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Cultural landmarks in Vientiane – manifestations of Lao history

Sightseeing in Vientiane by Team VIII

March 2nd 2019, Saturday morning, 8:30 a.m.

One part of Team VIII – the team working in the schools and staying at “the villa” – is getting ready to be picked up by the foundation’s driver Mr Viengkham, for our second visit to the capital Vientiane since we arrived on February 19th. We were lucky that our project leaders Johannes Zeck and Professor Dr. Isabel Martin were currently staying in Laos. Therefore, Team VIII was to be guided through the city and its sights by Johannes Zeck; he knows them well as he has been to Laos many times before.

The other part of the team – Anna-Sophia, Thomas, and Siegfried, who work at the Lao-German Technical College in Vientiane and stay in “the bungalow” – got to the Sisaket Museum, our first stop, a little later, held up by the notorious traffic in town. While waiting for them, the other team members took a look at the Palais Presidentiel, right across the street.

The Palais Presidentiel  is the official residence of the President of Lao PDR, Mr Bounnhang Vorachith. Construction of the Presidential Palace started in 1973, initiated by the then Royal Lao Government. The building itself was designed by Mr Khamphoung Phonekeo, a local architect. Due to the political changes after the takeover of the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, the Presidential Palace first opened in 1986 and has been serving as a venue for government ceremonies and other representative functions (cf. Wikipedia, “The Presidental Palace (Laos)”, 2019). The Palace is not open to the public.

When the other team members arrived, we crossed the street again to visit the Vat Sisaket Museum.

Vat Sisaket (or Wat Si Saket) Museum  is a “wat” (Buddhist temple) located on Lan Xang Road in Vientiane. The temple was built in 1818 and therefore might be the oldest temple in Vientiane. The wat was built in honor of King Anouvong – the last monarch of the Kingdom of Vientiane. Its architecture is also notable: The wat was built in the Siamese style1 of Buddhist architecture and includes a surrounding terrace and an ornate five-tiered roof, which is uncommon for Lao style. The wat also features a cloister2 with more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images, and an additional museum (cf. Wikipedia. “Wat Si Saket”, 2019).

Our second stop, southeast of the Vat Sisaket Museum but practically on the other side of the street, was an extraordinary temple called Ho Prakeo (Haw Phra Kaew, Hor Pha Keo). The temple was built to house the “Emerald Buddha” figurine made of jade and gold, and it was rebuilt several times. The Crown Prince Setthathirath of Siam (exonym formerly used for Thailand) brought the cherished statue to Laos in 1565 when he also became the King of Lan Xang (Kingdom of Laos). The Emerald Buddha stayed in the temple for 214 years until Vientiane was seized in 1779 by a Siamese General. The figurine of Emerald Buddha was taken away and the temple destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1816 by King Anouvong and was destroyed again in 1828 when King Anouvong rebelled against Siam in order to gain full independence. The temple got rebuilt one last time by the new French rulers around 1936. The surviving structures of the old temples were used as base for rebuilding (cf. Wikipedia. “Haw Phra Kaew”, 2019).

Nowadays, there is a museum of religious art and a small shop inside.

On the way to our third stop, in front of the Patouxay Monument, a piece of art made out of porcelain caught our attention. There are four elephants made of plates and cups. We know that elephants are the emblem of Laos, but need to find out what exactly this statue signifies.

 

The Patouxay Monument (ປະຕຕູໄຊ) in the centre of Vientiane literally means “Gate of Triumph” or “Victory Gate”; it is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and also a war monument. The Patuxay was built between 1957 and 1968, i.e. in the first of the two decades of the constitutional monarchy when the Roalists and the Communist Pathet Lao were fighting the Civil War.

With American funds and cement, the monument with its long “runway” was orginally intended to become a new airport. It was dubbed „vertical runway“ when the Royal Laotian Government built the monument instead. The monument was designed by the Laotian architect Tham Sayasthsena; in 1957, his plans were selected from the many submitted by the Public Works Department, numerous private architects, and the Military Engineering Department.

Due to French colonial rule, the Patouxay was originally known simply as the “Anousavali” (“memory”) and commemorated the Laotian soldiers who died during World War II. After the victory of the Pathet Lao, however, who assumed political power after the Laotian Civil War by overthrowing the coalition government and ending the ancient monarchy in 1975, the monument was renamed “Patuxai” and dedicated to those who had fought for Laos’ independence from France in 1949. Kaysone Phomvihane became the first Prime Minister of the new “Lao People’s Democratic Republic”.

The architecture of the monument represents the five principles of coexistence among world nations. Additionally, they also represent the five Budhist principles of “thougtful amiability, honesty, flexibility, prosperity and honour“ (Wikipedia. “Patuxai”, 2019). It has gateways on four sides, which are oriented towards the four cardinal directions (ibid.).

After lunch, we went to our final destination. Pha That Luang  (ພຣະທາດຫຫວງ) means „Great Stupa“. The gold-covered Buddhist stupa is located in the city centre. Its architecture expresses Lao culture and history in many ways; this is why the stupa is regarded as a national symbol and the most important national monument.

According to the Lao people, Pha That Luang was originally built as a Hindu temple in the first century (cf. Wikipedia. “Pha That Luang”, 2019). “In the 13th century it was rebuilt as a Khmer temple, which then fell into ruin” (ibid.). When King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in the mid-16th century, he ordered the construction of Pha That Luang.

In 1641, Gerrit van Wuysoff, a Dutch envoy, visited Vientiane, for which occasion King Sourigna Vongsa delivered a magnificent ceremony at the temple. He wrote that he was impressed by the „enormous pyramid and the top was covered with gold leaf weighing about a thousand pounds“ (ibid.). Through time, the stupa was plundered several times by the Siamese, Chinese, and Burmese (ibid.).

In 1828 Pha That Lung was destroyed by the Thai invasion. In 1900 restoration began under the French, based on the drawings of the original design by the architect and explorer Louis Delaporte. Reconstruction was not completed until the 1930s. Then Pha That Luang was greatly damaged during an air raid in the Franco-Thai war (1940-41). It was reconstructed again after the end of World War II (cf. Wikipedia. “Pha That Luang”, 2019).

After an exciting day full of culturally new impressions, we went to Pauline’s favourite place, the Bacán Café, and talked about the importance of  beginning to understand Lao history, and of being aware of the different cultures that influenced the sites we visited, as well as Buddhism and religion in general.

As we are cooperating with Lao teachers as tandem-partners, we need to get to know Laotian culture(s) in order to work well according to the project mission. Our work for the project can only be effective if we learn and teach bi-directionally with our tandem teachers in our daily routines, meaning that both sides need to learn from and about each other before we teach the other group. By learning to understand and adapt to Laotian norms and beliefs we can compensate some of the regular cultural misunderstandings, and by educating our minds and changing our attitudes we are hopefully able to cross the bridge from our European to their Lao perspective. For fruitful and sustainable collaboration with our tandem-partners, it helps to bond and develop an understanding of each other’s viewpoints – both ways.

We are already benefitting from the Laotian culture of unfailing obligingness, their welcoming nature, and strong community.

 

Text & photos by R. Vogt & V. Wecker

 

Notes

1 “Enclosure”: the temple’s enclosing wall divides it from the secular world.

2 “A covered walk, open gallery, or open arcade” running along the walls of buildings and forming a quadrangle.

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaya_Naga

 

References

Schultze, Michael (2003). Laos. Bielefeld: Reise Know-How Verlag. (5th ed)

Ray, Nick (2017). Laos. Ostfildern: DuMont Reiseverlag. (4rd ed)

 

Websites

Wikipedia. “Presidential Palace in Laos” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidential_Palace_(Laos) (accessed Mar 29, 2019)

Wikipedia. “Wat Si Saket”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Si_Saket (accessed Mar 29, 2019)

Wikipedia. “Haw Phra Kaew” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_Phra_Kaew (accessed Mar 29, 2019)

Wikipedia. “Patuxai Monument” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patuxai (accessed Mar 29, 2019)

Wikipedia. “Pha That Luang” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pha_That_Luang (accessed Mar 29, 2019)

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