Thursday, August 15, 2013


The 'Patuxai', modeled after the Arc de Triomphe
I'm on Lane Xang Avenue, and a towering arch before me rises high above the surrounding city landscape. As I approach, I’m impressed by the architecture. The Arc de Triomphe immediately comes to mind. But I’m not in Paris, I’m still in Vientiane.

This arch, known as the Patuxai, was obviously inspired by the Parisian version. Built after the independence of Laos, the French colonial influence is obvious. Even the street lamps in the surrounding park are French in style.

Constructed in the early 60’s, the arch at one time was originally to be a monument to Laotian war dead. The cement used to construct it was stolen from an American aid project, that was meant to build a runway. The theft was no surprise, given at how corrupt the Royal Laotian Government was back then.

An informational sign on the arch has the following amusing sentence: “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.” That’s a rather harsh observation. It does have a drab grey concrete color, since the arch was never completely finished, and left unpainted. From a closer viewpoint, what is more noticeable is the detailed artwork. Pointed Asian spires reach for the skies from three towers at the top. Buddhist figures appear as though they were carved right out of the walls. The arch may need a coat of paint, but it’s still very impressive.

There are three viewing levels, so I head up the arch's stairwell. Looking down from the highest tower, I can see all the way to the Mekong River. Surveying the surrounding scenery, I notice that no building in all of Vientiane is taller than the arch, and apparently that’s by design. There’s an old local law requiring that all buildings constructed in the capital must be shorter than the Patuxai, which helps Vientiane keep its small town atmosphere. The only exception is the rather odd looking Don Chan Hotel, down by the river. The rest of the view is serene.

View from atop the arch, looking down Lane Xang Avenue
From high above, I look down on Lane Xang Avenue, which runs straight towards the arch. As usual, traffic is light. The boulevard was named after one of the old powerful kingdoms of the north, and as such it became the widest street in all of Vientiane. It’s the only six lane boulevard in all of Laos.

I take a deep breath, enjoying the best view of the city. I can see far off mountains, the Buddhist temples, the Mekong, everything. It’s from this viewpoint that I notice that Vientiane is the greenest capital in Southeast Asia. There are plenty of trees reaching higher than the surrounding buildings. Only the mobile phone towers reach higher. Like in Vietnam, Laos has leapfrogged past land line phones, and opened up their markets to the mobile phone craze. 

Before I descend down the arch, I stop in a souvenir shop. Looking
through a stack of framed photos, a striking image stands out. One shows a group of US soldiers holding up an incredibly long snake skin! The caption says: “Queen of Nagas (a mythical snake) seized by American
US soldiers hold up the skin of a 7.8 meter long snake! (Photo: Patuxai Shop)
military on Mekong River, Laos military base on June 27, 1973 with the length of 7.8 meters.” That has to be some kind of a record for snake length.

Besides the other usual gifts of figurines, jewelry, and coins, I notice something else on offer that isn’t sold back home. Disturbingly, they are selling what appear to be tiger claws! Laotian laws prohibit the sale of products from endangered species, but it’s not often enforced.

I ask to see one, and the salesman pulls one from the glass case. It looks and feels real; judging by the size it must have come from an adult. I decline to purchase it, since buying it would only encourage more poaching. Being caught with one at the border might even get me arrested.

I head for the stairs, and soon I’m back on the ground, walking the streets of Vientiane. There’s still a great deal to be seen in this city.

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