After a delicious breakfast of cereal, yoghurt, excellent Lao coffee, breads, spreads and most importantly for our girls, pain au chocolat, Mike took us into Vientiane for an orientation tour. Another two guests are staying at Jungle House, so there were seven of us including Mike in the party. Much to the delight of the kids, this meant that two people got to sit in the tray of the twin cab ute as we traveled.
Mike took us past many places of interest, all the while putting them into their historical and often their political context. We passed Pha That Luang, the Victory Monument, and That Dam.
Vientiane is a city that has been razed to the ground and then restored and reconstructed a number of times throughout its history. There are only four original buildings still standing. There is evidence of building throughout the city – often very tall concrete structures built by the Chinese, in locations that make me scratch my head wondering about the appeal. Lots of these buildings are empty. The building in the above photograph is a new market building with three levels of car parking available on the top stories – except there is no way to actually GET to the car parking on the top three stories! Highly incongruous.
At a number of significant statues, from those of Fa Ngum to Sisavangvong, Mike was able to describe the history of the country and shifts in power and occupation that have taken place. As per Wikipedia: Present day Laos traces its historic and cultural identity to the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which existed for four centuries as one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Due to Lan Xang’s central geographical location in Southeast Asia, the kingdom was able to become a popular hub for overland trade, becoming wealthy economically as well as culturally. After a period of internal conflict, Lan Xang broke off into three separate kingdoms— Luang Phabang, Vientiane and Champasak. In 1893, it became a French protectorate, with the three territories uniting to form what is now known as the country of Laos. It briefly gained independence in 1945 after Japanese occupation, but returned to French rule until it was granted autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953, with a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong. Shortly after independence, a long civil war ended the monarchy, when the Communist Pathet Lao movement came to power in 1975.
As is the case in much of South East Asia, Wats abound in the city. I’ll steal some more information from Wikipedia: Laos has an area of 85,000 square miles (220,000 km2) and contains a population of 7.2 million. Almost all ethnic or “lowland” Lao (Lao Loum and Lao Lom) are followers of Theravada Buddhism; however, they constitute only 40-50% of the population. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic groups (30%) are practitioners of Laotian folk religion, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups. Laotian folk religion is predominant among most Lao Theung, Lao Sung, the Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Tibeto-Burman groups. Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist phi religious beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2% of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Bahá’í faith, Mahayana Buddhism, and Chinese folk religions. A very small number of citizens are atheist or agnostic.
We had lunch at a lovely little restaurant that would once have been beside the Mekong River, but thanks to a new road that runs alongside the river is now a little way away. The road was built for flood control purposes, which is probably now a moot point because of the amount of dams that have been built across the Mekong. We ate local dishes and enjoyed our first beerlao. The dish in one of the photos above is a river weed that has been fried so that it is crispy – a bit like potato chips, I suppose! It was very tasty.
After lunch we returned to Jungle House for a refreshing swim, some time playing the Sims, and the chance to debrief about our day and ask yet more questions. We’d had a terrific overview of the city and the development of the country. We were also rather fascinated by these palm leaf books.
There is so much to learn and so much information to take in and synthesise, both about the country’s past and about current ways of life. We ended our day with Mike’s wonderful gin and tonic, a delicious meal cooked by Xioukiet, and a great deal of conversation with both our hosts and the other guests. As is often the case when travelling, one question leads to another and yet another. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of Laos.