Snapshots of a Long Weekend in Vientiane, Laos

Patuxai Arch

Construction on Patuxai Arch, Vientiane’s take on Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, began in 1957 and was built with concrete the US had originally earmarked for an air strip during the war with Vietnam (and by extension with Laos). To this day it remains unfinished, however, its ornate Buddhist carvings in stone above the four arched entrances surrounded by blank slates of weathered cement. Stairways that lead to the monument’s peak, where this photo was taken, are similarly forgotten, the hallways a bleak canvas of grey cement painted with random brushstrokes of white paint and plaster here and there.

Something about Patuxai fascinates me. In a somewhat sleepy town that’s on more and more travelers’ itineraries durings trips around Southeast Asia–I wasn’t expecting quite so many twentysomething backpackers, and certainly not so many European families–Patuxai is one of very few non-temple tourist attractions and, thus, one most visitors head to. It’s a popular meeting place for locals, too. In other words, it’s attracting a lot of eyeballs, but still sits in its incomplete state.

Maybe it’s a lack of finances, or maybe… maybe it’s something else. Here’s an excerpt from an official plaque hung inside the East-West gateway that describes the monument’s history: “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.” Sounds like a monument greatly cherished by the Laotian government, eh?

Pha That Luang

I headed to Pha That Luang one morning with almost begrudging resignation, like it was one of those things that you sort of have to do, but aren’t necessarily that thrilled about. That sounds a little awful considering its history reportedly dates all the way back to the 3rd century (though it’s been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times), and that today it’s considered a symbol of Laotian national pride. Well, I’d spent the previous day motoring around to a number of smaller temples, and woke up that day with a significant case of Temple Fatigue, an affliction which generally can only be cured with at least 24 hours of not stepping within 500 feet of a Buddhist temple.

It turned out to be rather pleasant, however. I expected buses filled with mobs of tourists and a quick in-and-out visit, but instead lingered for 45 minutes or so in one of the shady passageways that surrounds the golden stupa, alone save for a small family gathered near one of the back entrances. The temple is closed from noon until 1pm, so most tours will either be out by 11am or arriving after 1: try to time your visit between 11am and 12pm and you might find as much peaceful solitude as I did.

Beer Lao

Unofficially second to Pha Tuat Luang in terms of national symbolism might be the Beerlao label. Beerlao is everywhere: it’s like Budweiser in the United States times ten. Yellow-and-green signs for restaurants and bars, which are surely paid for by Beerlao, are omnipresent and there as much to advertise each establishment’s name as they are to advertise the fact that yes, don’t worry, Beerlao is indeed served there.

Unfortunately it seems the brewery, located outside of town near the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, is no longer giving free tours, so I settled for some self-guided reintroduction to the beer I hadn’t tried in years. My first night in Vientiane was spent on the outdoor deck of SamYekPakPaSack Kemkong Restaurant, overlooking the still Mekong River. Here I conducted an unofficial and highly scientific taste test of Beerlao Original, Gold, and Dark. The winner for Best Taste? Beerlao Dark. And for Overall Drinkability? Beerlao Gold. Oh, don’t feel bad Beerlao Original: you’re refreshing too.

Bowling in Vientiane

Well off the tourist grid on the outskirts of town, the Laos-ICC Center features covered pop-up parking lot restaurants and a driving range outside, and inside a maze of stalls on the main exhibition floor mostly stocked with clothing and household goods.

More interesting: a Tang Frères Lao Supermarket, one of the few “proper” grocery stores I stumbled on. Better: vintage 80s-era Litecc Cinemax, complete with a gold “Merry Christmas” banner hung over the entrance to Theatre 1. Best: Litecc Bowl, again straight out of the 80s and a too-perfect setting for a future film scene.

Buddha Park

“The Xiengkuane Buddha Park has developed in to a major tourism site”, according to a sign near this totally surreal park’s entrance. Located out in the middle of nowhere on the bank of the Mekong, over 25km outside of Vientiane (it felt further on motorbike), past rural villages and down a road that can only optimistically be called dirt–it’s more like a bed of rocks with dirt loosely packed around them–Buddha Park is one of the most random and amazing spectacles I’ve ever seen and was well worth the long trek.

I can’t imagine many other places like this exist in terms of the almost haphazard mishmash of sculptures from Buddhist and Hindu mythology in one place. It’s like a god’s child opened his box of toy religious icons, stood them all up to play with, then left them there after losing interest. I had the park to myself for nearly an hour before a handful of other tourists arrived, with nothing but the sound of birds chirping, leaves rustling in the faint late-morning breeze, and the sound of my feet squishing in the muddy grass still drying from the previous night’s storm. These are the types of moments on the road you never forget.

All photos copyright Brian Spencer

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