Nov 20th, 2016

I arrived in Laos on a Saturday evening. There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Vientiane. The most common connection is via Bangkok. So I had all of Sunday for some sightseeing in Vientiane, before I started my week-long volunteering assignment for Room to Read.

About Laos
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a landlocked country in South-East Asia sharing borders with Thailand, China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is one of the most thinly populated countries in Asia, with a population of just under 7 million (in a country of about the same size as the UK). Laos became independent in 1953, but soon after was marred by a civil war that did not end until 1975, when the Communist Party took over power. It remains a one party socialist republic, which maintains close relations with the socialist government in Vietnam. Despite having been one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last 10 years averaging annual GDP growth of 7%, Laos remains a very poor country, with about one third of the population living below the poverty line. It currently ranks a lowly 141st on the HDI. Unfortunately, it also remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, which is a strong deterrent for foreign investments (except from China it seems). One of the key economic drivers of development is hydro-power. The country plans to become a major supplier of electricity to its neighboring countries by generating power from its large rivers. But this also makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change, and the region has been hit by a number of severe droughts in the last few years.

About Vientiane
Vientiane is the capital, economic center and largest city of the country with a population of about 750,000. It is located on the banks of the Mekong River, which forms the border between Laos and Thailand here. The first city in this area was most likely an early Khmer settlement. Vientiane has been a capital city since the 16th century, but there are not a lot of historic buildings left, since the city was completely destroyed and looted by the Siamese army in 1827. The destruction was so complete that the city was basically left abandoned and being overtaken by the forest until the French arrived in the late 19th century and started to rebuild the city. Vientiane was made the capital of the French protectorate in 1899.

I started my day of sightseeing at the overgrown black stupa of That Dam, which was right near my hotel.

My next stop was the Sisaket Temple in front of the royal palace. This is the oldest standing temple in Vientiane, built in 1818 it somehow survived the razing of the city by the Siamese army.

From here I walked to the Patuxai (or victory gate) monument, which was built between 1957 and 1968. Apparently the concrete used for the memorial was donated by the US for the purpose of a new airport. But the government instead decided to use it for a victory arch that is slightly higher than the Arc de Triomphe, just to top the French. it is possible to climb to the top of the building for some nice views over the whole city and the Mekong River in the distance.

The most prominent landmark in Vientiane is a bit outside of the city centre, but reachable easily in 10 minutes by tuk-tuk, which are cheap and available everywhere. The Buddhist stupa of Pha That Luang is the most famous building in Laos and its national symbol. It was originally built in 1566 and fully restored in 1953. The 45 meter high golden stupa is said to contain a relic of the Buddha himself.

Back near the city centre I took a walk along the river promenade. It is very quiet here during the day, but every night a huge and busy night market springs up, where you can buy almost anything you can think of.

On my walk near the river I came across this beautiful temple, called Wat Xieng Nyeun Temple.

Another popular site is Wat Si Muang temple, which is located about 1 km to the East of the city centre. The temple was originally built in 1563 on the ruins of a much older Khmer Hindu shrine. In front of the temple stands a statue of King Sisavang Vong. The temple is very colorful and a bit gaudy, but quite beautiful.

I made my way back to the hotel from here along the Mekong river. The border to Thailand runs along the middle of the river here.

Vientiane is not as spectacular as the more famous Luang Prabang, but it is a city worth visiting. It is a relaxed kind of place, with some beautiful temples, lots of nice outdoor restaurants and cafes.

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