Saturday, March 22, 2008

Day 178: Vientiane

We said the first goodbye today. We new it was inevitable, but after ten days together, it was still bittersweet. Our roommate Joanne is due back in Chiang Mai and set off on the bus this afternoon. Somehow I think we’ll be seeing her again.
On the way to seeing our new friend off , we pedaled down to the Patuxai. If you’ve been to Paris (I love Paris), this monument might seem familiar. It bears a striking resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe. The monolith was built in the 1960s with concrete donated by the United States. The building materials were supposed to be used for a new airport, but were used for the monument instead. Wouldn’t you rather have a replica of a French icon rather than a new transportation center?
We snapped our pictures and then bid farewell to Joanne. We then hopped back on the bikes and cruised around town. After spending the last few days within a small radius, we finally got a feel for the city. From tree lined streets to soulless concrete structures, Vientiane is very laid back and reflects a multitude of different influences. It’s quite a mix of ancient Siamese and Khmer, early 20th century French, and recent decades of communism.
The capital of Laos shifted to Vientiane in the mid 16th century from Luang Prabang. The name of the city is actually pronounced Wieng Chan (the French provided the current translation) and means “Sandalwood City”. It’s set along the banks of the Mekong River with a population of only 300,000. The city, now quite peaceful, has a tumultuous and torrid past. It was leveled by the Siamese invasion in 1628, rebuilt by the French in the early 1900s and ruled by communism since the 1970s. The city is definitely on the capitalism track, but I still catch myself doing a double take when I see the hammer and sickle flags flying around town.
Tomorrow we start our journey south toward Savannakhet. We will be following the Mekong River the whole way. We’ve heard that the cultural interactions will far outweigh the natural beauty. I guess we’ll all find out together.

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