Second day in Vientiane

Yesterday started slowly, with a drip coffee and baguette, one of the only visible remnants of Laos’ French colonisation (the other being the street signs, which although clearly recently maintained all say “Rue …”).

Around midday light rain began to fall, which kept the temperature from rising too far, and made wandering quite pleasant. The wet cleans the air and brings out colours that are usually hidden by the bright glare and complete cloud cover that renders everything dull and difficult to photograph. The rain has the added benefit of activating the thin film of sludge and algae that covers the inappropriately smooth bricks that have used to pave many of the footpaths around the centre of town; grey bricks = occasionally at risk from errant motorcycles, red bricks = treacherously slippery – Vientiane is a city of choices.

After various random turns I came to Patuxai, Vientiane’s own Arc de Triomphe, which posseses a modesty that is decidedly un-French. Although respectably ornate and imposing from a distance, its name plaque describes itself as “even less impressive” close-up, “like a monster of concrete”. Personally, I think it is a little too harsh on itself. The name, Patuxai, is apparently made up of two words, patuu, meaning “gate” or “door” (perhaps sharing a root with “portal”) and xaa which my guide book says is derived from the Sanskrit word “jaya”, meaning “victory”.

In the afternoon I wandered to That Dam (can’t think of any puns for this one, sorry) and then past the national stadium (which I was later told is being replaced by a brand new stadium for the South-East Asian Games which Vientiane is hosting in October. Walking along a main road at peak hour is not recommended, as the dust and smoke combine at high speed to give the effect of sand-blasting your face. I turned back to the river as soon as possible and sat on its bank watching the sun set, gin and tonic in hand.

At least that’s what I hoped would happen; as it turned out, heavy clouds meant that the only indication that the sun was no longer in the sky was the presence of myriad biting insects and the calming flickering of incandescent bulbs as one or another of the hundred extension cords that criss-cross the river bank dip into a puddle and short out.

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