Thursday, August 14, 2008

Vientiane's Patuxai - Surprise and Ambivalence in the Capital - Part 2

Patuxai or Victory Gate, Vientiane

Lane Xang, taken from the top of the Patuxai. Now, this shot is a COUP of sorts since, according to Lonely Planet, photography is not allowed on top. I was fortunate to be there on a Sunday and everybody was being lenient. The only person who was inside was the one selling the tickets, who was drowsy and didn't really seem to care.


I will always remember Paris with fondness. I remember being in awe the minute I stepped out of the Eurostar from London’s Waterloo Station. I was pins and needles during the 3 ½ hour ride. It was also thoroughly disorienting not reading any signs in English. Every corner of the French capital was a spectacle. It was like being in a huge theme park with a recurring theme of beauty . Though I was clearly discombobulated by how expensive it was, I was smug with the thought that I need not daydream about it anymore. During my backpacking trip all over Europe, I’ve had several encounters with Paris, and with each transit, the city never failed to enamor me; it cast a spell of wonderment, like being in a wonderland with French audio, and strictly no English subtitles. LOL

It was a case of déjà vu passing through Vientiane’s Lane Xang and seeing the Patuxai from a distance. I was transported back to Paris, walking from the Louvre, then through a fountain park surrounded by a bevy of statues jutting up from pedestals, walking my way through the elegant Avenue des Champs-Elysee (Elysian Fields) until the view of the Arc loomed large and impersonal. This was unmistakably the inspiration behind the Patuxai.

Patuxai, also known as the Victory Gate, is the local rendition of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. To spite the French, their former colonizers, the Lao built their Arc with 4 pillars instead of 2. Moreover, this massive concrete structure stands taller than its European predecessor, inspiringly embellished with Buddhist designs. It is beautiful! The monument is surrounded by the city’s main park, the Patuxai Park (pronounced “pah-too-chai”). This is the perfect place to observe the city habitués. I watched as people milled around, taking photographs. I came across a lady selling noodles on a gigantic ceramic plate, bigger than a bilao. I approached her and she smiled. I got myself a plate. It was a different take on pansit. A little more colorful and a little too sweet.


As I was sucking on my Pepsi straw, a Lao kid tugged at my shirt. I hate strangers touching me, but this was a girl of 8 with the brightest of smiles. She had a red ribbon on her hair. I said hello and asked what her name was, but she handed me a candy instead. In any scenario, it’s never wise to take anything from strangers, children included. I accepted the little green wrapper as I didn’t want to break her heart with a refusal. I waited for a pitch for money, but it never came. She hopped to the next table with an elderly French guy and gave him the same. He was morose, his forehead furrowed with half a grimace, as though he got stabbed with pins. After taking the candy, he dropped it on his table. The little girl stood wide-eyed, then left as an elderly lady beckoned her from a distance. She looked my way and I vigorously waved goodbye with my candy and an appreciative grin. Little acts of kindness are not outlawed in the civilized world. They impart humanity and a sense of decency in an otherwise very impersonal environment of strangers. And angels don’t necessarily come from the heavens. Sometimes they are among us. We just have to stop ourselves from being jaded.

I spotted some monks taking their photos in the park. I asked if I could take theirs as well. I used to be painfully shy on asking that to people, although way back in Europe, I kept summoning my guts! I didn't have much choice. I then ventured into the 7-storey Patuxai. It was a rush walking under this massive concrete structure. I paid my entrance (3,000 kip - $0.37) to venture inside. The stairs leading to the summit was rough cement, clumsily constructed. There were no side rails too so that children have to be closely tended. In each floor, the rooms were filled with deserted stalls selling shirts and souvenir items. And the way up was dark! It was starting to drizzle by the time I got to the top - a breath taking sprawl of the city. From above, Lane Xang, the main avenue fronting the arc, looked regal and urban. There was no mistaking, I’m in the city. I decided to walk along Lane Xang towards the Presidential Palace.


Along the way, I saw rows of embassies, department stores, the Talat Sao Mall, government offices, and banks. It’s at the Joint Development Bank (near the U.S. Embassy) where I was finally able to withdraw cash (500,000 kip or $62.50 or PhP2,800). I crossed the intersecting streets. Hasady Road. Khouvieng.The U.S. Embassy is transected by a little lane that leads to a black stupa – the That Dam! Though some guides fail to mention this structure, I found it an interesting concrete landmark that was believed to be the abode of a 7-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. I asked the permission of the embassy security men stationed on this little street so I could pass through and photograph the stupa. They looked surprised I even had to ask. There is a stark contrast between Manila’s U.S. Embassy and Vientiane’s. If Manila seems tactically ready for offensive assault – complete with ground-planted, automated tire blockers, Vientiane is its laidback counterpart: simpler, smaller and “homely”, although it rests on 2 separate grounds. It’s easy to ignore the That Dam. From a distance, it looks like an uninteresting mound of dark rubble. Though for the most part, it seems neglected, the overgrowth of vegetation renders a dramatic milieu on a sleepy neighborhood.

Further ahead, I checked out Wat Si Saket, now signposted as Sisaket Museum. Located at the corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Setthathirat, it is the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style, hence it was left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid in 1828. Within the cloister walls are hundreds of niches housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the center of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha's past lives.


From Wat Si Saket, I crossed the street to where the Presidential Palace is, directly facing the other end of Lane Xang, the Patuxai. I wanted to visit the “Philippine Ambassador’s Residence” prominently marked on the map, as well as the much much smaller Philippine Embassy (further northeast) but my feet was already complaining. For this, I had to backtrack a kilometer or so, and it was getting late. What piqued my interest was the expanse of the Philippine Ambassador’s Residence. From my map, it was an impressive expanse,2-3x bigger than the US Embassy grounds. Oh well. The Arroyo government is waddling and swimming with money while her mostly destitute constituents are wallowing in hardship and poverty – which doesn’t stop her from further levying more tax to anything and everything. Well, why do I complain? I voted for her. I deserve her! Let me stop myself from this train of thought. LOL. From Setthathirat, I walked westward. Traffic Police Building. Jamia Masjid, a muslim temple. F_k! My feet were hurting already so I opted the comfort of an airconditioned internet café to check my mails (1,600 kip/minute or $0.20/min).


I found my way back to the Namphou Fountain. I walked along Pangkham Road until I saw the Lao Plaza Hotel, which boasts of a cosmopolitan façade. I was back in Thanon Samsenthai, where my bus dropped me off. Damn! I was able to walk around much of the city already. I found a DVD shop nearby and felt at home, browsing through hundreds of titles. I bought 3 titles, including Finnish director Baltasar Kormakur’s Myrin (which won several from Iceland’s Edda Awards), Gregory J. Read’s Like Minds (an Australian film which reminds me of Sandra Bullock’sMurder By Numbers”) and Kim Rossi Stuart’s Anche Libero Va Bene or Along the Ridge (a Cannes-winning Italian Film directed by the star of “Keys to the House”). They were inexpensive at 15,000 kip each ($1.88 or PhP85). I was looking for full-length Lao film features, but it seems that their film industry is almost non-existent. They do have DVD set of local television series – fantasy flicks and tearjerkers. I would have bought some if they had English subtitles. A relatively new title called “Sabaidee, Luang Prabang” (Good Morning, Luang Prabang) opened in Bangkok recently, but it’s a Thai-Lao co-production, starring Thailand’s Piolo Pascual- Ananda Everingham (of Parkpoom Wongpoom’s horror flick “Shutter” and the art house fares “Ploy’, “Pleasure Factory” and “Me…Myself”).
While I sat down for dinner, the restaurant owners offered me her Beerlao which I politely declined. They were amused knowing I was from the Philippines. There were no words exchanged. Only sign languages, but I knew I was invited back. When you are tired and travel-weary, there’s nothing more uplifting than a sincere smile from the locals. Somehow, I didn’t feel so alone, so far away from home. I also realized how much I enjoyed Vientiane. That was the surprise. Second-hand impression from word of mouth and books is unfair. I would have skipped Vientiane altogether. And knowing what I know now, I would have missed a lot from this beguiling city had I skipped it. Most backpackers take Vientiane as a mere transit post for their travels to Pakse or Luang Prabang and their crossings to Thailand (the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge is nearby although crossings by foot or bikes aren’t allowed). I was pleased I saw Vientiane, mostly on foot, and I still had another day to discover it. I got lucky.

Lane Xang, a 1 kilometer street stretching from the Patuxai to the Presidential Palace

The majestic Victory Gate is a 7-storey, 4-pillar concrete in the heart of the capital.

Arc de Triomphe in Paris, stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as the Place de l'Étoile. It is at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. The triumphal arch honors those who fought for France, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. The monument stands 49.5 metres (165 ft) in height, 45 metres (148 ft) wide and 22 meters (72 ft) deep. The Arc has one lift, to the level underneath the exterior observation level. Visitors can either climb 284 steps to reach the top of the Arc or take the lift and walk up 46 steps. Locally, we have our very own Arch of the Centuries at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) grounds.

Decorative detail of the Patuxai.

Buddhist inspired designs at the ceiling of the Patuxai.

Friendly monks who allowed me to take their photos. They were tourists like me, their first time in the capital.

That Dam, believed to house the 7-headed dragon that protects Vientiane.

Wat Si Saket, aka Sisaket Museum, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane.

Wat Si Saket

Presidential Palace - unlike our Malacanang Palace, this doesn't have a dozen troops of soldiers guarding it. In fact, I saw no one on guard.

Lao Plaza Hotel

My DVD finds: Master Finnish director Baltasar Kormakur's MYRIN (aka JAR CITY), which sweeped Iceland's Edda Awards (right); Gregory J. Read's MURDEROUS INTENT (aka LIKE MINDS) from Australia (center); Actor Kim Rossi Stuart's directorial debut ANCHE LIBERO VA BENE (aka ALONG THE RIDGE), which won the CICAE Award at the Cannes as well as several others from different European film festivals, including the Italian Oscars (right).

Random Expenditures
· Vientiane Map – $3.10 or 25,000 kip or PhP140.65
· Hay-soke Hotel - $15/room/night or 120,000 kip or PhP675
· VIP bus ticket to Savannakhet – $20 or 160,000 kip or phP900
· Tuktuk ride from Setthathirat Road to Pha That Luang Temple – $6.25 or 50,000 kip or PhP281
· Noodle snack at Patuxai Park - $0.65 or 5,000 kip or PhP28
· Pepsi bottle – $0.37 or 3,000 kip or PhP16.80
· Internet use – $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP56.25
· DVD – $1.88 or 15,000 kip each or PhP84
· Dinner: BBQ Pork with Rice – $1.50 or 12,000 kip or PhP67.50
· Pepsi bottle (no Coke available) – $0.38 or 3,000 kip or PhP16.80

South Laos Journeys here:

- Chasing Water Falls and Ethnic Tribes at the Bolaven Plateau -


Pam said...

i love coming here and seeing all the wonderful pics of where you've's nice to find out about places you may never see or might not know about. :)

eye in the sky said...

hey ciara. i didn't know about these places too until early this year. didn't even know vientiane, although ive heard of luang prabang. thanks for dropping by.

Unknown said...

wow. am green with envy. ang ganda.

Twin said...

after a hectic day, reading your blog relaxes one's spirit with your very pinoy sensibilities...

eye in the sky said...

hey lucy. thanks.

hi, rics. salamat. i dunno about pinoy sensibilities though. hehe. it's more of pinoy frustrations.

fiamma veneta said...

You can translate my blog with translator on the sidebar under the counter.

eye in the sky said...

Will do that. thanks. :->

Paul Bernard Baker said...

Thanks for checking out my blog.
I've enjoyed looking back through yours and learning about tubing and happy bars!!
Also, great photos. What camera do you use?

eye in the sky said...

hi paul. one of the pleasures of blog hopping is finding sites like yours.

i usually take 2 cameras with me: a canon powershot G9 which i recently bought last May and a very old, low tech instamatic Canon prima (which still uses films). Prior to the G9, it was an HP camera which is great for outdoor photography, but not for indoor or night and closeup shots. The instamatic is for emergency purposes, when I am not able to have enough time to charge during travels, or when i run out of battery or SD card space.

thanks for visiting my site too.