The second day of our 2009 visit to Vientiane we set off to vist two of the must see sites for all visitors to Vientiane. First on our lsit was the Great Sacred Stupa (Pha That Luang). For reasons obvious to anyone that has been there or seen any pictures of the place, this temple is also known by some as the Great Golden Stupa.
The approach to the Great Sacred Stupa is across a broad barren courtyard that reminded me somewhat of a shopping mall parking lot. Along the edges were vendors selling drinks & snacks and others selling souvenirs. We let our emotions get the better of us and succumb to the pitch of a vendor selling small birds that we were allowed to set free. I know there is some symbolism in the act of granting freedom to a caged creature but I also know that the same vendor probably would catch the same birds that evening and allow another tourist to free them the next day.
Once inside the entry gates the complex is a great collection of outer corridors bordering manicured courtyards leading to vistas and entries into the inner buildings; all with a heavy dose of gold. In addition to the collection of gold spired stupas with the Grand Sacred Stupa as the centerpiece, there are several other buildings with striking rooflines inside the gates.
From the Golden Stupa, it was a short drive to our 2nd landmark stop of the day, the iconic Patuxal Arch.
Built in 1960, the Patuxa Arch, also known as the Gate of Triumph, reminds many of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Patuxa honors Lao soldiers killed in the line of duty. It is centered on a wide boulevard with a number of roads radiating off of it in different directions. On the walls and ceiling inside of the arch are traditional Lao designs and at the top is an observation deck that provides some of the best views of the city available that extend all the way out to the horizon. We found the mix of visitors that included families with small children, Buddhist Monks, teenaged Laos, senior citizens and tourists among others to be an interesting collection.
Despite its name the old Talat Sao Morning Market is actually open till 4:00 pm and that’s where we grabbed lunch and spent part of our afternoon shopping. This is an old style 2 floor Asian shopping center with lots of stalls, many of them selling exactly the same thing. With a little bargaining, this is a good place to pick up inexpensive t-shirts, “antiques” (the parenthesis are for the questionable pedigree of some of what is presented as being ancient), textiles, handicrafts and other souvenirs of your visit to Vientiane. You can find goldsmiths and other jewelry on the top floor but again; we would suggest some caution when considering a big ticket purchase. But if you know what you are doing, have at it.
When we finished our shopping we walked outside to grab a tuk-tuk but found for some reason, the drivers in Vientiane wanted more than double what we had experience paying anywhere else in Lao (including Luang Prabang). After walking away from a couple of them after meeting no movement in negotiating the price, we finally bit the bullet and paid the going fare for a ride back to the hotel.
That night, we went to Bounmala, a terrific locals’ grilled chicken and beer place for dinner. You can read more about that on our Vientiane Restaurants page.
We had originally planned to spend our last day and half and final night in Loa out in the countryside at the Lao Pako Eco Resort Hide-away. We awoke the next morning to heavy rain, checked out of the hotel and headed out of town. Our driver wasn’t familiar with the place so we spent a good while trying to find the right turns. We drove up and down the paved road and then up and down some dirt roads that were getting muddier and slicker by the minute. We finally reached the landing we were directed to be only to be told that it was no longer being used and we had to drive another half hour down the muddy road. At that point, the thought of continuing to look for this place coupled with the thought of trekking and other outdoor activities in the middle of the jungle in the middle of a rain storm, we decided to cancel the Eco Resort night and spend the time back in Vientiane.
The 3 friends we were traveling with are from Australia so they had an interest in having a look at The First Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, which in fact was funded by the Australian government as aid for Laos. It’s a little bit of a drive from the city center but it was still raining when we arrived at the bridge. So we broke out the rain gear and started walking across. There are barricades half way across, which mark the border with Thailand. We reached that point and waved at the people doing the same thing from the other side and then headed back.
We had an excellent lunch at a very local place along side the road on the way back to town. The larb was very good but there were some unidentifiable bits in there that I told my wife were mushrooms as I’m not sure she would have appreciated knowing the true origin of what she was eating.
Earlier in the week, one of our friends had looked at and liked an older local hotel (I’m afraid I don’t recall the hotel name) on the riverfront that we decided to check out. The desk clerk took us to each of the available rooms as each was different. We decided on a large room with in suite and lots of dark heavy woodwork and furniture. Our friends were on the same floor in a larger room for 3. There was an interior garden wooden deck between where we enjoyed a bottle of red before taking the short walk back to Makphet for our last dinner in Lao.
The next morning, before our flight to Bangkok, we took one final look at Lao weavings at Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles workshop, studio and gallery creates woven art. Carol is an American who has lived and studied weaving all over the world and been a weaver herself since the age of 17. She came to Lao in 1989 as a part of a United Nations Development Program and eventually started Lao Textiles a year later.
We had the address and reached the French Colonial building formally used as a home but had to ring a bell and ask for admittance. The lack of photos of our visit there on this page is due to posted “no photography” signs but we didn’t see any “no video” signs so you can see some scenes from there towards the end of our Vientiane video .
We were fortunate to meet Carol Cassidy that day and enjoyed a nice conversation with her as my wife has a special interest in weaving as well. She has gathered a room full of master weavers producing some of the finest silk textiles found anywhere in the world. Her customers range from Parisian houses of haute couture to furniture designers to interior decorators to simple tourists with an appreciation of fine weaving like us. Our visit there provided us with a view of another part of the incredible weaving scene in Lao.
And from there, we were off to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.
Click here for a video of our visit to Vientiane that includes most of what is described on this page plus some other scenes from our trip.