Date Traveled, August 2012
The Pha That Luang stupa and the Patuxai monument are two important national symbols of Laos. The Pha That Luang was an old stupa that was destroyed in a Thai invasion in the early 19th century and rebuilt by the French. The Patuxai was built more recently to celebrate Laos' return to independence.
They are both located in the center of Vientiane and away from the waterfront area where much of the hotels are. If you are staying in one of the hotels or guesthouses around the waterfront, it probably makes sense for you to grab a tuk tuk to take you there. Its a short 20 minute ride to the Pha That Luang and the Patuxai is on the way. My partner and I were in Vientiane for just an overnight stay before leaving Laos and had arrived in the afternoon. After checking into our hotel, the Ansara, we walked the streets past the cafes and restaurants to first see the central square, Nam Phou. The Nam Phou fountain is a popular hub in Vientiane and is surrounded by more cafes and restaurants. The fountains were undergoing renovations and were not turned on but I could see why with its gardens and convenient central location that it was a popular spot.
Nam Phou Fountain and That Dam stupa
A fun Tuk Tuk ride to the Patuxai and Pha That Luang
One of the Wats near the Pha That Luang
A short distance away from the Nam Phou fountain is the That Dam stupa. The That Dam stupa or simply the "black stupa" is an interesting structure and worth the short stop to visit it. It is an old monument that has been allowed to be taken over by the weeds and plants that grow all over its sides giving it an almost natural appearance. It seems so out of place where it is located around the concrete growth of the city, like it has been left behind while the rest of the place changes around it.
We found a tuk tuk near the That Dam and negotiated a round trip journey for about 60,000 kip. Could have probably gone lower but was in a good mood. We didn't originally know if it we were going to bother going all the way to the Pha That Luang, but having gone there now, my advise is to definitely go see it if you are in Vientiane. Its a short easy diversion and the tuk tuk ride is a fun way to see a bit more of Vientiane. Besides, you can see everything else in Vientiane in a couple of hours or so, you might as well bag these interesting monuments while here. We decided to go because the other Wats nearby, the Wat Si Saket and Haw Phraw Kaew, were closed, fortunately it turned out, because we were able to visit them the next day before out flight and so got to see all the sights.
We passed by the Patuxai on our way and would stop by on the return trip. It was fun riding around the city in the tuk tuk partly because we got to see more of the capital which is so different from sleepy Luang Prabang and partly because the city is not yet polluted or dusty but that is probably inevitable if it grows like other places in the region. One can still hope they will be able to balance things out.
The Pha That Luang is located at the center of a large park area and is surrounded by other Wats and a few public buildings in a neatly arranged setting. The bright golden hue of the stupa is distinctly striking even from a distance and is quite impressive to see. In front of the stupa in the park area there is a large statue of Chou Fa Ngum or Prince Fa Ngum, founder of the ancient Lan Xang kingdom which incorporated much more than present day Laos. Lan Xang translated to the land of a million elephants and is still a sobriquet for the country of Laos. The people of Laos consider Fa Ngum the founder of their nation and indeed he is an important historical figure for all the ethnic "Tai" people.
Prince Fa Ngum, founder of the Lan Xang Kingdom
The Patuxai monument
Vientiane by Tuk Tuk
Right in front of the Pha That Luang you will be accosted by people with birds offering you the chance to release the birds. I certainly refused to encourage this cruel practice and wish the authorities would crack down on that. But the incident did not prevent me from being fascinated by the Pha That Luang from up close. We also spent a few minutes walking around the stupa and also checking out the other Wats nearby before heading back for our return trip. Our tuk tuk dude remained as promised where he dropped us and even had refused to take the half fair I had earlier offered him. I did so only in case we got separated but regardless there were no issues there. He was cool and even took pictures of the two of us at the Patuxai.
The Patuxai is often called the Lao Arc de Triomphe because of its similarity to the Parisian monument but it actually has heavy Lao artistic and architectural influences. It was apparently built using American funds that were intended for an Airport in the 60s when the US was trying its best to prop up Laos and Vietnam from falling to Communism. Not sure what they felt about the money going to the Patuxai then, but from a ling term cultural legacy I think this trumps the airport. It is located in the center of a main artery of Vientiane and has a small lawn and fountain in front of it which was a popular photo spot for people. You could spend some time there if you want to relax nut a few minutes is sufficient to just see the place a bit. Afterwards we returned back to the area by the Mekong. Our tuk tuk driver dropped us off and got a decent tip from me as well, so all in all, all of us were happy with our tour.