25.03.2011 - 26.03.2011 32 °C
25th March 2011
The plan today was to visit the Victory Gate and the Golden Stupa, but first things first! The banging and screeching from the bathroom pipe work was just too much to bear through the night so, after breakfast, we asked the receptionist for a different room. He duly obliged and we stood in the new room listening to exactly the same overture that had been playing all night! Opting for a change of venue instead, the both of us checked out and trudged to a hostel we had discovered last night. It was much cheaper, with a decent room, but was run like a little military camp! Rules and regulations were plastered on every wall! It did, however, seem to work because the place was very clean and reasonably quiet – just what we needed!
After dropping off our bags in Stalag 17 we went in search of the Victory Gate but spotted a lovely temple close by. It turned out to be Wat Sisaket, the oldest surviving monastery in Vientiane. Built in the Thai style with five roofs overlapping one another, it was probably this design that saved it from destruction when Siam attacked and razed Vientiane in 1828. Unfortunately (as has become familiar for us on our travels) the place was closed when we arrived, but was due to open at 1pm, meaning a wait of around half an hour. We opted to hang around so walked the perimeter of the monastery. There was much restoration work in progress at the time, with a huge section of roof on one of the cloister buildings completely devoid of tiles, with only a ripped, blue tarpaulin flapping in the breeze covering the gaping holes. Other areas were sectioned off and not open to the public. At the very back of the monastery bright orange robes hung over washing lines and railings while a few monks milled around and on the western side was a large, stone construction, with an ornate door, housing a massive wooden cabinet in desperate need of some repair. It must have looked amazing in its day, though, as it was of red lacquer with intricate gold designs on the interior panels, the external black lacquer now completely faded. It was used to house the sacred palm leaf Buddha texts and manuscripts. Opening time soon came and, once we had paid the 10,000 kip entrance fee (about 80 pence!) we were inside the cloisters for real. It housed over 2000 Buddha images! The majority of them were only a few inches high and were placed in thousands of niches cut neatly into the walls, but the larger images were of polished black stone and were adorned with sashes of bright orange, yellow and gold – really striking. The insides of the main hall were decorated with paintings depicting scenes from the past lives of the Buddha but, alas, photography in the hall was prohibited.
Eager to see as much as we could today we finished up here, walked back out into the bright day and blistering heat, and headed in the direction of the Victory Gate, ignoring passing taxis and tuk-tuks as we thought the walk would be nice. We didn’t realise it was so far away! We were both exhausted and more than a little hot by the time we made it to the self-proclaimed ‘monster of concrete’ – Patuxai which literally means Victory Gate. Started in 1962 it was never completed and a blue plaque affixed to the monument actually declares ‘From a closer distance it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete’!! We didn’t think it was that bad to be honest and some of the adornments on the walls and ceiling were lovely. If you have the energy you can walk the many steps to the top and, despite our long walk so far, Stew decided to do just that while Jen plumped for a sit on a bench! The climb was not too bad and is split into a number of different floors, each one housing a small souvenir market! The very top, though, affords a wonderful 360 degree view of the city.
By the time we had restarted our walk, we were hot, hungry and thirsty so, now heading towards the famed Golden Stupa, we found the perfect fillip – a pizza parlour! We devoured our meals in the cool of the air-conditioned interior and slaked our thirsts with ice-cold drinks before setting off once again, wondering if we were ever going to reach the stupa! It was an epic walk in that heat but we made it and it was worth every step – the stupa was quite an incredible sight, the sun glinting off the brilliant gold edifice. We had to walk through the obligatory souvenir market sitting just outside the site before we arrived at the most incredibly colourful scene you could imagine! Sitting proudly, high on his golden throne, was a fabulous statue of King Settat Thirat, smiling down at everyone walking the pink tiles towards the stupa. In front of the King was a small garden of brilliant coloured flowers fenced off with a pure white, wooden railing and a bright red parasol opened in the sunlight. The stupa itself is the most important structure in Laos and is indeed its National Monument. So should it be as it is quite magnificent. The original structure was looted and sacked by a number of invaders as it was made of gold and over the years a number of restorations have been made, the last being in the 1930s by the French. Said to hold a relic of the Buddha inside, it is a massive edifice and we were so lucky to see it on such a beautiful, sunny day. It radiated light from every angle and, against the bright blue sky, it was a wonderful sight. Brilliant hues were all over – on Buddha images, dragons, serpents, flowers, trees, statues – everywhere! Ornate iron gates at the top of steps kept the eager inquisitives like us from venturing any further into the stupa. Either side of the Golden Stupa were amazing temples and monasteries of brilliant white and dazzling golds and reds, with their wonderful red roofs nestled on top of one another and the ornamental golden chofahs pointing skywards. Close by a monk worked in his garden while in another corner a massive stone reclining Buddha drew our attention. Other halls had vibrant painted scenes depicting the lives and the teachings of Buddha and golden images draped in saffron sashes, whilst the air was rich with the perfumes of smouldering incense sticks. It was a feast for all the senses and as we drifted from building to building and hall to hall we were completely unaware of the time until we were gently informed that the stupa was closing and it was time for us to leave. We left slowly, taking more photos as the sun sank lower in the skies and walked back through the small market, now almost completely devoid of tourists, and towards the road. Our feet just could not manage the long march home and we commandeered a tuk tuk after haggling with him for a few minutes to take us back to our Boot Camp! We were grateful for both the seat and the cooling breeze as we whizzed back to base. Stopping at reception to book a minibus to take us to Luang Prabang the following day we hauled our weary selves up the stairs to our room and flopped, exhausted, onto our bed, where we stayed for the rest of the day. After a long snooze we packed our bags and got everything ready for our long journey in the morning.