Thursday, January 6, 2011

Because It's There - Patouxay - January 6th, 2011

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I decided to visit Patouxay.

To give the place justice, I pass in front of this huge cement Arc de Triomphe almost every day just like every other Vientianian. It is sort of cool to spin around it on the scooter: it may be cement and Frenchly pretentious and grey but it also has a ring of the Orient to it.

Patouxay is the sort of monument you feel good about – it’s there, you spin around it, it’s big. You are happy you can take it for granted.

So it was only a matter of time before I had some time between classes at the mythical College for which I work and actually swung all the way onto the left lane and parked the scooter and went in.

The day was hot and the sky was blue. I never get tired of writing about the weather – I know how many Canadians are reading this! The park is nicely manicured. Park benches are sponsored by banks and insurance companies and hotels. The water in the fountain is clean and clear.

But once you get close to the Arc you notice that something is terribly wrong: the monument itself is terribly ugly. Pieces of cement are cracking all over the place and once you pay the price of admission (3,000 kip for falang, 2,000 kip for Lao) and ascend the old wooden cement-encased stairs you are in an architectural nightmare that runs across party lines.

The huge landings on the various levels are leased to vendors selling all kinds of tchatchkes with an astounding preponderance of portraits of the King. I suppose this is to remind us just who is responsible for this bit of kitsch.

The interior walls of the great monument have been turned over to local visitors who use them to mark their passage, their love affairs, their telephone numbers or their gang membership.

Down below were some guys actually paying money to have their pictures taken.

On the very top is a belvedere offering a view of the great horizontal city. I stood there and looked out toward the Mekong and Thailand beyond that and the hills to the north of the city. In every other direction before me spread the vast flat expanse of the Vientiane Plain.

There are few things more magical than watching a Far-Eastern city at work, the bustle of lives lived under palm trees, the street vendors crisscrossing under the shadows, the heat rising from this, my Vientiane, this capital city built of large avenues and tiny red dust roads, of large revolutionary palaces and modest garden-engulfed stilt houses.

Staring out at the city time seemed to stop. Asia, my love, I sighed. There you are in all your steaming convolutions, all your contradictions, all your passion. I longed to get down from that cement nightmare and back into the thick of things, longed to get lost in her. I longed to discover a new thicket of laneways, a new watering hole. The city is full of neighbourhoods I have yet to see. I looked down at the parking lot and saw my tiny scooter there, calling to me. Come, it seemed to say, let’s go for a ride!

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