Foot loose and fancy free in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos (PDR)

Posted: March 24, 2011 in South East Asia
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With admittedly a little stubborn reluctance on my part of leave Vietnam and fit Laos into our schedule, I acquiesced to Muneeza’s steadfast desire to spend some time here.  We flew from Saigon on Tuesday 22nd and after a brief stop over in Pakse to get the visa, landed in the capital city of Vientiane early afternoon.

A concise and slightly edited history

Laos is land-locked and sits between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with China dominating its Northern borders. It is South East Asia’s poor cousin. Laos dallied with nationhood first in the 14th century when warlord Fa Ngum, backed by the Khmer, conquered Wieng Chan (modern day Vientiane). Fa Ngum gave his kingdom the romantic title of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants) and adopted Theravada Buddhism as the state religion, which is still the dominant religion today.

As with its neighbours, Laos has suffered from foreign interference, especially from France and the US. During the 1950s the US fought the ‘Secret War’ on the pretext of addressing the risk from Communists freedom fighters in Northern Vietnam. They trained anti-Communist Hmong fighters and then carpet-bombed huge swathes of the Laos/Vietnam border, killing thousands of innocent people and displacing millions of others. God bless the US foreign policy. After the US withdrew in 1973, the newly founded Laos PDR suppressed the previously CIA funded opponents, often brutally in re-education camps.

Laos entered ASEAN in 1997 and in 2004 the US finally promoted Laos to normal trade relations after years of embargo. Create a problem, and then punish people for it! Laos is still heavily dependent on foreign aid but has taken steps to generate its own income and tourism, especially eco-tourism, is playing a key roll. The challenge it faces is to encourage economic expansion without damaging the beautiful country that for years has remained blissfully immune to the march of machinery.

Exploring Vientiane – a brief affair

Vientiane is a tiny capital city and a welcome break from the hectic traffic congestion of Saigon. At just over 200,000 people, the streets are noticeably empty and background noise is a murmur rather than a full-blown assault on the senses.

We spent the first afternoon walking along the banks of the Mekong, watching the sunset and taking in the beat of a new city. After a few beers and some noodles at the local shack, we retired early to watch a film, The Lovely Bones. As expected, it didn’t do the book justice and that’s another Peter Jackson film that’s left me disappointed.

We woke early on Wednesday and had breakfast at a Laos-run French café – the French influence is still clearly evident in the capital. We then embarked on our usual city walking tour to take in the main sights.

Luckily, the main sights of Vientiane are geographically concentrated and much closer than we had expected. We walked along the riverfront, stopping to use the free exercise machines and lighting a candle at a statue of Fa Ngum. In the hope of some good karma.

Our first main stop was Haw Pha Kaew, an ancient Wat (temple) that sits to the east of the Presidential Palace.  It was the one place we decided we’d stump up an entry fee for and the money was well spent. The temple has the classic steeply elevated roof pitch with ornate corners and an array of Buddha statues sheltered beneath its overhang. The concrete Buddhas guarding the entrance were in superb condition and looked impressive.

We moved on and saw the other key Wats around the city centre before heading for Pha That Luang via Victory Monument. Patuxai, The Victory Monument, is unmissable as you walk down Tha Lan Xang, It is an Arc de Triomphe replica and commemorates the Lao who died in prerevolutionary wars. Ironically it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the US for construction of a new airport.

Pha That Luang is the primary sight in the capital, a stunning golden stuppa that sits behind the Statue of the Unknown Soldier, at which I stopped to light a candle and make a donation. Karma points are mounting. The Pha is apparently the most important monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. An image of the main stuppa appears in the national seal. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries erected a stupa here in the 3rd century, enclosing a piece of Buddha’s breastbone.

Golden stupa Vientiane

As the heat drew in and the sun beat down on our backs, we gladly made our way back to the backpacker centre and headed for Le Croissant D’Or, a cool café that knows how to make sandwiches.

We spent the rest of the day indulging in pure laziness. First of all we did our Pilates session to iron out the vertebrae. A few beers in a local bar were then followed by an hour long traditional Laos massage. After dinner we went to a bar that advertised live music, expecting it to be the place for a happy atmosphere. Alas the live music drew a crowd of 6 people (probably a rush for laid back Laos) and consisted of a vaguely enthused local lady doing reasonable cover versions. We didn’t stay long and opted to sup the local Laos beer in Via Via bar near our hotel instead.

On Thursday we hopped on the bus to Vang Vieng, the destination for adrenalin junkies in Laos looking to empty their wallets in the pursuit of excitement on the rivers.

Love jamer & Muneeza x


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