Question: Where in the world is a monument to multiple wars decorated with a prize for being “most peaceful”?
Answer: Patuxai, Vientiane, Laos
Cross the Arc de Triomphe with a Buddhist temple and the result might look something like Patuxai in Vientiane. Taking its name from the Sanskrit patu jaya, “victory gate,” the massive squared-off arch is as much a tribute to loss as to success. The memorial honors the soldiers who died during occupations by Siam and Japan, and the eventual battle for independence from France.
Despite being a war memorial, Patuxai clearly has peace on its mind. The structure is composed of five towers—four on the corners and one in the center—meant to invoke the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect; mutual non-aggression; mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs; equality and cooperation; and the titular peaceful co-existence.
In this way, the presence of the World Peace Gong makes perfect sense. The original World Peace Gong is found in Indonesia and only a few replicas have ever been cast. Laos was awarded its gong by Indonesia in 2008 as a tribute to decades of political stability and security. The World Peace Gong committee praised Laos for two things: its continual efforts to keep good relations with its neighbors, and the way it promotes connections among its diverse cultures at home.
While war and peace associations may both define the monument in the eyes of the world, the tower is just as well known locally as proof of the government’s cleverness. The concrete and steel used to build it was paid for by the U.S. military and was supposed to have gone into expanding the Vientiane airport. But U.S. officials never put in writing that the material had to be used that way—an oversight that the Laotian authorities happily capitalized upon. As a result, locals have taken to calling the arch by its cheeky nickname: the Vertical Runway.
Feast Your Eyes: 6 More Must-See Sites of Vientiane
- You’ll see the Great Stupa on all official documents of Laos as the symbol of the nation—but you can also see it live in Vientiane. First erected to house the breastbone of Buddha in the third century, it was updated by 13th-century Khmers, rebuilt by a 16th-century king, and refurbished in the 1800s. Its central tower rises 148 feet, catching the light with gleaming gold leaf.
- Just beyond the Great Stupa’s ring wall, the nearby Va That Khao (Sleeping Buddha) is an eye-popping golden statue. Sprawling the length of two school buses from his crowned head to his lotus-stamped feet, the Buddha sleeps on a (very uncomfortable-looking) red pallet decorated a bit like a wedding cake.
- Though it no longer houses the pirated Emerald Buddha of Thailand, for which it was built, Wat Ho Phra Keo is still a popular destination for visitors who come to admire its Hindu-influenced 16th-century lacquered door, Khmer stone carvings, Buddhist statues, and dragon-topped stone balustrades.
- Still used regularly as a house of worship, Wat Si Muang is named for a young woman who sacrificed herself on the spot in the 15th century, ostensibly to appease angry gods. A small exterior statue honors her, but most of the razzle dazzle is to be found inside the temple, which features golden pillars and elaborate friezes.
- While many of the city’s temples were destroyed by Siamese forces and had to be rebuilt in the 19th century, Wat Si Saket kept its original structure, with bright yellow pillars, shingled roof, and a cloister wall filled with 5,000 Buddha sculptures, no two exactly alike.
- The fact that there isn’t much glamour at That Dam (Black Stupa) is part of what makes it beloved. Shaped like an unopened lotus flower, it was once covered in pure gold, but Siamese forces stripped it away for themselves. They left the stupa standing, dark and worn, not knowing that the real treasure was inside; locals says the stupa is occupied by the spirit of a seven-headed naga, the guardian of the city.
Enjoy an afternoon for discoveries of your own in Vientiane during O.A.T.’s Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia adventure.