My initial impression of Vientiane was that it’s another humid Southeast Asian city that is dusty, undergoing huge development and crowded with tuk tuk drivers offering you their services at every corner. But within its grungy appearance, this former French colony surprises with its glittering temples and stupas, stylish old French villas, Instagram-worthy cafes, and laid-back lifestyle.
Situated by the banks of the Mekong River, the city of Vientiane is the capital of Laos, and the largest city in the country. Capital since 1563, the city is so steeped in history that involved invasion, colonization and war throughout the centuries… and finally, freedom and independence. Vientiane of the now has much to see and much to admire — and except for the dust (that gave me a bad cough), the more of Vientiane I discovered, the more at-ease I felt in the city.
I was in Vientiane with my travel buddy Wilson from placesandfoods.com; and during our short trip — we spent long days in the sun visiting its ancient temples, walking its historic streets, and sampling the yummy Laotian cuisine. So after 2 days in the city, here is a list of my favorite things to do in Vientiane.
1. Patuxai Victory Monument
The monument (or gate) that symbolizes victory, the Patuxai Victory Monument was built between 1957 to 1968 and stands tall in the center of Vientiane. It’s easy to spot the structure towering above the smaller buildings around the city — it stands on one end of the main road that leads up to the Presidential Palace.
For LAK3,000 (less than US$0.5), we climbed up to the top of the monument for a panoramic view (and lots of photos!) of Vientiane. Patuxai resembles the Arc de Triomphe of Paris (and is sometimes referred to as the Laotian version) — but the architecture is Laotian, and we noticed lots of sculptures and decorations of Buddha and other mythological beings on its walls.
2. Buddha Park
Built in 1958, Buddha Park lies about 25km (40-minutes taxi ride) from central Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan, the small park is scattered with beautiful Buddhist and Hindu sculptures — there’s even a gigantic Sleeping Buddha and a mythical gourd that can be climbed for sweeping views of the park (the stairs are narrow and eerie with 3 levels of clay sculptures depicting hell, earth and heaven).
We arrived at the park a little before 9am and had it to ourselves, and were later joined by buses of tourists. Entry is LAK15,000 (US$2); and we took a taxi for LAK350K (US$43) — I think it was too expensive (but we wanted to avoid the dust); so for a cheaper option, take the tuk tuk for LAK250K (US$31), or the bus.
3. COPE Visitor Centre
Stories of war and the effect on those involved are always heart-wrenching to hear and read about — and COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise, a non-profit organisation that provides rehabilitation services and access to artificial limbs and aids to the victims of UXO and those with disabilities across Laos) has a Visitor Centre that educates its visitors with informative exhibits on the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found around Laos, prosthetic displays, stories of the war that befell Laos, and documentaries on its survivors and UXO victims. Entry is free, but donations to help support COPE are welcomed. It was an emotional visit.
4. Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is a golden stupa in Vientiane, believed to be originally erected in the 3rd century by Buddhist missionaries from India to house a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Though the relic is no longer in its place, and the stupa has been built and rebuilt again throughout the years — Pha That Luang is considered the most important national monument and symbol of Laos.
Glimmering under sun, the enormous golden stupa is a sight to behold. It stands in the center of the grounds of the entire temple complex; which also houses other new temples, stupas and statues, as well as a golden Reclining Buddha. Entry into Pha That Luang costs LAK10,000 (~US$1).
5. Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket was built in 1818 during the reign of King Anouvong, the last King of Laos. It is believed to be the oldest temple in Vientiane, and is in a derelict state with peeling walls and run-down pillars — which to me, made the temple seem more ancient, more authentic and more real.
I loved admiring the fading murals about the life of Buddha that covers the interior walls of the main temple (which also houses a huge Buddha image); and strolling along the walkway that displays thousands of ceramic and silver Buddha statues of all sizes, seated on platforms and inside holes in the walls. Entry into the temple and its museum costs LAK10,000 (~US$1).
6. Haw Phra Kaew
Just across the road from Wat Si Saket is Haw Pha Keow, initially built in 1565 but was restored many times throughout the years (latest in 1993). It once housed the famous Emerald Buddha, and it stayed there for 200 years before being taken by the Siamese forces in 1779 (and now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok). The temple was converted into a museum in the 1970’s, and now showcases a wealth of religious art in the form of Buddha images, Khmer carvings, and holy relics.
The museum is small and the building looks new — therefore to me, the temple isn’t as impressive as the other ancient temples around the city, but is still worth a visit for its part in Vientiane’s history. Entry is LAK10,000 (~US$1).
7. Wat Si Muang
Wat Si Muang was packed with locals offering their prayers during our visit — it is the most popular worship site in Vientiane (with tons of stalls selling prayer items in and around the temple). Built in 1563, the temple is named after the guardian of the city, Si Muang, a young pregnant girl who sacrificed herself to appease the angry Gods.
Many people come to the temple to pray in its two main halls — it is believed that should you make a wish here and it is granted, you should return and give your offerings or fulfill your promises. The temple is intricately decorated with gold and red designs and carvings, and the grounds are filled with beautiful sculptures of religious images. I enjoyed walking around. Entry is free.
8. Vientiane’s Shopping Streets and Markets
The Vientiane Riverside comes to life as the sun goes down. An incredibly long row of stalls with red-roofs set up their businesses for the night along the Chao Anouvong Park promenade. Just like most of the night markets in Southeast Asia, the Vientiane Night Market offers everything from paintings and souvenirs, to clothes, jewellery and knick-knacks at a bargain (and lots of haggling)! We also visited the Talat Sao Morning Market during the day — it sells almost the same things as the night market, minus the open-air relaxed surroundings. We noticed a brand new area on the riverfront with concrete (and a more permanent) stalls that seem to be opening up soon (2018).
For food (and a modern, hipster shopping option), the Walking Street is a newly opened dining and shopping area in the middle of the Vientiane New World shopping district. But for something more street-style — the Ban Anou Night Market offers a variety of Laotian street food.
9. Sunset by the Riverside
The Mekong River (that runs through most of Southeast Asia), also runs through Vientiane, and parts of Laos. The best time to head to the Vientiane riverside is in the evening; when you can stroll along the Night Market, join in the crowds for an aerobics session on the riverside promenade, and best of all… watch the lovely colors of the setting sun against the river.
During our two days in the city, we visited the riverfront twice — the clouds blocked the sunset on the first day while we were chilling at the Suntara Restaurant rooftop (the Beerlao made up for it); but we managed to catch the sunset on the second day at the riverside promenade (with kitsch ’90s pop songs playing in the background for the aerobics session). It is a pity that the river looks pretty dried up; but I still really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere just sitting with the locals, and sharing a beautiful view.
10. Food, Food and More Food
And finally, the food. I really enjoyed my meals in Vientiane. From traditional Laotian dishes and street food, to French breakfasts and the best cheesecake I’ve had in a while — I was relishing the gastronomic delights in the city.
We had a wonderful breakfast spread at Le Banneton, a local French bakery (the bread was toasted to perfection); full Laotian meals (of laap, river seaweed, fish soup and papaya salad) at Pha Kaw Lao Restaurant and Lao Kitchen; a Laotian hotpot dinner at Dok Champa Restaurant; and a lovely cuppa coffee and the most delicious ‘Rare Cheesecake with Passion Fruit Sauce’ at the quaint Cafe Ango. Cafe culture is strong in Vientiane, which can be seen with the many many pretty cafes tucked in small corners around the city center.