.

From here we ambled back along the river and to the cool comfort of our hotel. Along the way we stopped for a typical Vientiane snack, a pâté baguette. The pâté was not really what we know back home but it was tasty. It came piled with various different veggie bits and a small splot of sweet chilli sauce. I am glad we tried it but I am not sure that I would rush to have another one.

By the time we got back to our hotel we were both feeling pretty zapped out by the heat. The air con went on and we simply crashed out for a while before venturing out for dinner later in the evening.