Positioned but a stone’s throw from the Mekong River in a provincial city that’s surely risen again & again from its ruins, Wat Sisaket is a Buddhist temple built by Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang Kingdom.
Though steeped in early Bangkok-style architecture, it still seems to be mixed with its own unique style.
Once used by the armies of Siam as their Headquarters and lodging place – when they sacked Viang Chan (or its more French derivative, Vientiane) in 1827 – it’s been restored by the French in 1924; & again in 1930; & may now be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane.
I think the place is beautiful beyond description …
It features a cloister wall housing more than 2000 tiny ceramic & silver Buddha images;
with hundreds of seated Buddhas dating mainly from the 16th and 19th centuries.
Made from wood, stone & bronze, more than 6,8oo Buddha images of various sizes & postures are located throughout the complex;
even many broken ones thrown together behind a pad-locked gate
as unforgotten reminders of the sacking of the sacred complex & the surrounding city.
Before we enter the actual grounds of the temple complex we gather round to take in further snippets of cultural knowledge.
Apparently, according to our local guide, it takes monks twenty-four hours of praying to make each image sacred.
‘And in former times the people they put gold as the base. Gold, the yellow colour, represents what the Buddhist people call turmeric – a kind of root, and is a good one of traditional medicine to make the skin softer & to solve the problem inside.
And this way Buddhist people expect to be healthy.
Then real silver is put over the top. Silver was Laos money in the past before the French controlled the country & designed paper money to replace the silver coins. So Laos people expect to be wealthy as well.
Because Buddhist believe that after they die they are born again; so they do these things now so everything come back; all the affections for something we did come back very fast, so as there’s no waiting for the next life to make things happen …
And the monks study … in the former time … in sanskrit, particularly philosophy; this was the language many scholars consider had a big influence on South east Asia kingdoms of Java (Yava), Thailand/Siam (Shyama), Cambodia (Kambuja), Sumatra (Samudra) & Indonesia.
And the temple was the main place for education for the religious men;
but sometimes, because more than 90% of the people in my country lived on the land as subsistence farmers, there needed to be another place when they needed to call for rain for their crops to feed their families.
So the people make rockets – traditionally, by stuffing gunpowder into elaborately decorated bamboo – to shoot up into the sky to anger the gods enough they’ll seek revenge by sending down the heavy rain before the farmers set off to work in the rice fields – & this then is very hard work in the rainy season though it’s salvation for the farmers.
This is celebrated as the Rocket Festival, or Boun Bang Fai.
And the rocket designed to carry prayers to the rain god during Boun Bang Fai, is known as a Hang or Meun-Saen.
Nowadays in Vientiane, Boun Bang Fai is organized in the outskirts of the city of avoid damage to property and help keep participants safe.
The most famous events are held in the surrounding villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern & Pakhanhoung.
From there we stroll along Lanexang, arrange for the fair exchange of US$250 & US$100 respectively for myself & Ben; supposedly gaining sufficient kip to help cover our costs throughout our remaining days in Laos.
I pay Nes the 10,000 kip owed, & now have the required local money to pay 5000 kip to climb Patuxai (the Victory Gate dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France) …
which proves to be a marvelous & novel experience,
affording amazing views of the surrounding avenues & parkways
as well as providing brilliant photographic opportunities for eager tourists
(though I have no available space on my memory cards – & therefore no usable camera in my hands at all, needing to rely on Ben’s initiative & other sources to gather reminders of what I’ve done & seen).
Though we both proceed up the wide winding staircases & explore the six levels of the monument –
built using cement intended for a new airport (therefore earning the nickname ‘The Vertical Runway’) –
only I brave the seventh final climbing section via a spiral staircase …
to emerge beyond the five towers representative of the five Buddhist principles of
- thoughtful amiability
- honour and
Meanwhile Ben waits below & drifts like a fox about to pounce on the huge array of tourist paraphernalia on offer at the souvenir shops.
After returning to ground level & joining with our fellow travelers we’re loaded onto a tuk-tuk & transported to the COPE Centre.
Here the viewing of a video in a darkened theatre proves to be a moving experience.
- how family lives have been ruined by the unforeseen explosion of previously unspent ordinances in family homes when unknowingly being added to cooking fires or in-ground ovens.
- how Laos was used for the sloughing off of unused bombs following raids in the Vietnam War though the country was neutral & not involved in the fighting. In fact the USA dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War than all the bombs combined, dropped by every country for the entire duration of World War II.
In fact according to ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ website <http://thekindnessofstrangers.co/the-arm-a-leg-project-cope-vientiane-laos-mar-13/>:
From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
To make things worse, the types of bombs dropped are known as cluster bombs. Bombs that open mid flight to release smaller bombs within it, killing indiscriminately. And of these bombs, it is estimated that 30%, some 80 million, are still in the Laos farms and countryside waiting to explode.
Most of our fellow travelers purchase ice-cream cones or perhaps smoothies from the attached refreshments bar while I remain inside in a corner of the gift shop …
attempting to choose – from a multitude of a various types, designs & colours –
a hand-crafted decorative sample of memorabilia that’s to be hung from a doorknob back home in Diadem Street.
All transactions completed we walk like straggling cattle to the Morning Market
( now rebuilt since I last visited as the new Talat Sao Mall, at the eastern corner of Avenue Lan Xang and Khu Vieng Rd …
& of note at this point is that the Lao word “thanon” on street signs is translated by “rue”, “avenue” or “boulevard”, in many cases without any apparent logic) …
passing open-air pet stores offering a range of caged puppies, rabbits & birds; & noting many more extensive building projects underway.
We’re told by Nes that Talat Sao is the largest covered market in Vientiane.
Once inside we find there’s a vast selection of handicrafts, woven fabrics, jewelry, antique ornaments, electronics and household goods for sale.
And because this is as close to a department store as you will find in Laos, expats, locals and tourists alike congregate in such huge numbers.
I find it overly claustrophobic though it does offer a degree of air-conditioned comfort.
Perhaps it’s unpleasant having to manage the rather clumsy escalators rather than perusing everything on street level as in the Russian Markets (Psah Toul Tom Poung) in Phnom Penh.
And I certainly DO love that place!
So after arriving at the central Thai-style food court on the third floor of this stuffy building I realise the place is not for me, nor for Ben;
so we retrace our steps, exit the mall with a sense of great relief & head off towards the Joma Bakery (at the Namphou Fountain Cafe franchise positioned in Rue Setthathirath), intending to purchase a light meal.
To go with the croissant (8,000 kip) & Lipton tea (11,000) that I order from the smiling Larnoy who stands expectantly behind the cash register, I add the fruit salad selection (15,000), sit outside at one of the airier tables –
while Ben devours his Cinnamon bun (18,000) between an occasional slurp of Lipton tea –
& eventually share the wrapped left-overs with an old lady who’s positioned herself begging at the doorway.
Leaving more than satisfied with my actions – though with a rather bemused son in toe – we head down Rue Pangkham & towards the river.
Previously, in 2010, the “promenade” beyond Quai’fa Ngum was somewhat disappointing as the whole area was being dug up and replaced with a huge expanse of concrete.
Most of the water in the Mekong River had been diverted well away and could hardly be seen at all.
What mostly met the eye were lorries, bulldozers and lots of mucky looking mud and gravel.
But today the Mekong River spreads out before us in all its glory as we explore the foreshore walkways, all apparently constructed to provide a sunset viewing space for the hundreds of people who arrive expecting to see the sun set with due magnificence over Thailand.
Nearby in the newly constructed Chao Anouvong Park stands the majestic statue of the highly regarded King Anouvong built in 2010 (though obviously after I’d visited ) during Vientiane’s 450th Anniversary so as to commemorate the King’s noble contribution to Vientiane during his reign.
As far as the naming of the park goes,
Chao Anouvong was the last king of the Lao Kingdom of Vientiane.
During his era, he struggled to fight against the Siamese invasion of Vientiane.
In the end, he was unsuccessful and was captured and the Kingdom of Vientiane was forced to surrender to Siamese rule and ceased to exist.
Because of his persistent attempts to defeat the Siamese forces, Chao Anouvong is considered a courageous hero who fought for Vientiane until his death.
After we peruse the foreshores in brilliant sunshine, rather than walk another step in the heat we pay 20,000 kip to travel two blocks to the Black Stupa in a tuk-tuk we hire from near the children’s playground where families gather for picnics in rather dismal shade.
Having then walked the short distance back to the hotel I find the washing that’s been hung across the windows in full sun since early morning is completely dry; & at no additional laundry cost other than what Mother Nature provides to a western facade.
Later immersed again in the group, we return to the Mekong sunset viewing area
& sit in a line with cameras poised – though none better than Hermann’s – waiting for the golden orb to move towards the horizon,
splashing an ever-more-beautiful golden beam across the surface of the water as it descends.
Behind us in the forecourt area talented youths deftly juggle soccer balls on feet, ankles, knees, backs & thighs;
even over & under looping legs as they sit like upturned turtles;
or lie on their backs like stranded beetles while a crowd of infatuated youngsters gathers to marvel at the quick-fire tricks.
Later, hour-long aerobics classes also prove to be a popular activity on the concourse at 6pm, for 3,000 kip
Josh & Roly join in, & we watch the fun for a while (even try & copy a few moves from the sidelines) …
before moving through the busy night market in search of a light jacket.
Although there’s more than an ample selection to choose from, nothing impresses with enough pizzazz to tempt me to part with the necessary kip.
Instead we move through the young crowd of shoppers & head off towards the Fountain & the pre-arranged dinner meeting at the Nam Phu Restaurant with our fellow travelers, stopping off beforehand at Joma Bakery for an excellent chocolate brownie & oat biscuit topped with choc bits.
Arriving early at the Fountain, Ben orders a Banana & Honey Smoothie & sips as we wait for the others to join us at 7:20 for dinner.
Though the live band plays recognisable renditions of Beatles & BeeGees numbers, my ‘first-to-order’ fried rice offering is rather unimpressive (possibly because I need to wait till everyone’s dishes arrive before my plate appears).
Yet Ben is very impressed with his Baked Chicken Breast in Mushroom Sauce that’s accompanied by steamed broccoli, chips & garlic bread, so that’s a bonus.
I pay 35,000 kip & leave most of the meal on the plate.
Ben does his best to pay for the Smoothie ordered earlier, plus 60,000 kip for the chicken;
then we leave the group & head back to the hotel with Ben having little idea where we are though we’ve traveled the route numerous times.
I guess he’s totally reliant on the fact – & accustomed to the idea – I’m the experienced traveler who remembers such details.