Cities and Their Celebrity Doubles: Vientiane / Robert Downey Jr.
Vientiane wasn’t always the laid back, family friendly Lao capital you see today. For a period in the 1960’s and 70’s it was a town where anything went, where foreign spies mixed with prostitutes in city bars; a place you probably wouldn’t take your wife and kids to. The same can be said for Robert Downey Jr. In the late 90s/early 2000s. Battling various drug addictions and run-ins with the law, he was anything but an accessible star of big budget summer blockbusters. Robert Downey Jr., and Vientiane, managed to clean their acts up and fly into the mainstream, but did they lose their edge in the process?
Southeast Asia in the 1970’s was a pretty screwed up place. The Vietnam War was in full swing and as a result Laos became the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history. I don’t really understand the intricacies of why exactly this happened, but its repercussions can still be felt in this quiet, unassuming nation. People continue to die from unexploded bombs and landmines, and some people even decorate their homes with the left over metals from bombs and various war machines (I’m not talking about Iron Man’s friend, Don Cheadle, by the way…).
Vientiane would have to be one of the quietest capital cities in Asia – which has its good and bad sides. It’s a nice place to walk around (although extremely hot), there are lots of wats (temples) to check out and there are some great places to eat. It definitely lacks the energy, chaos and excitement of Phonm Penh, Bangkok and Saigon though, which makes it a city that your average traveller quickly passes through.
The Mekong River
It’s easy to miss the river entirely as the city certainly doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The riverfront area is undeveloped and could be so much better. It’s a lot like the riverfront area in Phonm Penh except there’s really nothing happening there. There is the occasional market stall and there was 1 “nightclub” that was busy at around 5pm, but its potential is being squandered. There is a nice park that runs along close to the river – but you can’t really get a good view from it! I walked down among some scrubby bushes and grass and it was really nice down there – some kind of chair would have been great though!
If you’ve been travelling in Southeast Asia for a while you might be templed out, but thankfully this never happens to me. Every wat is different in some small way and any of them are worth a look. Just start walking and you’ll bump into one. The grounds (including monasteries and shrines) are often as interesting as the temples themselves and, assuming you can find some shade, make for peaceful pit stops.
Patuxai (Victory Gate)
Although Patuxai looks old it was actually completed in 1968. You can climb to the top for a panoramic view of Vientiane, and if you’re into cheap and tacky souvenirs then you’re in luck – you’ll pass by a lot of shops selling them. The park surrounding Patuxai is also nice although I couldn’t find any shade which caused me to make a quick retreat back to town. It’s a fair walk from any guesthouse you’re likely to stay at but is a must see attraction in a town where attractions are thin on the ground.
Some tenuous ties to Robert Downey Jr.
As well as having a similarly debauched past, Robert Downey Jr. also has some movie bonds with the city (well, the country in general). He starred in the entertaining movie Air America, and also may have accidently stumbled into Laos in Tropic Thunder. Air America is a must see if you’re visiting Laos – Mel Gibson and Downey Jr. play pilots who aren’t officially working for the US government, because the US government weren’t officially operating in Laos.
Vientiane and Robert Downey Jr. have a lot in common and are now both family friendly box office hits. Vientiane changed course with the arrival of the communist Pathet Lao government in 1975, and Downey Jr. changed his ways after yet another run in with the law in 2001. If you’re travelling in Southeast Asia you’ll probably at least pass through Vientiane – it’s a nice, if a little boring, introduction to Laos, which is probably my favourite country in the region.
Have you been to Vientiane and are you a Robert Downey Jr. fan? Let me know!