Cement is often seen as an eyesore and in part the folly of mankind’s continual drive to tailor the world to their needs, and while that may or may not be the case, there is little doubt that the simple mixture of sand and water (not an accurate recipe) has captured our constructive imagination since well before the industrial revolution. The last century has seen us pave much of the inhabited world with the stuff and, increasingly, we have become masters of the medium. Perhaps you think that concrete is a rather flat or bland focus for a travel story, but in so thinking you are overlooking an important factor – our constant creative minds. As travellers, cement is increasingly featuring on our bucket list of travel destinations. We travel the world checking off locations such as Dubai, New York, Paris, Tokyo, London and many others never for a moment considering the massive quantities of concrete that make up these urban playgrounds.
The magnetic draw of cement is not even the exclusive domain of cityscapes. Any monument built in the past century is likely to be a concrete reminder of the creep of concrete into our psyche. Of all the place I’ve visited, one stands out in terms of mastery of (or at least preference for) the medium. The Laos capital of Vientiane is littered with cement, both monumental and infrastructural. As one of the few true remaining communist states, it may seem fitting that cement is the building material of choice, but that does not account for the way cement is used throughout the city. Vientiane is a monument rich city, which seems fitting when you learn that the landlocked country’s history is embroiled in conflict which surely contributed to the enduring socialist ideology to which the government adheres. Regardless or history, there are three principal examples of cement sculpting that illustrate Vientiane’s cement carving diversity.
Probably the best known of the attractions in this particular concrete jungle is Pha That Luang, one of the primary monastic complexes in Laos. While the That itself (adorned in yellow paint since the gold leafing was plundered) is a sight to behold, it is the adjoining temple complex –filled with colour and detail that delights the eye. If you get the opportunity to walk through the main halls, do so, it certainly topped off our visit.
While Pha That Luang might be the best known of Vientiane’s concrete constructions, the most prominent is perhaps the most puzzling. As we made our way by scooter towards the That, we passed another concrete corner of Vientiane, which clearly echoes the country’s former ties with the French Empire. As we approached the monument Putuxai, we suddenly felt as if we had been transported to The Parisian Avenue des Champs-Elysees because before us towered a full-sized replica of the Arc de Triomphe. Upon more detailed inspection the forgery becomes clear as arch is adorned with Laos and Buddhist designs, not to mention the network of stalls both in and around the structure (clearly cashing in on the tourist traffic). The arch was constructed in 1957, ironically as a monument to the Laotian victory over France in their war for independence. It’s definitely worth shelling out a few Kip to walk to the top and catch the impressive view of the city and the Laos government compound.
Finally, and perhaps the most bizarre of the concrete creations in Vientiane, lie about 45 minutes outside the city just past the Thai/Laos friendship bridge. Xieng Khuan (or the Buddha Park) was commissioned in 1958 (the late 50s were obvious a great time for cement) and was the brain child off Luang Pu Bunleva Sulilat. The sculpture park includes over 200 statues that seem far older than 57 years. While Hindu and Buddha statues make up the larger part of the park, a massive pumpkin shaped sculpture near the front of the park is by far the most interesting attraction. It depicts scenes akin to Dante’s Inferno over a number of internal and external levels.
These three sites are far from the only things to see in Vientiane, and given a few days you’ll be able to see a lot more than just cement, but it remains an impressive place to gaze on cement arranged in a far more interesting way than your front driveway.