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Memories of Laos

Pha That Luang stupa vientiane laos

with F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8

It’s funny sometimes listening to people’s different ideas and perceptions of different places, and how they differ in comparison to your own experiences.

Vientiane, and Laos in general, was one of my very favourite places after going there in November 2006. Arguably the zenith of that round-the-world trip, it was a ten day period where everything aligned.

Our little group of travellers, mostly picked up in Vietnam, had swollen to double figures as we (completely fortuitously) arrived in a bustling Vientiane just in time for the country’s biggest festival, Boun That Luang.

The following ten days spent in festival season Vientiane, the golden age of tubing era Vang Vieng, and nocturnal (really) Luang Prabang are a time I will never forget. Too many stories to tell here. All I will say is, I don’t know how long I could have stayed.

For the sake of my health, mental as well as physical, I guess not much longer than I did.

Beerlao and doxycycline don’t get on very well. They do funny things to your mind. I know, as I spent ten days proving the point.

Never go back?

For a lot of people living in Chiang Mai, Vientiane is the uninteresting little place where you go for a new visa and get back out again asap. I’ve heard at least one person say they hate the place. Most are a little less harsh, seeing going there as a simple chore.

Based on the memories of my time there, I found it hard to empathise.

When the time came that I had to do the same visa run, I decided to stick around for a few days and see if any of the old magic remained.

Bearing in mind the last time I was there was the festival season, I must admit the place seemed pretty dead this time around. I had Vientiane down as a busy little town, but maybe they were right.

Regardless, I got myself a bicycle for the day and took my F.Zuiko 38mm f1.8 and Sony NEX off to the iconic golden stupa at Pha That Luang in the hope of finding some memories.

Pha That Luang golden stupa vientiane laos

vientiane big buddha laos

In stark contrast to how I remembered the bustling scenes of the festival years before, the place was deserted. And closed. I walked around the outside, trying to peer in to see the stupa through the holes in the wall, before heading over to the temple next door and its big reclining buddha.

Vientiane did lend itself very well to manual focus photography. The slow pace of everything (really, everything) just seemed to fit with shooting with the vintage prime lens.

Hopping back onto my bicycle, I took a leisurely ride to my next location: the Patuxai Victory Monument. Often called the Arc de Triomphe of Laos, it is actually dedicated to the memory of those who fought for independence from France.

Built between 1957-1968, it rises above a traffic intersection, giving decent views over what is admittedly not the most enthralling city to look out upon. The long, straight boulevard did remind me a touch of seeing the Champs-Elysees from the real Arc de Triomphe, though.

A bit.

patuxai tower vientiane laos

corner of patuxai vientiane laos

boulevard in vientiane laos

Another hive of activity from that glorious first visit had been the area around the national stadium. I remember seeing two football games there, and having an impromptu game ourselves on the pitch. I remember wasting hours at a shooting range behind one of the stands too, spending money on bullets and beer.

I also remember lazing around the open air swimming pool across the road, and I barely remember going to the bowling alley after leaving a nightclub and almost breaking my ankle trying to kick a ball at the pins.

This time, the stadium was predictably empty. That meant nobody was there to stop me wandering in and taking a few shots, though.

national stadium laos

running track at vientiane stadium laos

One view I completely missed during my first visit to Vientiane was the riverside. I stayed in a guesthouse in the area but never actually walked the ten minutes to the waterfront.

This time, I made sure I checked it out. Peaceful and serene, it was exactly the kind of space I needed to think about Vientiane and what it means to me.

cyclist at vientiane riverside laos

monks at vientiane riverside laos

They say never go back, but I’m glad I did.

I thought about my time there before, and the people I had shared it with. I would go back there in a heartbeat, and that in some ways is a shame.

While it’s great to remember the good times, I don’t think it’s healthy to dwell on them. If the past is better than the present, I think we’re doing something wrong.

We can’t forget the good times, and we never want to forget the great times, but the most important thing is to make sure the best times are always yet to come.

For now though, thankfully one thing at least in Vientiane remains constant: the curry at Nazim is still glorious.

coffee cup at patuxai vientiane

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Vientiane and Laos hold special memories for me, due to the country being one of my very favourite places from the first big trip I ever took. Years later, on an extended stay in Chiang Mai, I had to return to Vientiane for a new visa. They say never go back. I went back. What I found, both in the city and in myself, is documented here.

 

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