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Laos >> Vientiane Travel Guides
The capital of Laos,Vientiane, is situated on the banks of the Mekong River across from Thailand. The small Thai town directly across the river is Sri Chiang Mai, but most visitors coming overland will go through Nong Khai, and then cross the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge. The city of Vientiane is some distance from the bridge, and you need to take a mini van or public bus to the city. There are direct busses to Vientiane from the bus terminal at Nong Khai, but you will need to have a visa for Laos already.
The name, Vientiane, comes from the Lao, Viang Chan. Viang means city or fort, and Chan means sandalwood. The modern name comes from the French pronunciation.
History records that the location was first settled around the 9th century AD, and was part of the early Lao city-states.
However, in the next 1,000 years, Vientiane was dominated at various times by the Burmese, Siamese, and Chinese. The golden age of the city came after it became the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom in the 16th century. Unfortunately, this did not last, and repeated invasions by neighboring armies, and the break-up of the Lan Xang Kingdom, doomed the once magnificent city.
In 1805, Siam installed Lao prince Chao Anou on the throne, but in 1826 he attempted to regain Lao sovereignty sending armies down the Mekong and into northeast Siam. He was defeated, and in 1828 the Siamese sacked and destroyed Vientiane. Only Wat Si Saket survived, and this is one reason why many of the temples in the city are of a relatively new origin. After that, the city was more or less abandoned.
Then in 1867 French explorers arrived in Vientiane, and in the late 1800s, it was made the capital of the French protectorate of Laos. The present layout of the city is due to the French who oversaw the rebuilding of the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Vientiane, like other French colonial cities, has broad, tree-lined boulevards, and old French colonial buildings. It follows a bend in the Mekong River, and the main roads curve along in a somewhat north to south orientation.
Vientiane has many Lao and international restaurants and cafes, boutique shops, guesthouse, and travel agencies. It is currently undergoing a kind of rebuilding, with old buildings being renovated into shops and guesthouses. The pace of life in this capital city is very relaxed and easygoing, and the sunsets along the riverside are great.
What To See
Lao National Museum
This colonial administrative building from the 1920s was turned into the Lao National Museum in 1985. It houses an eclectic collection of historical items with a heavy emphasis on the revolutionary period. Some parts are bring renovated with more displays featuring the culture, archaeology, and the history of Laos.
Victory Gate (Patuxai)
Somewhat akin to its namesake in Paris, this is a large concrete monolith at the end of Lane Xang Ave. in the center of a large traffic circle. However, this where the similarity ends. Built in the 1960s, it has four arches, instead of two, and is decorated with typically Lao bas-reliefs, and Buddhist temple ornamentation. There is a stairway inside leading to the upper levels, and there is a souvenir stand, and a drink stand..
The view from the top is excellent and well worth the effort, although it closes in the late afternoon, so there is no sunset viewing. The park adjacent to the monument is a very popular place for Lao people to gather, especially in the late afternoon.
Wat Si Saket
Situated on Lane Xang Ave., it is the oldest building in Vientiane, and is the only temple in Vientiane to have survived the 1828 Siamese destruction of the city. Built in 1818 by King Chao Anou in the early Bangkok style, it is surrounded by a roofed cloister which has thousands of Buddha statues in niches in the inner wall. There are beautiful murals, some dating from 1820 and others restored in 1913, depicting the life of Buddha. There is also an ancient library in the temple complex that once housed sacred texts. The temple is an excellent example of 19th century Buddhist temple architecture.
Phra That Luang There are many stupas in Laos, but Phra That Luang is the symbol of the nation of Laos, and of Buddhist religion in Laos. It was constructed in 1566 by King Setthathirat when the capital of Lan Xang moved to Vientiane. But after repeated attacks and looting by Siamese and Burmese armies in the 1700s, and the Siamese destruction of the city 1828, it was left in ruins. It was reconstructed twice by the French, first in 1900 and again in the 1930s. Originally there were temples on all four sides, but only Wat That Luang Nua and Wat That Luang Tai remain today. The stupa is 45m high from ground to the top spire, and is a dazzling sight with its tapering golden spires shining in the sun. It is the center of the annual That Luang Festival in November.
Wat Haw Phra Kaew Constructed in 1565, this was the royal temple of King Setthathirat, and was originally built to house the famous Emerald Buddha. However, after a battle in 1779, the Emerald Buddha was taken by the Siamese, and is now housed in the Wat Phra Kaew Temple in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. The temple was completely razed in the Siamese destruction of Vientiane in 1828.
It was rebuilt with French help in the 1930s and 1940s, and is now a museum of art and antiquities, and contains a fine collection of Lao artifacts and Buddhist art, with some very unique pieces. The temple also has a very nice landscaped garden.