The sleepy capital of Laos is stirring: Vientiane, set on the Mekong River bordering Thailand, has slowly shrugged off its reputation as Southeast Asia's least happening capital city. Visitors enjoy the city's spacious French-style boulevards, colonial architecture, and bars hawking cheap Beerlao.
Travelers who just pass through Vientiane on the way to Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng do the Laotian capital a disservice—there's no better place to experience Lao food, a Mekong riverfront sunset, several beautiful historic temples, and the unique laid-back cheeriness of the Lao people. Many Laos sights and experiences justify hanging around a few days longer before moving on.
Wat Si Saket, built by King Anouvong in 1818, is the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in Vientiane. The Siamese army overran Vientiane in 1828 and razed everything to the ground, with the exception of Wat Si Saket; some say the temple's Siamese design spared it from destruction.
Like Buddhist temples in Thailand, Wat Si Saket in Xieng Yuen Village has a surrounding terrace and a five-tiered roof that distinguishes it from Lao-style temples. The structure holds an inner sanctuary filled with over 6,000 Buddha figures of varying sizes and ages.
Visitors entering Wat Si Saket must wear modest clothing and take off their sandals before entering.
Pha That Luang in the northeast of Vientiane is the country's most holy Buddhist monument, as it is said to house a relic from the Buddha himself. Constructed in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer temple, Pha That Luang has been successively ransacked and reconstructed ever since. The temple was last destroyed in the 19th century during the Siamese invasion but was later restored.
Pha That Luang's gilded dome-shaped stupa is an important symbol of all things Laos, appearing on the national seal and hosting the country's most important festival, Bun That Luang, held over three days beginning on the full moon of the 12th lunar month (around November).
For a monument built in the 1960s to commemorate the struggle for independence against the French, the Patuxai (Gate of Triumph) looks ironically like the French Arc de Triomphe monument, though the Laotian landmark's archways are adorned with mythical kinnari half-female, half-bird figures. The Patuxai was constructed with American cement allocated for a new airport runway. To this day, the monument is known as the "vertical runway" to allude to this historical fact.
The monument is in the center of Vientiane, at the end of the broad French-built Lane Xang Avenue. A fountain donated by the Chinese government sits beside it. Climb up the stairs to the top of the Patuxai for nice views from the upper floors.
No temple in Southeast Asia offers anything matching the Buddha Park's (Xieng Khuan), 200-plus Hindu and Buddhist statues, among them a 130-foot (40 meters) high reclining Buddha; Indra riding a three-headed elephant; a head with four arms in the cardinal directions; and a three-story-high pumpkin that you can climb.
The Park was the brainchild of Bunleua Sulilat, an artist and alleged cult leader. He created the park in 1958, using reinforced concrete as a medium for his mystic vision synthesizing Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. In 1978, Bunleua crossed over to Thailand, building Sala Keoku, a matching statuary garden along the same theme.
To get an inside perspective on Vientiane guided by an English-speaking expert, book a tour with Mam Holidays, such as an 8-hour excursion in an air-conditioned car that picks you up from your hotel. You'll visit the Wat Si Saket, Vat that Khao, Ho Phra Keo (Wat Ho Phakeo), and Pha That Luang temples; Buddha Park; and the Patuxai Victory Monument. Lunch at a local restaurant will be part of your exciting day.
The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) addresses the ongoing tragedy of unexploded ordnance (UXO) left by U.S. bombers during the Vietnam War. Decades after the conflict, these tons of hidden explosives in the ground manage to kill or injure Lao citizens regularly.
The free Visitor Centre (donations gladly accepted) at COPE educates people about the continuing carnage, with interactive displays that explain the damage done to ordinary Laotians, and the assistance provided by the foundation to the injured. COPE runs rehabilitation centers for victims of UXO explosions, providing prosthetic devices and ongoing physiotherapy to help them regain a semblance of their old lives.
The gift shop and the Karma Cafe donate proceeds to the foundation—every cent counts.
Shoppers looking for Western (and Westernized) items at higher prices are better off going to the Vientiane Center shopping mall. For more down-to-earth, farm-to-market retail, head to the venerable open-air Talaat Sao, or Morning Market.
Talaat Sao caters to both middle- and low-end shoppers; the former with its air-conditioned mall and rows upon rows of sports goods, jewelry, and cheap electronics, and the latter with its traditional market stuffed with dry goods, Lao handicrafts and bolts of traditional cloth.
As the name suggests, the Morning Market is best seen early in the day when vendors hawk their locally-sourced goods along the market's narrow lanes. To get the best deal, learn how to haggle with a smile.
The People’s Security Museum in Vientiane honors leaders who fought for the country and educates global visitors through permanent exhibits displaying the history of the public security force and the Ministry of Public Security. Through over 8,000 photos and objects, you'll learn about their local peacekeeping missions and collaboration with other international organizations on issues like human trafficking and illegal drug trading.
A statue of the tragic King Anouvong—who rebelled against his Siamese overlords and got his city burned down for his pains—sits overlooking Chao Anouvong Park.
The green space next to the Mekong River hosts runners, canoodling lovers, and tai-chi groups, all enjoying the fresh riverside air as stalls sell street food and knick-knacks nearby. The real show takes place as dusk creeps over the city: The Mekong sunset in Vientiane is glorious to behold.
The nearby Vientiane night market is the next logical stop, where you can buy kitschy souvenir shirts, Buddhist-themed items, and billowing pants (remember to haggle beforehand).
If you'd like to experience a new way of relaxing while on your trip, act like a local by treating yourself to a traditional herbal sauna and massage. There are many medicinal benefits of using a sauna with aromatic herbs. Follow it with a traditional Laos massage—you might find your body being stretched in new ways, and your session may involve a Chinese cupping practice, which creates suction on your skin.
Just 25 miles (40 kilometers) northeast of the city, Phou Khao Khouay National Park is a great day trip from Vientiane. With waterfalls, rivers, the sandstone mountain ranges of Phou Ho and Phou Sang, and several types of forest all around, the big park offers various outdoor activities from trekking to searching for orchids to kayaking and cycling. While sightings may not be frequent, there are elephants, bears, monkeys, and deer, among other wildlife in the dense vegetation.
Unwind on Rue Setthathirath
After dark, visit the cafes, bars, and restaurants within a few minutes' walk from Nam Phou Fountain just off Rue Setthathirath: The food and heady drink represent the better side of the last French occupation.
The latent French influence can be found in Vientiane's bakeshops, which also line Rue Setthathirath. The baguettes, fruit pies, and aromatic coffee in cafes like Joma Bakery and the Scandinavian Bakery, the country's first European bakery, will scratch your cafe itch.
Must-visit watering holes include Khop Chai Deu—a repurposed colonial villa-turned-beer garden with a down-to-earth local vibe—that also serves Lao and international cuisine.