Politically, Laos has been thrown around a bit throughout its history, with the land being somewhat of an arena for a series of wars and invasions. In the 14th century, after conquering Vientiane (Vieng Chan), the exiled Lao militant, Fa Ngum, founded the kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), a kingdom which became a dominant force in South East Asia until the 17th century.
The nation came under Siamese (Thai) rule in the 18th century as the French were expanding its colonial dominance in the region. Laos as we know it today was shaped shortly after the French took control of Tonkin and Annam (which was to become the modern day Vietnam), when they negotiated with the Siamese for the territory east of the Mekong. Laos became part of French Indochina, and Vientiane was, along with Phnom Penh and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), turned into a classic Indochinese city. The streets are still chequered with colonial-fusion architecture, and let's face it, baguettes.
In the wake of WWII, French paratroopers came to 'liberate' Laos from the Japanese who had occupied much of the peninsula. In order to prevent Laos returning to French rule, the first nationalist movement was created, but it wasn't until some years later in 1953 that the French granted sovereignty to Laos.
Being a neutral nation during the years of the Vietnam war, which meant neither Vietnamese nor US forces could cross its borders, Laos became a sight of secret operations, with the CIA fighting their war against communism by quietly training anticommunist Hmong fighters in the jungles of Laos, and thus exacerbated the internal political tensions. Northeastern Laos was devastated by US carpet bombing during this time as well.
Within two years of US withdrawal in 1973, communist rule was established in the country, and in defeating the Kingdom of Laos, the country was renamed the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR), the government body that remains to this day.
Photos by Ben Journee
In 1958, Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunleua Sulilat began the Buddha Park known also as Xieng Khuan, which means 'spirit city'. Luang Pu was a priest-shaman who brought together imagery from both Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions in the park, a perspective developed from teachings by a Hindu rishi (sage/yogi) in Vietnam.
The extensive, diverse and dramatic sculptures give the park both a sacred aura, as well as creating an atmosphere of openness. The stone works feel ancient, in part because of the ancient idioms they are drawing on, but also because of their monumentality, otherworldliness and indeed, the patina formed on the sculptures after a few decades of weathering.
We visited two temples in Vientiane, and looking at their histories together paints an interesting picture of Laos' political and religious history.
Wat Si Saket is believed to be the oldest surviving temple in Vientiane, and was built in 1818. What we see of Haw Phra Haew today is actually the second rebuilding of a temple that was first built in 1565.
When the Siamese seized and sacked Vientiane in the 1828, they destroyed (what is believed to be) all of the city's temples, except Wat Si Saket. The temple is in dire need of restoration, with its internal wall paintings on the brink of collapse, mostly due to the fact that the paintings were made straight onto dry stucco. Because of this though, there is a rather quiet fragility to the temple and the courtyard surrounds.
Wat Si Saket was built in a Siamese (Thai) Buddhist temple style, with a five-tiered roof and surrounding terrace. It is believed to be that this was why the Siamese chose to leave the temple unharmed, whilst destroying all of those that were distinctly Laotian.
Haw Phra Kaew has been destroyed twice throughout its history, firstly by the Siamese in 1778 after the Emerald Buddha which was housed inside the temple was taken to Thonburi (in modern day Bangkok). The temple was rebuilt in the 19th century, but destroyed for a second time, again by the Siamese, when King Annouvong rebelled against them. The second rebuild was undertaken by the French during their colonial rule in the region.
The temple has a incredible monumentality with its massive columned portico (an appropriately colonial feature) and it has a grand presence from the street. It almost seems to look down on you as you walk past the complex's large walls. The temple itself has essentially become a space for a pretty impressive collection of ancient religious artefacts, which hark back to the time the original temple was built.