Viva vientiane, A survivor with style
Despite communist rule and the march of modernity, the city by the Mekong remains one of Asia's most laidback, sublime capitals, and it's a convenient launch pad from which to explore gorgeous Vang Viang
On the evening before the first day of Khao Pansa _ Buddhist Lent _ last month, a full moon rising in the east magically complimented the sun setting behind a bend in the mighty Mekong, smearing dazzling golds, oranges and reds across the river that flows right alongside the heart of the utterly unpretentious Lao capital. The sense of space here is simply overwhelming, and enhanced by the fresh breezes giving shape to the Lao national flag and an equally large red communist banner with a yellow hammer-and-sickle motif, both of which stand on the bank atop soaring flagpoles.
Vientiane’s majestically spacious promenade along the Mekong looks more like a beachfront.
Who says Laos is landlocked? This vast promenade of Tiananmen proportions possesses a more profound sense of place than many beaches in countries that have actual seacoasts. For kilometre after kilometre, strollers, cyclists and skateboarders savour the sheer emptiness of waterside Vientiane, which nearby still sports the wide and also most walkable tree-lined avenues that testify that this was once a part (albeit a sleepy backwater) of French Indochina.
While neighbouring China and Vietnam pay deference to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh in their stately mausoleums, this breathtaking, sweeping riverside expanse in the capital of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, called Chao Anouvong Park, is named after not a communist leader, but the last king of Vientiane, who was best known for attempting to free his country from Thai rule.
communism and Buddhism coexist in Laos without signs of contradiction.
Near the river, in a massive, attention-commanding statue, Chao Anouvong looks out over and gestures with his right arm towards the land he invaded in a botched rebellion he started in 1826. His fateful attack on Siam motivated Laos' stronger neighbour to invade and destroy much of the city in 1828. Elsewhere in town are the also regal statues of Fa Ngum, who founded the first Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants) in 1353, and 19th-century monarch Sisavangvong.
On sale in the park are small talismanic photos, with "Red Prince" Souphanouvong on one side and Lao revolutionary leader Kaysone Phomvihane on the other, which are bought for the good luck they are credited with bringing.
A few years ago the scenic riverside area where the park now lies was awash with ramshackle restaurants and beer gardens, which the authorities removed in order to beautify and reclaim the area. After sundown, a lively night market sells everything from local-style Buddhist images to Hmong pa ndau folk-style weavings to T-shirts emblazoned with "LAO PDR" beneath the national flag.
After dark, a number of trendy restaurants in the city centre come to life, many being situated in smartly converted old colonial French houses with their pitched tile roofs, windows with shutters and thick walls, which are found along streets with spacious footpaths that are a joy to walk down and are marked on their signs with the French "rue" rather than the English "road" below their names in the local language. The bills for these restaurants serving Lao, French, Italian and many other cuisines in this international city are often presented with amounts stated in not only Lao kip, but also in baht, US dollars and euros.
In the new multi-storey, architecturally Lao-accented Talad Sao shopping mall, a T-shirt for sale bears an image of a colonial-era postage stamp and the rather counterrevolutionary message "Royaume du Laos: Union Francaise" (Kingdom of Laos: French Union). In the centre's food court, cheap baguettes are offered with Lao-style pate.
a typically leafy, broad Vientiane avenue.
While China and Sinicised Vietnam are not quite sure how to handle the return of religion (and certainly not the legacies of past emperors) to their increasingly less communist societies, the more pragmatic communist leaders of Laos have for decades allowed the public to freely practise Theravada Buddhism in daily life, and tout the classical Lao faith and former monarchy as key symbols of Laos's national heritage. While China and Vietnam doggedly stick to the communist course, at least in terms of being officially represented in state symbols by stars, the national symbol of Laos was long ago changed; a hammer and sickle was replaced with an image of Vientiane's gilded Pha That Luang, the elegantly, curvaceously Lao-style stupa that is a must see for its embodiment of traditional local culture. A stately statue of King Setthathirat, who ordered the edifice's construction in 1566, stands nearby.
Peppering the provincial-like town of under a million inhabitants are many traditional Buddhist temples that closely resemble those of neighbouring Thailand.
At no time is Lao Buddhism's continuing influence more greatly or elegantly manifested than on the first day of Khao Pansa. On Aug 2, at temples across the capital like Wat Ong Teu and Wat Mixay, and elsewhere in the mountainous country, Lao women in colourful silk blouses and elegant pha nung sarongs with elaborately embroidered hems, and their menfolk sporting pha biang shoulder sashes, made monetary donations and offerings of candles, incense and flowers. With the quietude and devotion of their ancestors, Laotians of all ages and from all walks of life made merit and paid respect before golden images.
Whereas most of their counterparts in Bangkok have turned to international fashions, many young women in Vientiane also wear a pha nung nung every day.
A unique destination for Thais is the attractively understated and darkly hued Haw Pha Kaew, which, as its name indicates, once housed the Emerald Buddha that now resides in Bangkok. It's a much more subdued affair here; instead of the smartly, regally uniformed attendants and guards in the Bangkok's most sacred wat, Vientiane's Emerald Buddha holy site was locked up at the end of the day by a young man in jeans and a Beerlao T-shirt.
Meanwhile in the Lao National Museum in central Vientiane, above the creaking wooden floorboards in this converted colonial-era edifice, images of Marx and Lenin stand testament to the land's political ideology, which gradually yields more to capitalist global norms year by year. A highlight here are many galleries of simple but powerful black-and-white photographs of Laotians injured by "imperialist" US bombings during the "secret war" in the 1960s and 1970s.
A block away and also on Rue Samsenthai is a popular branch of Thailand's Black Canyon coffeehouse, one of many venues for relaxing and reading in the mid-sized town. Another Thai chain, True Coffee, also has a presence in the Lao capital. With few tourists in town now during the daily rains of low season, Vientiane is even less populated than usual, and small enough and easy enough to amble around, or catch the occasional oversized tuk-tuk from laidback drivers who rarely hassle or hustle potential customers.
There are several good French-style cafes such as Le Banneton on Rue Nokeokoummane, and others on this street, as well as on or nearby Rue Setthathirath, a few blocks from the water, where one can sip espresso or a stiff Lao coffee (a cousin of Thailand's gafae boran) while breakfasting with a piping hot baguette and leafing through a copy of the Vientiane Times.
Vientiane is conveniently close to nature, and the best out-of-town odyssey in the greater capital region as got to be Vang Viang, about three hours to the north via the winding Route 13.
Often dismissed as little more than a wretched hive of drunken and stoned backpackers, the riverside town remains a fine destination for its magnificent position near emerald rice fields and Hmong villages plus a stunning backdrop of limestone karst, which during the rainy season are exceptionally beautiful, popping in and out of the clouds as in a Chinese landscape painting.
In the off season there are as not many youngsters drinking booze while tubing down the nearby rivers, and the area is ideal for bicycling or kayaking. Nestled along the Song River are many secluded guesthouses like the Maylyn Guesthouse or Le Jardin Organique Bungalows, run by friendly locals and Europeans in rural environs not unlike Pai in Thailand's Mae Hong Son province, but in an even prettier environment.
Even here, in the so-called sin city, residents celebrated the first night of Khao Pansa by visiting the town's modest temples. Other locals just twirled their hands in ramvong motions and swayed to luk tung tunes on the ground floor of their shop-houses around town, saying "sabaidee" to passersby. Some simply lit candles and placed them in the front of their modest homes.
Having survived warfare and revolution, and, more recently increasing globalisation and the intrusion of lowbrow tourists, Lao culture still manages to shine brightly.
young Lao girls in ‘pha nung’ sarongs on their way to a temple to celebrate the start of Khao Phansa.
About the author
Writer: Carleton Cole