Tuesday, June 14, 2005


For a capital city with a population of over 200,000 Vientiane feels small and cozy, nestled into a bend of the Mekong river facing Thailand. The inexorable march of change (and progress?) is obvious to see: many of the smaller roads in the town centre are finally being paved; NGO Landcruisers can be seen plying the streets; and it seems to me that Laos is gearing up for even greater numbers of tourists in the coming years.

The two must-sees here are That Luang, the nation's most revered religious shrine, a 48m high gilded stupa that, when it catches the sun, seems to glow (though when it's overcast it just looks like it's been dipped in custard), and Patuxai, Laos' very own answer to the Arc de Triomphe, which by their own admission is "a monster of concrete". They're OK, but more intriguing for me were the Lao National Museum and the nearby Buddha Park. The museum particularly because it has a good coverage of Lao history with explanations in English, except when it comes to post WWII history where the translations seem to be carefully lacking, especially with regards to the communist party's involvement. Though they do manage to label the photos, often decrying the "imperialist Americans" and their "puppet lackeys". Joking aside, it is also important to see this side of the story since the bombing of Lao civilians by American warplanes, using chemical weapons no less, is not often discussed in history lessons back home. The Buddha Park, on the other hand, is not at all educational, but it is highly entertaining. Built by an eccentric monk, the park is full of concrete statues depicting Buddha in various poses as well as a gaggle of various oligolimbed Hindu deities. There doesn't seem to be any order in the placement of the statues, they're just dotted around higglety-pigglety.

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