Slice of the City: Vientiane - a walk through old Indochina
Sixty years ago, Laos gained independence from France. Claire Boobbyer explores its capital city
Saturday 19 October 2013
On the corner of the old Mekong River road in Vientiane, and the site of a now vanished river, slumps the tiled, tumbledown ruins of a French colonial building – the erstwhile home of Laos royal prince-turned-Communist revolutionary, Prince Souphanouvong.
The disintegrating ochre-hued 1909-1925 home of the “Red Prince”, who later became Laos’ first president under Communist rule in 1975, is set to be saved by an aid agency. But its decrepit condition is a metaphor for many other French colonial buildings in Laos’s riverside capital.
Vientiane became the smallest capital of France’s parcel of land in Indochina. The French arrived in 1893, having forced Siam to cede the Lao territory to them through gunboat diplomacy. They set up shop in a backwater.
Viang Chan (City of Sandalwood), as it was, had been razed to the ground by the marauding Siamese in 1827, and the decapitated temples and Buddha statues had sunk beneath arboreal anarchy. Slowly, the spiritual structures resprouted on the land that hugged the middle Mekong. The French realigned the city with broad tree-lined avenues and planted elegant shuttered villas. This month marks 60 years since Laos’s independence from its French colonial masters.
Just to the south of Prince Souphanouvong’s house is the gold and crimson shrine to the spirits of the vanished river, Nam Pasak, dedicated to Inthachakkhunag, one of the nine naga (dragon-serpent totems) of Vientiane.
Head north up Rue Khoun Boulom and turn right into Wat Ing Peng, a Buddhist temple vision of gold, scarlet and emerald green with deeply sloping layered roofs and protruding golden, bird-shaped chofa (roof ornaments). Exit by the southern gate of Wat Ing Peng. Browse the wares of the T’Shop Lai Gallery (00 856 21 223178) with its “lost world of Indochina” prints by French artist Louis Delaporte who accompanied explorer Francis Garnier on his Mekong exploration expedition in 1866-1888.
Cross Rue Chao Anou and enter Wat Ong Teu, rebuilt after the 1827 Siamese attack. The wat, housing a 100,000kg Buddha statue, is sheltered by towering coconut palms. It also houses the sangha, the monk’s school community, supporting 500 novice monks studying Buddhism, Buddhist art and sanskrit.
Emerge on to Rue Setthathirat, dominated by the lotus bud-tipped white walls of the city’s wats and towering mahogany trees. Lunch at elegant Le Silapa (00 856 21 219689) for its fine French food. Or climb to the first floor of the Antique Café (00 856 21 223528; antiquelao.com) for coffee, conversation and shopping for old French postcards and memorabilia. Cut back through Wat Ong Teu before heading south down the Wat Chan alley. At the corner of Quai Fa Ngum, turn left and head north up Rue Nokeo Koummane. Further up, stop for iced Lao coffee (café nom yen) and almond croissants at Le Banneton (00 856 21 217321; closed Sunday afternoon), one of several French-style cafés in Vientiane.
Cross the main road, Setthathirat, to the next corner. Here, shaded by trees in a compound, stands a cream and blue Lao/French house. This home now shelters the richly worked silk creations of Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles (00 856 21 212123; laotextiles.com; closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday).
Wandering north, visit the Lao National Museum (00 856 21 212461) on Rue Samsenthai. By 2015, it will have been flattened to make way for a five-star hotel. Continue east to Rue Pangkham and turn south to the newly enclosed (and aesthetically ruined) Nam Phou fountain area. At the junction of Rue Setthathirat is the delightful, diminutive, cream-coloured shuttered French Colonial National Library. The books will go and it’s slated to become a restaurant-café.
Continue east to the corner of broad French-built Lane Xang Avenue. This axis is anchored by the monumental pale grey 1970s presidential palace on your right, the Oriental Arc de Triomphe Patuxai monument further up to your left and the gilded French-restored That Luang, the holiest Buddhist monument in the country.
Cross wide Lane Xang to Vientiane’s most beautiful temple complex, Wat Si Saket, built in 1818. Wat Si Saket survived the 1827 ransacking of Vientiane as the Siamese army holed up in the cloisters. Today, the black and gold-leaf columned cloisters house 120 terracotta Buddhas collected from other wats. Opposite is the French-resurrected Hor Phra Kaew, which used to contain the iconic Emerald Buddha until the Siamese carted it across the Mekong in 1779.
Continue east along Setthathirat to the corner of Rue Mahosot, the original main thoroughfare in Vientiane, where the Mahosot hospital sprawls. Behind a white boundary wall is the vast manicured French Embassy compound. On the left, facing Rue de la Mission, is a 1910-1911 French school, now a printing office. Turn east along Rue de la Mission, behind the French Embassy, for the glorious lime green, stone and white painted Ecole de Médecine. Cross Rue Sakarin to visit the small Roman Catholic blue-roofed Sacred Heart Church, built in 1928.
Head right down Rue Sakarin and then left along Setthathirat and take the third right after Wat Kao Nyo (signposted Lao House Massage and Spa) for refreshments at the former 1960s private home of a French family, now Hotel Mandala (00 856 21 214493; mandalahotel.asia). Return to the main road and turn right towards Wat Si Muang, site of the guardian spirit of the city. Take one of the city’s colourful tuk-tuks from here to the sumptuous colonial Settha Palace (00 856 21 217581; setthapalace.com). Drink a sundowner, or the renowned Beer Lao, at Vientiane’s most illustrious hotel.
New Café Sinouk (Quai Fa Ngum; 00 856 030 2000 654), is all glass walls, parasols, pastries and fresh coffee in its streetside homage to French flâneurs.
Reflecting the old USSR influence in Laos is the new MiG Soviet Restaurant (48 Hengboun Road; 00 856 20 5863 0937) run by Russian escapees from the cold serving pelmeni, bliny, kvass and vodka, amid MiG plane lamps and memorabilia.
Claire Boobbyer travelled with Buffalo Tours (020 8545 2830; buffalotours.com), which offers five-night holidays to Vientiane from £900 per person. The price includes flights, accommodation and city tours.
Vietnam Airlines (020 3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) flies to Vientiane from Gatwick via Hanoi; returns start at £646.
Alternatively, Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) flies from Heathrow via Bangkok.
Hotel Mandala, Baan Phiavat, Vientiane (00 856 21 214493; mandalahotel.asia). Doubles start at US$80 (£53), including breakfast.
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