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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrAside a few monumental landmarks in Vientiane, you’d be easily forgiven for thinking this city is more of an overgrown village rather than a bona fide capital. Yet true to Laotian form, where the pace is always relaxed and time seems to stand almost still, Vientiane would have to rate as the most laid-back hub in Asia. Home to just under 800,000 people in its greater area, it boasts a compact historic center, perfect to discover on foot and brimming with crumbling, old, colonial homes. Moreover, you’ll find more than a few glistening temples, an abundance of trendy eateries and, of course, a lovely Mekong riverside location which isn’t nearly as exploited as it should be.
Every tourist who travels to Laos will end up here at one stage or another during their journey, as the city’s main lure is its extremely central location. Merely a few kilometers away from the Thailand border, and very close to the one with Vietnam, Vientiane is the ideal go-between stop-over for those wishing to explore both the north and southern halves of the country. But stay here a few extra days, scratch the surface, and you may well uncover one of the most livable cities in the whole region.
Brief HistoryVientiane rose to prominence when it was made the capital of Kingdom of Laos in 1545, even though it had been inhabited for at least a millennia prior to that. Raided, occupied and sacked various time in history by the neighboring Kingdom of Siam , it was risking almost complete annihilation by the time the French arrived. Saved, restored, and thereafter protected under French rule, Vientiane again rose to power and, much like Luang Prabang, enjoyed its most golden era during the decades preceding the communist takeover in 1975.
Old Historic CenterThe city spreads far and wide, although the most interesting area for visitors is Nam Phu, the name given to the tourist center along the Mekong riverside, which is where you’ll find the highest concentration of hotels, guesthouses, shops, restaurants and bars. It’s easy to take in all the major attractions on foot, yet hopping on one of the gazillion tuk-tuks plying every corner is also infinitely easy.
Vientiane AttractionsNowadays, it may seem that Vientiane has little to offer tourists, considering the best temples are in Luang Prabang, most fascinating archaeological sites in the Plain of Jars and most riverside fun in Vang Vieng. Yet while you’re waiting for onward visas, bus tickets and whatnot, you’ll find there’s actually plenty of stuff to see and do here.
SightseeingIf the city fails to woo you with her splendor, then head to the Patuxai monument on the northern edge of Nam Phu and take in the fantastic views from above. The Arc de Triomphe-lookalike, whose name translates to “Victory Gate”, was donated by the United States. and looks much nicer from afar thanks to its somewhat crumbling state. Nevertheless, climbing it is cheap ( ₭2,500 ($0.30)) and the views from the 7th floor tiny viewing platform may make Vientiane look like a miniature Paris. The illusion dissipates when you return to street level, yet the experience is certainly lovely while it lasts.
Of all the temples in Vientiane, Wat Si Saket is by far the most impressive. Centrally located and boasting thousands of Buddha statues of all sizes, it’s wonderfully preserved, quiet and lovely to photograph. Aside from this, you’ll likely come across at least six temples within a short walk around the tourist center. Most are free to enter, bustling with activity and inhabited by more stray dogs than monks. Although they are all nice enough to visit, it’s best to keep your wat-admiring for the northern hubs if you plan to travel further on.
Pha That Luang is the most prominent landmark outside the tourist centre, which you'll find about 3kms north of Patuxai along the same road. Resplendent and gigantic, this golden stupa and temple is arguably the most important Buddhist monument in the whole country, and worthy of a visit,although this is mainly true of the exterior rather than the interior. there's a k5,000 fee to enter the temple, yet many consider this unnecessary. Admiring the stupa from all sides, and enjoying a stroll along its statue-filled gardens, is by far the most enjoyable part of a visit.
If you feel like getting out of the center for a few hours, then hire a tuk-tuk to take you to Buddha Park, a large urban park about 20kms southeast of town, where you’ll find literally hundreds of Buddhists and Hindu statues. Not the most enticing landmark by far, but a lovely park to enjoy a picnic and a great little getaway from the city.
Museum VisitsVisitors interested in learning more about the country’s tumultuous history are advised to visit the COPE Visitor Center where they can learn all about the secretive bombing of the country during the Vietnam War and its ongoing problems with UXO clearing. COPE is a local organization which aims to provide counselling, education and rehabilitation to local Laotians who are affected by the millions of still-undetonated ordnance interred all over the country. It receives no help from abroad and very little sponsorship from its own government, so know that your modest admission fee goes to help a good cause. An absolute unmissable museum.
The Lao National Museum rounds off the cultural and historical enlightenment, and showcases the history of the country from prehistoric times right up to its fight for independence.
Enjoy the WaterfrontThe Vientiane waterfront has been a hotly-contested topic for locals for quite a few years. Although admittedly it can be out to better use than it is now, there’s always the risk of over-commercialization, something which the city would have problems dealing with. Nowadays, it boasts a very long shore in dry season and a rather plain but very wide promenade, ideal for morning jogs. Across the road, right in the heart of Nam Phu, you’ll find an extensive park which is where the night markets are held. Every night at sunset, a local team of gym instructors hold superbly fun aerobic classes here, which cost only ₭4,000 ($0.48) to join. You’ll find locals enjoying this side of town, with many heading here for picnics on Sundays and for their ritual evening walks. This is a grand spot to watch the sunset.
ShoppingVientiane holds arguably the least interesting of all the night-markets in Laos, and here you’ll find very little street food but an abundance of kitsch clothing and only a smattering of souvenirs. The morning markets are much more interesting, and found on the RHS about half way on the road to Patuxai. Note that all the markets in Vientiane are geared towards locals and not tourists, so instead of souvenirs you’ll find a myriad of counterfeit gear, as well as stalls selling fried grasshoppers and an abundance of glow-in-the-dark, golden jewelry.
Trips and ToursThe most fun to be had in Vientiane would have to be with a cooking class booked through Backstreet Academy, a local agency which puts tourists in locals' homes for a few hours of gastronomic fun, with the help of a young student interpreter. This is a wonderful chance for a hands-on cultural experience and a rewarding way to learn more about the country’s delectable cuisine.
Green Discovery is a name you’ll no doubt become very familiar with, as you start your exploration of Laos. They are a local tour agency with branches in every major point of interest. While they offer some superb tours and activities in other cities, their selection in Vientiane lacks pizzazz and seems to be overpriced compared to others. This is due to two main reasons. First of all, they have an almost non-existent competition in Vientiane and, second of all, because the only tourists who do an ‘active tour’ in this city are the ones who are here for a few days on business and will not get the chance to reach the northern or southern hubs. There are better, cheaper and much more rewarding tours to be had in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, so if you are heading to either place we suggest you skip the tours here altogether.
Where to StayA wide range of basic, comfort and deluxe accommodation makes Vientiane an easy place to find accommodation in. Although the very central places are just slightly more expensive than anything you’ll find a few blocks out, do note that Nam Phu is the only suburb with any kind of nightlife (dining and drinking till late) so it’s worth spending more to have at least something open outside your front door. The rest of the city gets eerily deserted after 8PM.
Where to DineThe central tourist area is home to a good few fancy restaurants, offering delectable Italian, French, Thai, Japanese and Indian food. If you need a break from the local delights, then finding alternatives here is infinitely easier than anywhere else. Thanks to the high numbers of expats living and working here, most restaurants offer set lunch menus which, although much more expensive than local meals, are still very worthwhile.
How to Get ThereWattay International Airport is located just a few kilometers west of Vientiane and has connecting flights from every corner of Asia. A $ 30 USD , 30-day visa is available on arrival. If coming by land, you’ll find the city merely 22kms west of the Friendship Bridge which delineates the border with Thailand. The same visa on arrival is also available here, although note that if coming by public bus the driver will not wait for you to get your visa, so best to organize one prior from the Laotian Embassy in Bangkok.
Long-haul buses ply the route north towards Luang Prabang and south, all the way to the 4,000 Islands.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Jun 15, 2015