Vientiane is just waking up, slowly. It is a very friendly, indeed sleepy town, but so here and there you see signs of development, some taller, larger buildings are going up, a new department store, the occasional international hotel, a flashy park along the banks of the Mekong. The Laos stock exchange, a modern white building with dark glass, opened just a few weeks ago, with no less than two listings, apparently both heavily over-subscribed. But the majority of downtown Vientiane is still very low-rise, a mix of run-down French colonial architecture, a few newer Chinese buildings and Laotian construction, along narrow tree-lined streets; all together not very organized. Cables everywhere, traffic slightly congested because of tuk-tuks and scooters, and a handful of 4x4’s – but not too bad, nothing compared to Bangkok or Jakarta.
Many of the once attractive colonial buildings have a new role, nowadays, as National Library or Museum, like the former French Governor’s residence. They are clearly in need of some restoration, but the priority in this Buddhist country is with the many temples; there is obviously more money available for religion than for a questionable national heritage. Unlike in Luang Prabang, the temples in Vientiane are all from after 1828, when the Thai (the Siamese, at the time) destroyed the city because of some minor disagreement with the local ruler – I told you earlier, history in this part of the world is not so different from European history.
(1) The old French Police Headquarters is now the National Library
That said, there are some quite attractive Buddhist temples, active and inactive. The oldest one is the Wat Si Saket, a mostly wooden structure, in a compound that distinguishes itself through the many small niches filled with miniature Buddha images, collected over hundreds of years. Another one, Haw Pha Kaew, has been turned in a museum, the collection of which is much less interesting than the building itself. Visiting those temples one does with quite a few other people, busloads literally, as they are high on the tourist must-see list, whilst in fact it is much nicer to wander through the lesser known temple complexes, peaceful, quiet, or perhaps only accompanied by some chanting of resident monks.
(2, 3) Wat Si Saket,
and (4, 5) Haw Pha Kaew.
It is Chinese New Year and Vietnamese Tet, this week, and although Laos has its own festival, in April, the Chinese and Vietnamese resident population does celebrate. This is obvious in the markets, with an unusually high availability of roasted piglets, and in the streets, where houses and courtyards have been decorated. In one neighbourhood the traditional dragon, accompanied by drums, was performing (four people in a dragon suit, that is); upon completion of the act, all packed into two tuk-tuks, to go and entertain the next shopkeeper that paid good money for the show – and anticipating good fortune, no doubt.
(6, 7, 8, 9, 10) The main market in Vientiane, geared towards Chinese New Year, including roasted piglet and red lanterns.
(11) Dragon performance
With a few hours spare – after all, there is not that much to see in Vientiane – I got myself an hour-long Lao massage, very pleasant and professional, and by far not as sleazy as many of the Thai massage parlors, and a haircut. I was the only customer in the shop, but soon after the lady hairdresser started cutting my hair, the place started to fill up, with neighbours wanting to see how you do so on the fa’rang, local terminology for foreigner. Soon the place was packed, I should have charged an entry fee.
(12) View from the balcony of our luxury accommodation private guesthouse in Vientiane, the best of the trip so far, and unlikely to be beaten, complete with gin tonic, superb food, exquisite wines, power shower, laundry services, travel agency and excellent company – although the waiter showed up two days late….