VIENTIANE: LAOS’S LAID-BACK, VILLAGE-LIKE CAPITAL

VIENTIANE

VIENTIANE wrote Paul Theroux in 1975 in The Great Railway Bazaar , "is exceptional but inconvenient. The brothels are cheaper than the hotels, marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium is easier to find than a cold glass of beer." Vientiane has a changed a lot since the book was written: it has more or less returned to the sleepy French-Lao town it was before it was corrupted during the Vietnam War in the 1960s except there are a few more vehicles around and construction is taking placed in designated areas in accordance with rules that prohibit building more than seven stories tall. The brothel and bars that disappeared during the post-war period have returned somewhat but not nearly to the degree as they have in Phnom Penh, Saigon and especially Bangkok. Opium-smoking has shifted to the north to the Golden Triangle.

Situated on a bend of the Mekong River across from Thailand and known as Vieng Chan in Lao, Vientiane is capital and largest city of Laos but is still very small by international standard (with a population of 400,000 people in Vientiane proper and 800,000 in the region). A nice change if you are coming from a busy place like Bangkok or Saigon, it seems more like a large rural town than a city: most of the buildings are earth colored and one story; the atmosphere is dusty and peaceful. Until fairly there seems to be more chickens cruising the potholed streets than cars.

Rupak D Sharma of the Asian News Network wrote: “Upon my arrival in Vientiane, the first thing I noticed about the city was its remarkably low population density. It was Friday morning when I reached there but the streets gave an impression as if it was a weekend. When the weekend finally rolled in the next day, the thoroughfares looked completely deserted....I was waiting for a friend in front of KP Hotel when I started seeing foreign tourists. One, then another and another. In the span of around 20 minutes, when I stood there, I realised that on average every fourth person that I had come across was a foreigner. I didn’t know what to make out of it at first but later this explained a lot about the correlation between Laos’ scanty population and booming tourism industry. [Source: Rupak D Sharma, Asian News Network, May 2008]

Vientiane is pronounced “Viangchan” or “Wing Chan” and both it and Vientiane mean “Sandalwood City.” Vieng (Vien) in the Lao language means “the city”. Chantha (tiane) a Pali word, means sandalwood or the moon. Vientiane is the city of sandalwood and sandalwood is the symbol of Vientiane. It could also be the city of the moon, or the city where people respect the moon as their symbol. It is true however, that Lao people believe their origin to be from the moon, and even the design of the national flag has the image of the moon in its center. The name Vientiane is a French invention and French culture has remained more alive here than it has in other places in Laos. The French influence in architecture is still prevalent. Many street signs are still have French writing on them.

Vientiane is located on a fertile alluvial plain and became the center of a small fiefdom around A.D. 1000. In 1545, century King Phothisarat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom here from Luang Prabang to avoid Burmese aggression. The French made it capital of the Laos protectorate in the late 19th century. Many of the temples were rebuilt in the early 20th century after the city was sacked and destroyed by the Siamese in the 1820s. The Pathet Lao didn't add much after they took power in 1975 except for some blocky concrete buildings. The result is that there isn’t a whole to see and for many Vientiane is simply a stop before they head somewhere else, usually Luang Prabang, Most visitors arrive from Thailand via the Mitraphab (Friendship) Bridge, which was completed in 1994 and lies 19 kilometers away.

VIENTIANE HISTORY

According to myth, the city of Vientiane was created by the Naga Souvannanak (a cobra deity). The first name of Vientiane was “Ban Nong Khanthae Phiseuanam” It is said that it became “Vientiane” town under the leadership of the first Governor, Bourichan or Phraya Chanthabouly Pasitthisak, between 430-120 B.C. See History

In 1357 King Fa Ngoum held a grandiose celebration for the great victory of the unification of all Lao territories enhancing his prestige and power over the nobility throughout the Lan Xang Kingdom and the neighboring kingdoms. It was organized in the Pak Pasak area in present day Vientiane. In 1560, King Saysettha moved from Luang Prabang to declare Vientiane as the capital city of the Lan Xang kingdom, naming it “Nakorn Chanthabouly Sitta tanakhanahood Outtama Rajathany”

During the reign of King Souliyavongsa Thamikarat in the 17th century, Vientiane grew to become one of the most developed civilizations. The city was the center of administration for politics, socio-economics and culture. The kings were brave, clever and kind and people were happy. The palaces were very beautiful, looking like golden houses standing along the bank of the Mekong River. However, Vientiane was burnt down by Siames troops in 1828, and divided into two cities. The city on the right side of the Mekong River became part of Siam and the city on the left side remained part of Laos. At present, Vientiane is a smaller city, only half of its former size.

Vientiane hosted major ASEAN meetings in November 2004 and July 2005. In 2009 it hosted the 25th annual Southeast Asia Games and in 2010 it held a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the foundation of Vientiane as the Capital (1560-2010).

TOURIST INFORMATION FOR VIENTIANE

The National Tourism Authority of (NTAL) is located in Vientiane on Thanon Lan Xang between Talat Sao and Patuxai, across from center du Langue Franciase, ☎ (021)-212013. The National Tourism Authority of Laos (NTAL). Thanon Lan Xang between Talat Sao and Patuxai, ☎ (021)-212013. There is a small tourist office at the Vientiane Airport. These offices usually don't have much stuff.

Orientation: Vientiane is easy and comfortable to walk around. There is relatively little traffic—or at least there used to be—and it is small enough so that getting lost is not a problem. Most places of interest to tourist in Vientiane are located within a short distance of one another. The Mekong River is fairly wide and the city curves around the outside of a bend. In the old part of Vientiane city, along the Mekong River, there are temples, museums, monuments and parks are all located just a short distance apart.

Vientiane is divided into a series of ban , or small villages, usually built around local temples (wats). The four main districts are Muang Chathabul in the north, Muang Sisatatanak in the south, and Muang Xaisettha and MuangSikhottabong in the east and west. The older parts of the city are near its banks, where buildings are interspersed with vegetable plots and rice paddies with working water buffalo.

The central district of Muang Chathabuli lies at the center of the bend of the Mekong River. Most of the government offices, hotels, restaurants and historic buildings are here. The water fountain at Fountain Circle and Namphou Gardens is one of the mainland marks. Many of the top hotels and Western eating places are located here. The main shopping area is around Thanon Samsenthai (near the Asian Pavilion and Ekalath Metropole Hotels).

Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the three main roads run parallel to the river, while the largest and widest boulevard, Lane Xang Ave, runs from the Presidential Palace to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos. Most of the restaurants, cafes, guesthouses and hotels are in the main “downtown” area and getting around is easy on foot, by bicycle or by tuk tuk. There are several mini markets selling western food and other necessities. That Luang is a little further out and quite a long walk, so a bike or tuk tuk is a good idea, especially in the hot season. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

Vientiane covers a total area of 3,920 square kilometers. The main districts are called meung . These are broken up into baan, neighborhoods organized around local wats.. There are nine districts : Chanthabouly, Sikhottabong, Xaysettha, Sisattanak, Naxaithong, Xaythany, Hadxaifong, Sangthong and Park Ngum

For Other Kinds of Information such as lists of hotels, restaurants, tour agencies, post offices, telephone offices, shops, bookstores, night clubs, sports places, theaters, swimming pools, embassies, churches, and airline agents, maps, hospitals, pharmacies, car rentals and bike and moped rentals, consult the Lonely Planet Guides.

ENTERTAINMENT AND RESTAURANTS IN VIENTIANE

Entertainment: At night it is possible to enjoy bars and music venues of many types. Some of the most popular venues for a sunset beer are the small outside local “cafes” which spring up along the river front every night, only to be packed up again at the end of business. Locals favor places that offer traditional ramwong dancing and Thai-style disco dancing. Lao yuppies and Thai and Chinese businessmen drift to the upscale hotels and restaurant and karaokes. European and American expatriates generally hang out at the Khopchaideu Restaurant-Bar or Samlo Pub. Some clubs have live Laotians bands that play Western pop music.

Several discos, karaokes and nightclubs are found in the large hotels. Most of bars with hostesses and prostitutes are located by the river. Most of the movies shown in Vientiane are Hong Kong action films shown at video rooms. The mammoth Lao National Culture Hall hosts cultural events such Lao classical dance. Occasionally the circus performs. There are also many, many places to get a relaxing foot or body massage, either in traditional Lao style or a more gentle oil one. A calendar of events may be obtained from the tourist offices. Also check out the Vientiane newspapers, the Lonely Planet books, and posters put up around town.

Restaurants: The best, swankiest and healthiest restaurants are generally located in and around the major hotels. Hygiene is an important consideration when choosing a restaurant in Vientiane. Laotian food, French food, French-Laotian food, Chinese food, Vietnamese food, Thai food, Japanese food, Indian food, Korean food, pizza, and other international cuisines are all available in Vientiane, which doesn't yet have a McDonalds (but is does have Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut)

Vientiane has excellent French restaurants, bakeries and pastry shops. wine. French-influenced specialities include pate sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes. Good French wine is Laos available. A good place to sample Laotian food is at the Dong Palan night, market, where numerous small restaurants and food stalls offer soups, meals and snacks. The food is good but risky from a health point of view. There are lots of noodle shops and sidewalk eateries and vendors that offer sticky rice and grilled chicken and papaya salad. Talaat Thong Khan Kham (on the corner of Thanon Khan Kham and Thanon Dong Miang) is the most popular food market in Vientiane.

SHOPPING IN VIENTIANE

Shopping: Vientiane has several markets which offer vegetables, fruits, pig heads, tools, cheap Chinese-made kitchen items as well as a respectable selection of souvenirs, gifts, and interesting items. Many visitors go to the Morning Market (Talet Sao) and Nong Duan Market near Wat Sawang and the shopping areas at Thanon Samsenthai (near the Asian Pavilion and Ekalath Metropole Hotels) and Thanon Setthathilat and Thanon Pangkam.

The city’s main shopping streets are Samsenthai and Setthathirat, around the Nam Phu Fountain area and the Morning Market. The Morning Market (at the eastern corner of the Thanon Lan Xang and Thanon Khu Vieng) is open all day despite its name, roughly from 7:00am to 4:00pm. About a 10 to15 minutes walk from the center of town, it features a wide assortment of goods, including wood carvings, cheap Chinese manufactured goods, silverware, gold jewelry, traditional textiles, furniture, and fish wrapped in banana leaves. In the old days it offered bottles of vodka sold by impoverished Russian Embassy. Sometimes Laos’s minister of finance showed up to sell quail eggs before going to his government office.

Talaat Thong Khan Kham (on the corner of Thanon Khan Kham and Thanon Dong Miang) is the most popular food market in Vientiane. On Thanon Pangkam.and Thanon Pangkam there are some shops that specialize in hill tribe crafts. Thanon Samsenthai is a good place to shop for jewelry. Around town, you can also find shops selling Chinese herbal medicines, paper handicrafts, silk items, ceramics, Laotian musical instruments and hill tribe fabrics. There is also a small night market along the riverfront selling ethnic goods. For fine handicrafts and art, try one of the many upscale galleries in the city center. Keep your eyes open for traditional wood carvings, mulberry paper and a variety of basketry made from bamboo and rattan.

Laotian Silk and Textiles: Vientiane is famous for Laotian silk, an art form that has been brought to life after the war period thanks in part to the efforts of an American named Carol Cassidy who has set up a cooperative in 1990 in a refurbished French colonial mansion at Laos Textiles (Nokeo Kumman near Place Namphou). The 40 or so weavers use traditional methods and earn up to three times average national wage.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “ The best textile sources are Oudone Phimphrachanh's atelier (by appointment; Ban Dongpalane; 011-856-21-415-598; www.oudone.com); Lao Textiles, Carol Cassidy's showroom and workshop (Nokeo Khoumane Road, Ban Mixay; 011-856-21-212-123; www.laotextiles.com); Phaeng Mai Gallery for silk scarves and wall hangings and workroom tours (117 Nongbouathong Tai, 011-856-21-217-341); and Kanchana for Bouasonkham Sisane's chic traditional offerings (140 Samsenthai Road, Thatdam Square; 011-856-21-213-467; kanchana--sisane@hotmail.com). Sisane's family also owns the adjacent Lao Textile Museum. Talat Sao, Vientiane's morning market, is open until late afternoon and has textiles at very reasonable prices. Quality antique pieces are difficult to find: try Madam Chanthone Thatanakham's Antique Lao Textiles; she has a stall in the market, but the real treasures are at her home (by appointment; 011-856-21-312-390). [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

HOTELS AND TRANSPORT IN VIENTIANE

Accommodation: Vientiane has almost 100 hotels and guesthouses. Only a handful of hotels would be considered comfortable by international travelers. Many new hotels have been built in recent years however and hotels that were once top-end are now considered business class.

Many of the high priced hotels are in the tourist neigborhood around the city’s central water fountain. The most luxurious hotel is the Imperial Hotel. The recently-privatized Million Elephants Hotel on the banks of the Mekong River is the largest hotel in Laos. Other comfortable hotels include the Asian Pavilion.

There are dozens guest houses used by foreign travelers, scattered around the city. The lower range ones are used by backpackers and the mid range ones by NGO workers. They are located near the Morning Market.

The tourist office in Vientiane and the hotel information desk at the airport can help you find a luxury or standard hotel. The Lonely Planet books have good lists of cheap accommodation options. Hotel touts wait outside the airport and on the Laos side of the Friendship Bridge for new arrivals. Taxi drivers will take you to a hotel that earns them a commission.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “Stay at the Settha Palace Hotel, a French colonial grande dame (www.setthapalace.com; doubles from $128) or Green Park Boutique Hotel (www.greenparkvientiane.com; doubles from $100). [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

Transportation: Taxis are fairly cheap and they are the easiest way to get around. A taxi ride across town should cost you no more than $1.50. Tuk tuks, pedicabs and motorcycle taxis are also available. Bicycles and motorscooters can be rented. Bikes can be hired from many places around town from between 10,000 and 20,000 kip per day. All the roads in Laos capital are now paved and there is good street lighting. Don't bother with the buses. Many people find that it easy to get around on foot.

Bus Stations and Boat Stations: Speedboats and Cargo boats leave from Kao Liaw Boating landing, about eight kilometers from the city center. Vientiane has three bus stations: 1) the Central Bus Terminal, 2) Northern Bus Terminal, 1) and Southern Bus Terminal. Central Bus Terminal: Locally known as Khua Din or Talat Sao (Morning Market) bus station, is located in between the Morning Market and Khua Din Market. It has bus services to nearby places in and around the capital city (City Bus), a few further destinations in Laos, and northeast Thailand. It is also possible to catch a bus to Vang Vieng, Thakaek, Savannakhet or Pakse here, but the other stations have better buses and more frequent departures for these routes.

Northern Bus Terminal: Located on Sithong Road (relocated from T2 road), around 7 kilometers from city centre. This is the main departure point for buses to northern destinations, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang Xiengkhuang and other provinces as well as buses to China. Buses to Luang Prabang takes 11 hours. Southern Bus Terminal: Located on Kaysone Phomvihane Avenue (or road 13 south) in Dong Dok, around 8 kilometers from city centre. This is the main departure point for buses to the south as well as buses to Cambodia and Vietnam.

FIRST FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE BETWEEN THAILAND AND LAOS

The First Friendship (Mittaphan) bridge across the Mekong River connects the Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng. Built mostly with Australia money, it opened in 1994 and is 1,174 meters long and 19 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, the capital and main city in Laos. The bridge has two 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 in) wide road lanes, two 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 in) wide footpaths and a single 1,000 mm gauge railway line in the middle, straddling the narrow central reservation.

Opened on April 8, 1994, it was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and the second on the full course of the Mekong. The cost was about $30 million, funded by the Australian government as development aid for Laos. The bridge was built by Australian companies as a demonstration of their ability to complete major infrastructural projects in Southeast Asia. The official name of the bridge was changed by the addition of "First" after the Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge further south at Savannakhet opened in January 2007. [Source: Wikipedia]

Traffic on the bridge drives on the left, as in Thailand, while traffic in Laos drives on the right. The changeover at the Lao end, just before the border post, is controlled by traffic lights. A shuttle bus service operates across the bridge, between the Lao and Thai border posts. The bridge is part of the AH12 Asian Highway Network. A metre-gauge rail track from Nong Khai station runs along the centre of the bridge. Road traffic is stopped when a train is crossing.

On March 20, 2004, an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments was signed to extend the railway to Thanaleng Railway Station in Laos, about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the bridge. This will be the first railway link to Laos (but not the first railway, as a short portage line once existed). The Thai government agreed to finance the line through a combination of grant and loan. Construction formally began on January 19, 2007. Test trains began running on July 4, 2008. Formal inauguration occurred on March 5, 2009.

On February 22, 2006, approval of funding for the rail line from Thanaleng Railway Station to Vientiane, about 9 kilometer, was announced by the French Development Agency. In November 2010 plans to extend the service from Thanaleng to Vientiane were abandoned. A posited high-speed rail link from China to Thailand through Laos would make the extension redundant. It would also necessitate the construction of a new bridge near to the current First Friendship Bridge. In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's revised plan prioritises domestic rail expansion over the ambitious regional connectivity plan spearheaded by China. Since February 2010 the Eastern and Oriental Express crosses the Mekong via the bridge into Laos.

SIGHTS IN VIENTIANE

Vientiane Capital is the home to the most significant national monument in Laos : That Luang (Great Stupa), which is the symbol of Lao sovereignty and an icon of Buddhism in Laos. Of the many beautiful Wats in Vientiane, a visit to Wat Sisaket is a must; built in 1818, this is one of the oldest temples in Vientiane. Other Buddhist holy places are Wat Ong Teu Mahavihan, known for its 16th century bronze Buddha sheltered by a carved wooden masterpiece, and Wat Si Muang, The site of the lak meuang or pillar-stone of Vientiane. The Wat Si Muang is the home to the guardian spirit of the city. Hor Pha Keo, across the street from Wat Sisaket houses a beautiful collection of Buddha statues, including traditional Lao style of the "Calling for Rain" and "Offering Protection". Spend a morning in the Lao National Museum, which displays an interesting mixture of revolutionary and contemporary exhibitions. The main sights in Vientiane are only a short walk or bicycle ride from most hotels. Wat Xieng Khouan, better known as the Buddha Park should not be missed: take a tuk-tuk to this unique park that includes Buddhist and Hindu statues.

It is pleasant to stroll around and visit the city and visit temples. Some temples (Wat Si Saket, That Luang and Haw Pha Kaew) charge a small entry fee. Remember the dress rules – women should wear modest clothes (covered arms and at least knee-length shorts and skirt) and men try to wear long pants. Shoes should be removed before entering a temple. Once a month, local monks gather at the Sangha College (Wat Ongteu) for Monk Chat with tourists.

Mekong Riverside Promenade (along the Mekong River) is paved with bricks and has a few concrete benches, banyan trees and 200-year-old teak trees. The recent riverfront redevelopment added more public space and green areas to the city. King Anouvong Park locating on the river bank behind the Presidential Palace is a part of the project. This is the best place to watch sunset in Vientiane.In the park there are gym equipments for the public use and to use for free. There is also children play ground a bit further up, thanks to the Korean government for installation of these. During the rainy season there are good views of the river. In the dry season, the river recedes hundreds of meters towards Thailand and in some places crops are planted along the flood plain.

Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi wrote in Natural History magazine, The banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos, can be a lovely retreat at sunset. The river sweeps alongside the city in a wide elbow curve, offering a panoramic view of tranquil waters and tree-lined shores. Thailand rests on the opposite bank, seeming farther away than its half-mile distance. And as the setting sun lights the water ablaze, birds skim the surface, and fish make themselves known with the occasional splash, making an evening walk along the riverbank a pure delight.” But on one one visit we made our way “through the city to the river, anticipating a cool breeze and a quiet walk after a sweltering workday, only to stare into a scene from the desert. Clouds of dust rose from the riverbed, where a group of kids were playing soccer. Beyond that bone-dry sandbar, a vestige of the river was just visible as a thin stream along the far bank. By all appearances, one could easily have walked across to Thailand.[Source: Eleanor J. Sterling and Merry D. Camhi, Natural History magazine, December 2007]

Patuxai (in the middle of town) commemorates Laotian soldiers who have died fighting communists. Completed in 1969 and sometimes described as the vertical runway, because it made from the cement that was supposed to be used at the airport, it is sort of a baroque version of Arce de Triumph with distinctly Laotian bas-reliefs and decorations. There are good views from the roof which can be reached by several flights of stairs. Near Tat Luang Square you can see a new War Memorial dedicated to communists that have died in combat.

Lao National History Museum (Thanon Samsenthai, across the street from Lao National Culture Hall) is housed in the former French governor's mansion. Formally known as the Lao Revolutionary Museum, it contains some Khmer sandstone sculpture of Hindu deities, a display of traditional musical instruments and room dedicated to the French colonial period, the struggle for independence, the civil war and the victory by the Pathet Lao in 1975. Of particular interest is a chest expander used by President Khamtay Siphandone, President of Laos from 1998 to 2006, and a diorama of a Pathet Lao cave.

Other Sights in Vientiane include the Unknown Soldier Memorial, Peoples Assembly Building, and the heavily guarded home of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party hierarchy, which used to be the U.S. high school gymnasium. Several European buildings can be seen around Place Namphou.

A gold-plated $8 million museum honoring the establishment of Communist regime in 1975 and Kaysone Phomviahne, Laos’s first Prime Minister, opened in 1995 and was improved in 2001. On display are some photographs of Kaysone Phomvihane, the leader of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, and some of his personal belongings, including hsi electric razor, comb and pin pong paddle. Outside is 30-foot cast of statue of Kaysone depicted with a pot belly and tight-fitting suit.

Sights Near Vientiane: In the past there were restriction on foreigners traveling outside of Vientiane and some were even arrested for venturing more than five kilometers outside the capital without a guide. These restrictions were relaxed in the mid-1990s. Around Vientiane you can go kayaking and white-water rafting, visit Tha Ngon floating fish restaurant Buddha Park or go trekking through nature parks, such as Nam Ngum Lake, the Nam Lik eco-adventure area, and Phou Khao Khouay national park.

Just off of route 13 north are two of Vientiane Province’s better known attractions – a small man-made reservoir known as Nong Nok near Ban Sivilay that has great bird watching and the ancient Vang Xang Buddha images and sculptures that are carved into the side of a sandstone escarpment. See Below

PHA THAT LUANG

PHA THAT LUANG (four kilometers northeast of the city center) is the most interesting structure in Vientiane and the most important national monument in Laos: a spiked, golden-spired stupa that is surrounded by 30 smaller golden spires. It reportedly contains a piece Buddha’s breastbone and one of his hairs, which are said to have been placed here in the 3rd century B.C. by missionaries of the Indian king Asoka. The temple’s full name means “World-Precious Sacred Stupa.”

Archeologists estimate the original structure was built between the 11th and 13th centuries. The original version of the present structures were built in the mid 16th century. Only two of the original wats built around the chedi remain: Wat That Luang Neua and Wat That Luang Tai. The monument was badly damaged in the 18th and 19th centuries by invading Thai and Burmese armies and restored badly by the French in 1900. A better job was done in the 1930s The entire monument was regilded in 1995 to mark the 20th anniversary of Laos’s Communist takeover of the country.

The main level of Pha That Luang measures 68-x-69 meters and has 323 ordination stones and four arched prayer gates. The second level is 48-x-48 meters and is surrounded by 120 lotus pedals and 30 small stupas representing the 30 Buddhist perfections. The stupas once contained smaller gold stupas and gold leaves but these were stolen by Chinese bandits in the 19th century. The next level is 30-x-30 meters. The tall central stupa is made of brick, covered by stucco, surrounded by more lotus flower images and is topped by banana flower and parasol images. The entire monument stands 45 meters high.

Pha That Luang is designed to be walked on. It is possible to climb several staircases to a terrace with a good view of the city. Every level has Buddhist doctrines that are meant to be meditated on by the faithful. At certain times of the year the temple attracts pilgrims from all over Laos who walk around it in a clockwise fashion as you should do if you stroll around its base.

The Golden Stupa or Pha That Luang is the focal point of Vientiane’s most important Buddhist festival: Boun That Luang, which is held over a three to seven day period during the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (November, but sometimes October). The stupa’s of three levels—the base, the body and the spire— are the symbol of the Cosmos. The ancient stupa was built over in the 16th century by King Setthathirath when he moved the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. It has since become the symbol of Laos and is profoundly revered by all Lao People.

LEGENDS AND HISTORY OF PHA THAT LUANG

Phon Khikeo wrote in the Vientiane Times, “Pha That Luang was originally built during the ancient Khmer civilisation, when Vientiane was inhabited by people known as the ‘Cham’. Researchers believe the structure was originally a four-sided stone obelisk. The site was built as a place for people to worship and pray to idol, according to the book “That Luang Viengchanh,” recompiled by Kavi in 1999. The structure was renovated during the reign of King Saysetthathirath in the 16th century when the original site was covered with a larger stupa. From then on the monument took the name That Luang, or Grand Stupa. The Cham period was the second wave of Buddhism and was a glorious period in Lao history. [Source:Phon Khikeo, Vientiane Times, November 7, 2011, Laos-Guide-999.com]

During the first wave, under the patronage of King Ashoka India, it is said, the venerable monks Sona and Outala and five scholars brought a piece of what believers understand to be pieces of the pelvic bone (others say breast bone or bosom bone) f Lord Buddha to Vientiane in 218 BCE, where it was kept at Phou Luang hill. The ruler of Vientiane at that time, Lord Chanthabouly Phasitthisack or Boulichanh, built a stupa over the obelisk in 236 BCE. The sacred site was then named Pha Chedi Lokachulamany.

According to the legend of That Phanom Stupa, also known as ‘Tamnan Oulangkhathat’, King Ashokkamahalath authorized the relics to be placed inside That Luang Stupa in Vientiane. The same legend claims the remains of Lord Buddha were distributed to all corners of the globe where there were Buddhist followers and his ashes were put inside 84,000 stupas. This number corresponds to the 84,000 points raised for believers to study in the tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures).

In its early form, Pha That Luang was not as high as it is now, but after Lord Buddha’s ashes were placed at the site and a new stupa was built around the original obelisk, the monument took on its current shape and grew in importance as a place of worship for Lao Buddhists.

According to legend, which is supported by physical evidence found from the reign of King Jayavoraman VII of Angkor, the original obelisk was indeed an ancient Cham construction that was built sometime between the 9th and 14th centuries. Many artifacts have been discovered at the site including a statue of Jayavoraman VII dating from between AD 1181 and 1219, which is presently located at the northern end of the inner cloister.

The story of Pha That Luang became clear at the beginning of the 16th century, which is known among historians as the middle of the ancient Lao period. King Saysetthathirath ordered the construction of the current stupa in AD 1566, six years after designating Vientiane as the capital of Laos. Previously, the capital was situated in what is now Luang Prabang (then known as Xiengthong). King Saysetthathirath built the grand stupa so the new capital would have an equally splendid place of worship similar to the Grand Stupa in Chiang Mai, which at that time was the capital of the neighbouring Lane Na kingdom, now northern Thailand.

The king wanted to project himself as a patron of Buddhism and to achieve enlightment like the Lord Buddha, but before doing so he needed to make merit in all aspects of his life. He also wanted a site where he could hold an annual festival that would provide an occasion to test the loyalty of his chief administrators from all corners of the Lan Xang kingdom. This festival would also pay homage to the gods and to King Fa Ngum, who is attributed with bringing the third wave of Buddhism to Laos.

Through this annual event, the king wanted the people of the Lan Xang kingdom to come together to make merit and observe religious practices, celebrate together and consolidate solidarity, strengthening the kingdom to ensure it remained intact. The festival (now know as That Luang Festival) has been held every year since. Because King Saysetthathirath wanted to be a Bhothiyana, an enlightened one, he came up with the idea of surrounding the main stupa with 30 smaller stupas of equal size known as Palami (fulfillment of goodness) stupas.

At the base of each small stupa, a flattened plate of gold was inscribed with words depicting ariyasat (the four noble truths - the essence of Lord Buddha’s teachings). These plates also contain information of the date of the renovation of the stupa to its current size and can still be seen today inside the cloister at the eastern entrance of That Luang. The wording on the fourth line of plates reads: “This stupa contains the ashes of Lord Buddha and was built by King Saysetthathirath. May it last for more than 5,000 years."The revered sacred place has been worn out over time and damaged by wars perpetrated by foreign imperialists. Whenever the country was invaded, religious and sacred places of worship such as That Luang were among the first targets for looting and indiscriminate destruction.

WATS IN VIENTIANE

Wat Phra Keo (near the Presidential Palace on Sethathirat Street) is where the famous Emerald Buddha was kept after it was taken from the Thai kings in 1778. It was returned in the 1930s and now rests at a temple in Bangkok. Also known as Haw Pha Kaew, Wat Phra Keo was rebuilt between 1936 and 1942 and is said to have been established in 1565. Large but a bit shabby, it is now a museum with notable Buddha images on a terrace and a collection of other sculptures and objects, including some of the best examples of Buddhist art in Laos. Among the treasures are Buddhist statues that date back to the 6th century and inscibed Mon, Khmer and Lao stelae. Next door is the Presidential Palace, the former King's Palace.

Wat Sisaket (Land Xang Avenue, across the street from Wat Phra Keo) is the oldest temple and monastery in Vientiane. Built in 1818, it is the most Burmese- and Thai-looking wat and the only wat that wasn't destroyed in the 1828 Siamese raid. It contains painted murals and has 6,800 (same say 10,136) Buddha images, including 2000 silver and ceramic ones, of various shapes and sizes in the niches of the walls.

Wat Si Muang and the Pillar of Vientiane (intersection of Thanon Setthathilat, Thaon Samsenthat and Thanon Tha Deua) has gaudy statues of guardian spirits and demons. The main object of devotion in not a Buddha figure but a lak meuang (city pillar), regarded as the dwelling place for guardian spirit of the city. The site was reportedly chosen in 1565 where a pregnant woman lept in a hole to offer herself as a sacrifice for the guardian spirit. One special Buddha on a pillow is said to have the power to grant wishes if it is lifted three times while making a mental image of the request. Platters of bananas, coconuts and flowers have been left behind by people whose wishes were fulfilled.

Other Interesting Temples: Wat That Khoa (on the Mekong River) is a traditional-style Vientiane wat with thick walls and a serpent on the edge of the roof. At Wat Sok Pa (take a tuk tuk there) you can get herbal sauna massages in an open air teak building by an experienced and skilled masseuse. An interesting black stupa can be found at That Dam (across the street from the Imperial Hotel).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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