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Day 2: Vientiane

That Luang, Wat Sisaket and the Tragedies of UXO

Lao’s iconic national monument, That Luang, is serenely situated on a slight gradient to the east of the city. While Vientiane is a walkable town, That Luang is a good 4 kilometres out of the city. Walking is good only if you go early in the morning before 9am (when the sun starts really warming up). Tuk Tuk or bicycle rental are the usual or recommended transport means. Getting there earlier meant that the place was practically deserted. This was a wonderful experience as I watched a large group of monks stream out of the temple as I arrived. The gold painted monument does seem quite small and unimpressive on approach to it (perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures). The much larger temples that flanked either side of That Luang seemed to dwarf it.

However, walking around the perimeter of That Luang and then climbing the steps to walk around the I 1st level made for quite a serene experience, especially as the only thing I could hear was birds chirping and there was no one else around. On the 1st level a beautiful colourful butterfly flitted past me; it was of the same type that had flitted past me near Patuxai about an hour earlier. I’ve not seen any in between or since! It was a bit of a spiritual moment for me – perhaps it was Buddha’s doing, giving me that moment of calm and peace. It would be a great place for meditation or for just reading a book! Worth noting is that the closest toilet is in the Chinese temple to the right of That Luang when you exit, just go through the temple gates and keep going left.

Next, via a communal tuk tuk that I caught with two locals (didn’t really help me get a cheaper rate), I entered the old world of Wat Si Saket. Compared to the gold glint of That Luang (reconstructed by the French, thank goodness the French appreciate history, art and aesthetics to restore That Luang), Wat Si Saket is a lovely wooden temple filled to the hilt of Buddhas. I thought I was visiting the Buddha Park tomorrow, I can’t imagine it having more than Wat Si Saket. Inside the Sim, the peeling wall paintings are still visible to be admired, as is the high ceiling with its decorative panelling and lighting. The temple has a very quaint and calming feel to it with its dilapidated wooden structure that is in what you’d expect as a typical Eastern styled temple (Bangkok style actually).

Although, it was constructed in the first quarter of the 1800s, it has a distinctly older feel. This is probably on account for what the sign outside the main entrance says “the foreigners had aggression”. I think the foreigners still have aggression.

Just opposite Wat Saket (where it’s tempting to just sit in the forecourt and relax, read a book (or the newspaper, as the security man was doing)), is equally entrancing Haw Pha Kaeo. With high ceilings and pristinely manicured gardens surrounding it, the outside I found more interesting than the inside. The main attraction is the museum’s (inside the temple) collection of Buddha statues and relics. Most interesting is the Khmer Stele at the back of the museum. Just fascinating to see the inscriptions even if I can’t read them! Curiously, it’s the only museum I’ve seen with coins placed on the artefacts/objects on display. Many of the Buddha’s had coins placed in Buddha’s lap or even in his back (of a wooden splintered statue) – wherever there was space, there was money offered to Buddha! I’m sure the coins were not part of the display!

Now comes the sad part. I have been keen to visit MAG – Mines Advisory Group, since I’d seen their office, especially as it was so close to my hotel. While I had read and am slight familiar with Laos’ recent history, to go from visiting old beautiful monuments to be drawn into the stark modern history of Laos was heartbreaking.

With only about 9 panels of an exhibition, it was small, but very succinct. The amount of bombs that were released over Laos is horrifying. Much worse is that 30% of them (from known data), did not detonated, but are still live (referred to as UXO – Unexploded Ordnance). UXO are still lying across the country causing many problems as a result.

Their locations are not known as they are so many spread in the countryside and are not necessarily visible. Unsuspecting farmers and villagers can be severely handicapped if not killed as a result of the bombs detonating on touch. On the other hand, the metal from these bombs provide scrap metal and hence a source of income for the villagers. According to MAG, as the countryside is unsafe for agriculture due to the UXO, villagers have reduced resources available, so selling scrap metal from unexploded bombs is all too common, which in itself increases fatalities and injuries. Their plight is incredible. MAG teams are working to clear land for use by villagers and to make public spaces safer.

Walking around Vientiane, I feel far removed from this harsh reality facing the majority of Laotians.

Happily, there is one funny story I can share. I’m finding the Laos dry season quite hot. It’s 21 degrees Celsius before 9am. Passing by the hotel reception, one staff member was wearing a tartan scarf hugged around his neck and another was wearing a turtleneck under his business shirt. It’s cold for the locals, this is winter! I have to giggle a bit at this.

That Luang Temple in Vientiane, Laos

That Luang Temple in Vientiane, Laos

Posted by Teamworkz 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged travel laos vientiane blogs

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