Vientiane, the capital city of Vientiane delivers a relaxing riverside break where one of the best things you can do is grab a drink and enjoy the sun’s spectacular show as it sets over the Mekong. Despite being the largest city in Laos and the hub of commerce and administration, Vientiane is still refreshingly laid back.
The city offers a great choice of accommodation, restaurants and pavement cafes some adding a French air with their style of architecture, which contrasts pleasingly with the old Buddhist temples dotted around. There are plenty of things to do after dark and bars cater to all tastes from backpacker beer haunts to elegant cocktail lounges. Navigating Vientiane is relatively simple due to its size and sightseeing can be done either on foot, by bike or by hiring a song-teow. The countryside is never far away, with rice paddies providing a backdrop to most streets. Culture buffs should make the Laos National Museum their first stop.
The country is decidedly laid back and some visitors may mistake this for a lack of ambition or laziness, but regardless, it's best not to expect things to run like clockwork.• How to get there
Set in the south of Laos, the capital city is close to the border of Thailand, and Udon Thani in particular. Of course there are many direct flights to Vientiane from all over SE Asia, but they tend to be expensive. If coming from Thailand a land border crossing by bus can prove to be much cheaper.
• Food and Accommodation
Down by the river is pretty much as lively as it gets in Vientiane. Various chilled-out riverside joints serve traditional Thai and Southeast Asian dishes to be enjoyed while overlooking the Mekong. Some restaurants reside on stilts others are sidewalk based, each offering a different experience of the surrounding area.
There is a distinct European charm when dining out in Vientiane, where you can watch the locals and tourists go about their business; an experience sometimes lost in the more hectic and polluted cities of Hanoi and Bangkok.
Alternatively, the restaurants with river views that overlook the banks of bordering Thailand offer a decidedly unique and relaxed choice for an evening meal – mosquito repellant is a must! The area is also renowned for mouth-watering Indian curry, complete with all the trimmings. Away from the river, dining options are as varied as the eclectic group of travelers that frequent the area.
• Health and safety
Unfortunately, the local hospitals are still a “no-go” for foreigners due their lack of the most basic equipment and expertise. Most visitors in Vientiane visit the Alliance International Medical Centre, the French Embassy Medical Centre, or the Medical Clinic at the Australian Embassy.
The Alliance International Medical Centre is the newest medical centre in Vientiane. The clinic is operated by the Wattana Hospital Group of Thailand. The “Thai Clinic” is run like a small hospital, with general doctors specialising in several areas.
For more serious or life-threatening emergencies and surgical operations, it’s best to cross the Mekong River and go to one of the Thai hospitals in Nongkhai, Udon Thani or Bangkok.
Vientiane is the most laid back of all the SE Asia capital cities, and as such does not have the frenetic desperation of the big neighbours such as Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Crime is minimal but still the advice is to practice care and common sense. You are more likely to be asked for ID in Laos so always carry a copy (not the original) of your passport or ID.
• Where to go
Vientiane is known for its laidback atmosphere, and its list of quaint, crowd free, yet on the whole impressive attractions reflects this fact. Age old Buddhist temples are scattered throughout, while quirky riverside markets sit next to interesting cultural sites and colonial French architecture. Love it or hate it, life moves slowly here – but that gives visitors more time to enjoy the small everyday events that you might miss in the bustle of a bigger city.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) is a famous sculpture park with more than 200 religious statues including a huge 40-metre high reclining Buddha image.
The best spot for photography here is on top of the giant pumpkin structure standing about three stories high. The entrance is crafted to look like a demon’s mouth (about three metres high) with a stone ladder inside leading to a bird's eye view of the entire Xieng Kuan Park.
It was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. This explains why his park is full not only of Buddha images but also of Hindu gods as well as demons and animals from both beliefs.
The most outstanding ones include Indra, the king of Hindu gods riding the three-headed elephant (aka Erawan and Airavata), a four-armed deity sitting on a horse and an artistic deity with 12 faces and many hands, each holding interesting objects. They are all equally impressive not only because of their enormous size but because they are full of interesting details and interesting motifs.
There is a local eatery and café offering food and drinks to tourists at one end of the park right next to the Mekong River that makes a great spot to chill after all the walking and climbing. Among the popular snacks are papaya salad, fried bananas and cold Lao beer. It also has a souvenir shop and restrooms. There is a small fee for entering the park as well as for photography.
The Great Stupa (That Luang)
That Luang, or the Great Stupa, in Vientiane is a national symbol (its image is on Laos’ official seal) and also the most sacred monument in the country. From the outside That Luang looks more like a fortress surrounded by high walls and it features two temples with the main stupa, the top of which is covered with gold leaf, standing 148 feet tall.
The beautiful architecture is in Lao style, influenced by Buddhist beliefs – these include finely gilded, red-lacquer doors, pointed lesser stupas, many Buddha images and beautiful flower and animal images.
Locals say that it was originally built as early as the third century to house a breastbone of the Lord Buddha, brought to Laos by an Indian missionary. However, the current structure was built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer ruin. He named Vientiane the capital after Luang Prabang in the mid-sixteenth century. An elegantly crafted statue of him stands in front of the main entrance to That Luang.
That Luang was greatly damaged by the Burmese, Chinese and Siamese during invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries then was basically left alone until French colonial times. Restoration work was completed in 1900 by the French and for a second time in 1930, again with the help of the French.
Every November when the Boun That Luang Festival is held in Vientiane, a large crowd of followers and tourists come to town from all over Laos and neighbouring countries. The festival is considered the most important Buddhist celebration in Laos with many activities going on for three days and three nights. The main event is always held at That Luang and thousands of people come to pay respect to the stupa and to enjoy the colourful event that includes parades, live music and religious ceremonies.
The impressive Patuxai Victory Monument is one of the most distinctive landmarks amongst the modest Vientiane skyline. The massive concrete arch – reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris - is intricately designed with images of Hindu Gods and is topped off with five towers all in the traditional Laotian style.
The monument can be found at the centre of Patuxai Park, an area that makes for a pleasant evening stroll or place to relax. For a small fee you can actually climb (or take the lift) to the top of the tower - a great chance for some stunning city views, particularly at sunset.
Vientiane Night Market
The Vientiane Night Market is aimed primarily towards tourists, with clean, orderly stalls, and all manner of merchandise that make great souvenirs or mementos. It all begins around sunset when a small army of sellers begins setting up their red-roofed stalls directly on the riverside promenade.
Products on offer are fairly typical of night markets throughout the region. You will find a predictable array of Buddhist-inspired paintings and knickknacks, cheap sunglasses, and Beer Lao T-shirts. The clothes stalls tend to be geared towards the backpacker market with fishermen pants and one-size-fits-all dresses and skirts. With only $US10 in your pocket you can pick up at least a couple of products here, but, for bargain hunters, it’s worth mentioning that everything on offer here can be found at a slightly cheaper price at other markets. The traders seem to have whittled down all the best-sellers from the Morning Market and set them up in more attractive, and convenient, surroundings.
As with all tourist markets, English is widely spoken but be prepared to test your bargaining skills because initial prices are always inflated, and you should never accept the first price quoted. Most of the products can be found at several stalls so it helps to wander around to find the best price. A little perspective is advised when it comes to the negotiation process however, as the difference of a few thousand Kip is negligible when converted to foreign currency. Even if you have already stocked up on souvenirs and aren’t really planning to buy anything, an enjoyable few hours can be spent browsing and people watching down by the river. It seems to be the Laotians’ favourite pastime.
The one noticeable absence from the market is the lack of food stalls, but with Vientiane being so small there is pretty much every kind of food imaginable only a stone’s throw away.
Nowadays, instead of the riverside bars, there is a children’s playground, a Chinese shrine, a flower garden and an imposing statue of Chao Anouvong, pointing across the Mekong towards Thailand. It’s all part of the transition from sleepy colonial backwater to modern capital city that’s taking place in Vientiane. The Riverside Night Market is the most ascetically pleasing shopping experience to be found in Vientiane and the best place to find some interesting clothes or gifts without breaking the bank. All life seems to gravitate towards the market anyway, so it’s probable that even short-stay visitors will spend some time here.
Lao National Museum
A visit to the Lao National Museum, also known as the Lao National History Museum, is an excellent way to learn about the history, culture and people of Laos while spending a couple of hours out of the sun. Many of the exhibits are a bit faded and the old French colonial building is falling apart, but the museum covers a lot of ground, from prehistoric times to the modern day.
Although the range of artifacts and photographs is not as comprehensive or as well organised as you might expect in a national museum, there are nonetheless some fascinating exhibits here. The ground floor houses a mixture of ancient items such as dinosaur bones, pottery shards and Khmer sculptures that trace the early history of the region.
Upstairs, you will find more detail in the exhibits, which depict the turbulent modern history of Laos from the Siamese invasions and the French colonial period to the American military presence during the Vietnam War, and through to the present day. There is a heavy emphasis on the struggle for independence and the introduction of communism in 1975, which explains why the museum was originally named the Lao Revolutionary Museum.
Of the modern-day exhibits, many visitors find the one about unexploded ordinances from the American War the most fascinating and thought provoking. From 1964 to 1973, Laos was heavily bombed, and many unexploded shells remain scattered around the countryside.
Lao Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage
Spas and massage shops are in plentiful supply in Vientiane, offering something for every budget. But for something more memorable, take the three kilometre trip out of the centre to Wat Sok Pa Luang, and down a path to the side of the temple you will find a rickety old jungle house offering Lao massage and traditional herbal spa; a hand-painted sign points the way.
The traditional massage and herbal sauna experience at Wat Sok Pa Luang isn’t for everyone as the facilities are basic, on the other end of the spectrum to a fancy hotel spa treatment, without the sycophantic staff or exclusiveness. But what you do get is the most authentic experience, with true Laotian hospitality and massage beds so close to the forest you can reach out and touch it. This massage centre originally became famous as the place where nuns from the adjoining temple gave healing massages to monks. The nuns are no longer there, but the therapeutic and utterly relaxing environment lives on. Life here is so laid back.
Visitors are first asked to change into a sarong and then enter the sauna, a rustic wooden slatted outhouse. The steam is infused with an intensely fragrant mix of fresh herbs and spices, including lemongrass, basil, mint, rosemary and eucalyptus. These ingredients are prepared and placed in water that is heated on an open fire burning below the shed. The effect is like a steam-slap in the face, but you quickly acclimatize and with each deep breath, the herbs work their magic, opening up pores and cleansing lungs. Once you feel suitably relaxed, it’s time for a quick ‘shower’ using a big earthen pot, which is filled with fresh water from an underground well.
Next, it’s on to the massage. Laos massage is similar to its Thai cousin, just a little softer and more relaxing. It still gets the blood pumping into every muscle though, leaving you relaxed, yet more invigorated, like every good massage should. The traditional spa is really something different, as the sounds of the forest and the sunshine breaking through the bamboo shades are as central to the experience as the massage itself. Once you have been rubbed and massaged from your feet right up to your head, hot tea is served on the open veranda looking out into the forest.
This is the kind of leisure activity that is slowly being lost; replaced by modern spas with all the latest amenities but none of the mystical charisma. The traditional spa and herbal massage at Wat Sok Pa Luang is exactly the kind of therapeutic treatment that was taking place in Laos over a century ago when the French colonists were dotting the landscape with grand villas and allows visitors a chance to experience a side of Laos that is slowly slipping into the confines of history.