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Laos: Luang Prabang, Vientiane
Vientiane, Laos: Up and about
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Pronounced Viang Chan, it is the capital and largest city of Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River and borders with Thailand. Settled since at least 1000 CE, Vientiane became an important administrative city of the Kingdom of Lan Xang ("million elephants") in 1545. Vientiane became the capital in 1563 due to fears of a Burmese invasion but was later looted then razed to the ground in 1827 by the Siamese (Thai). The city was the administrative capital during French rule and, due to economic growth in recent times, is now the economic center of Laos.
I was on a holiday with my wife in the region. We reached Vientiane in the evening from our flight from Hanoi, Vietnam. For the night we we were booked at Hotel Crowne Plaze. Really speaking, we were transiting through Vientiane. The next afternoon we would fly to Luang Prabang. The morning was with us to explore the main attractions of the town.
Showing us around was a local guide in a comfortable van. After breakfast, with bags in the van, we set out.
We made a brief stop on the banks of Mekong River, a lifeline to countries in the region. The river separates Laos from Thailand. We could see Thai structures on the other bank.
Next on the list was Pha That Luang.
Pha That Luang according to the Lao people was originally built as a Hindu temple in the 1st century. Buddhist missionaries from the Mauryan Empire are believed to have been sent by the Emperor Ashoka, including Bury Chan or Praya Chanthabury Pasithisak and five Arahata monks who brought a holy relic (believed to be the breastbone) of Lord Buddha to the stupa. It was rebuilt in the 13th century as a Khmer temple which fell into ruin.
In the mid-16th century, King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and ordered the construction of Pha That Luang in 1566. It was rebuilt about 4 km from the centre of Vientiane. The bases had a length of 69 metres each and was 45 metres high, and was surrounded by 30 small stupas.
In 1641, a Dutch envoy of the Dutch East India Company, Gerrit van Wuysoff, visited Vientiane and was received by King Sourigna Vongsa at the temple, where he was, reportedly, received in a magnificent ceremony. He wrote that he was particularly impressed by the "enormous pyramid and the top was covered with gold leaf weighing about a thousand pounds". However, the stupa was repeatedly plundered by the Burmese, Siamese and Chinese.
Pha That Luang was later destroyed by the Thai invasion in 1828, which left it heavily damaged and abandoned. It was not until 1900 that the French restored to its original design based on the detailed drawings from 1867 by the French architect and explorer Louis Delaporte. However the first attempt to restore it was unsuccessful and it had to be redesigned and then reconstructed in the 1930s. During the Franco-Thai War, Pha That Luang was heavily damaged during a Thai air raid. After the end of World War II, Pha That Luang was reconstructed.
The architecture of the building includes many references to Lao culture and identity, and so has become a symbol of Lao nationalism. The stupa today consists of three levels, each conveying a reflection of part of the Buddhist doctrine. The first level is 223 feet (67 metres) by 226 feet (68 metres), the second is 157 feet (47 metres) along each side and the third level is 98 feet (29 metres) along each side. From ground to pinnacle, the Pha That Luang is 147.6 feet (44 metres) high.
Patuxai was our next stop. Literally meaning Victory Gate or Gate of Triumph, formerly the Anosavari Monument, known by the French as Monument Aux Morts, is a war monument in the centre of the city. Built between 1957 and 1968, the Patuxai was dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. The monument has five towers that represent the five principles of coexistence among nations of the world. They are also representative of the five Buddhist principles of “thoughtful amiability, flexibility, honesty, honour and prosperity”.
We then moved towards Wat Si Saket. It was built in 1818 on the order of King Anouvong (Sethathirath V.) Si is derived from the Sanskrit title of veneration Sri, prefixed to the name of Wat Saket in Bangkok, which was renamed by Anouvong's contemporary, King Rama I.
Wat Si Saket was built in the Siamese style of Buddhist architecture, with a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, rather than in the Lao style. This may have kept it safe, since the armies of Siam that sacked Vientiane following Anouvong's rebellion in 1827 used the compound as their headquarters and lodging place. It may be the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. The French colonial government restored Wat Si Saket in 1924 and again in 1930.
Wat Si Saket features a cloister wall with more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images. The temple also houses a museum.
Lastly we visited Haw Phra Kaew. It was built in 1565–1566 on the orders of King Setthathirath after he moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. The temple was built on the grounds of the royal palace to house the Emerald Buddha figurine, which Setthathirath had brought from Chiang Mai, then the capital of Lanna, to Luang Prabang.
The temple was used as Setthathirath's personal place of worship, and because of this, there were no resident monks in this temple unlike other temples in Laos. The Emerald Buddha stayed in the temple for over 200 years, but in 1779, Vientiane was seized by the Siamese General Chao Phraya Chakri (who founded the current Chakri Dynasty of Thailand), the figurine was taken to Thonburi and the temple destroyed. The Buddha now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, and is considered the palladium of Thailand.
The temple was rebuilt in 1816 by King Anouvong, with a new image crafted in place of the lost Emerald Buddha. However, the temple was again destroyed in 1828 when King Anouvong rebelled against Siam in an attempt to regain full independence, and Vientiane was razed to the ground by Siamese forces in retaliation. The temple was rebuilt by the French between 1936 and 1942 during the colonial period of French Indochina. The surviving structures of the old temple were used as the basis for the rebuilding; even though it followed the plan of the old temple, the rebuilt temple resembles more of a 19th-century Thai styling. In the 1970s the temple was converted from a place of worship to a museum. It was restored again in 1993.
It was now time to leave for the airport. We had a flight to Luang Prabang.
Vientiane Image Gallery Photo viewer
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