Just over the border of Thailand and right along the banks of the mighty Mekong River, you’ll find yourself in an endearingly charming capital city of Laos. By no means a large city with less than a million people residing there, Vientiane has reigned for 450 years as the country’s political seat, and is also now the chief economic center.
Remnants of French occupation are evident every where, from the baguettes to even the city’s name. Everywhere you look, “The City of Sandalwood” has something to offer.
Though this stuppa has been around since the 3rd century, don't’ expect it to look the same as it did back then! It has gone under many renovations, first from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist one, but also after damages from foreign invasions. The version you’ll see now is from the most recent touch after the second World War.
Pha Tat Luang is not just an ordinary holy site: it’s said that in the 13th century five monks brought a holy relic (believed to be the Buddha’s breast bone), and it has since resided at the stuppa. It’s considered to be a national symbol, and is the most important monument in Laos. It has been marveled by those who worship and those just to visit for centuries, and that’s no different today.
It’s name may translate to The Victory Gate, but it’s easy to see why it’s nicknamed the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane. Though it’s built in a very similar style, up close it’s easy to see the Laos influence as well. Mythological creature of the culture, like the kinnaris, are seen throughout the facade. To get there, follow Lang Xang Avenue all the way to the end. Patuxay Park surrounds the gate, and is often used as an area for many ceremonial processions.
There are four gateways, each one lining up with the four different cardinal points. It’s a nice stroll, down the avenue and around the pond, but remember, it is also a monument. Patuxai was built in memorial to the Laotians who lost their lives and fought for freedom against French colonialism. So while it is a great spot for people watching and maybe a picnic, please also try to remain respectful of the area.
Buddha statues are usually found in monasteries, temples, or perhaps a small alter in someone’s home. Xieng Khuan, or the Buddha Park, redefines that ideal. In a meadow stretched along the Mekong, there are Buddha’s everywhere. The “Spirit Park” integrates Buddhism with Hinduism in an incredibly unique perspective. The concrete statues are intricate and ornate, and wandering through creates the otherworldly feel.
To enter, visitors must walk through a 3-meter long demon head, and ascend a staircase, representing the journey from hell to heaven. Eerie and beautiful, it’s definitely worth the 24 kilometer drive out of town for the visit.
If you only have time for one of two stops in Vientiane, then the COPE Center should be at the top of your list. Many foreigners are unfamiliar with “The Secret War,” when during the Vietnam War, America carpet bombed Laos because of illegal movements into the country by the North Vietnamese Army. 500,000 bombing missions were staged, dropping two million tons of ordnance on the country. Today, there are many left, that have yet to detonate. These UXO’s ("Unexploded Ordenance") cause numerous deaths and injuries every single year.
The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE has designed their free exhibit to not only educate the public about the history and effect of these UXO’s, but give a firsthand perspective. Visitors can read stories or watch documentaries about survivors, learn about the issues of handling disability in a developing country, as well as understand what COPE’s projects can do for the community.
COPE not only advocates for the people affected by UXO’s, but helps to provide rehabilitation and prosthetics to those who need it. Their gift shop and Karma Cafe directly fund their incredible work, or if you’d like, you can make a direct donation at the center.
Vientiane may be a capital city, but it lacks the intense hustle and bustle of other Southeast Asian capitals, like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. By that quiet lull is exactly what creates the appeal for this city. Wander down the riverside, enjoy a cold Beer Lao at the nightly market, simply enjoy your time. There’s no need to rush here. Get ready to spend some relaxed travel time in Vientiane, and plan your trip with Trekeffect today!
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