While it may be South East Asia’s smallest capital, Vientiane lacks nothing in terms of character and atmosphere. Sporting an obvious French influence and a smattering of later Soviet style buildings, the city is organized in a simple grid pattern and all its attractions are easily reached on foot or by bicycle. Nearby Phou Khao Khouay National Park offers a reprieve from the big city for the more nature-focused traveler.
Despite being a relatively large city, Vientiane is a pedestrians dream. The majority of the city’s sights are located in the dense city centre, and almost everything else is easily reachable with a quick bike ride or walk. Perhaps the most stunning monument in the city is Patuxai, Vientiane’s very own Arc De Triomphe. Officially named the “Victory Monument” it celebrates those that lost their lives in the pre-revolutionary wars. Constructed in 1969, it looks a little out of place amongst the more traditional monuments, but is a spectacular structure nonetheless.
Like everywhere in Laos, there are also many temples to visit. Wat Si Saket has the distinction of being the oldest in Vientiane, while Haw Pha Kaeo once served as the original resting place of the famous Emerald Buddha. The most visited temple is Wat Si Muang, which is home to the “city pillar” said to be where the guardian spirit of Vientiane resides, as well as a copy of the Emerald Buddha and an older Bronze Buddha that the locals believe can grant wishes. In Wat Chathabuli, an even larger bronze Buddha sits overlooking the mighty Mekong while Wat Mixai features imposing heavy gates flanked by ever watchful guardian statues. Finally you have Wat Ong Tey Mahawihan. Situated on a site used for religious ceremonies since at least the 200’s AD, it was sadly destroyed during the Indochina wars, but has since been rebuilt to its former glory. Pha That Luang is easily the country’s most important monument, and viewing it is a must for any visitor to Vientiane. Buddhist doctrine is engraved around the stupa in three tiers, and guests are encouraged to spend their time there in contemplation of these ideas and maxims. According to local legend, the pillar was constructed by Buddhist missionaries from Ashokan India, for the purpose of housing one of the Buddhas breastbones, which they had transported to Laos.
Perhaps the most influential individual in Laotian history, Kaysone Phomivan is certainly revered as a national hero in modern Laos. To learn more about the man, you can visit his former house, now named the Kaysone Phomivan Memorial situated in a former CIA/USAID compound confiscated by the Pathet Lao in 1975. The living quarters are kept astoundingly undisturbed, with half empty bottles of scotch in the cabinet, tacky souvenirs from Soviet Europe on display, and winter coats used for state visits to Moscow hanging in the wardrobe. Aside from his house, there is also an entire museum (the Kaysone Phomivan Museum) dedicated to chronicling his life and rise to influence in Laos. Sadly many of the exhibits do not include translations to English or French, but there are guides who can be chartered to translate and explain where necessary. A remnant of a traumatic moment in the city’s history, the That Dam stupa was once resplendently covered in gold, but since Siamese invaders looted the golden plating, it has remained black and scarred in mourning and outrage at the event.
For the coffee lovers, a stop at Sinouk Coffee Pavilion is practically mandatory. Situated in the headquarters of famous Sinouk Coffee, you can spend a few hours observing and learning about the coffee production, all the way from the beans to the finished cup, which you will get to taste. If you’re up for a quick bicycle or tuk tuk ride to reach some of the more outlying attractions, you can head to Xieng Khuan, colloquially known as Buddha Park. Littered with sculptures from both Buddhist and Hindu mythologies, it was put together by eccentric Shaman Luang Pu, in order to combine the iconographies of both religions into a mesmerizing collage.
Also situated slightly out of Vientiane’s centre is Ocean Park. A bustling waterpark popular with both foreigners and locals alike, sporting a fun pirate theme and plenty of water-based activities. Once you’ve had enough of the big city, take a trip out to Phu Khau Khuay National Park Area. Covering over 2000 square kilometers, the park is by far the most accessible protected area in Laos, and treks ranging from a few hours to three days can be had here. The park itself contains three major rivers flowing out of a sandstone mountain range, and is home to numerous species of endangered wildlife. There are also plenty of spectacular waterfalls in the park. From nearby Ban Na, you can set out on day long treks to Tat Fa waterfall, or a shorter 1 hour trek to the old elephant observation post, where you can then spend the night under a mosquito net atop the tower, while the guides cook a traditional Lao dinner. From the picturesque riverside village of Ban hat Khai, you can trek into the cliffs of Pha Luang, or the forests of Huay Khi Ling. You can also organize camping trips, tents and all, to one of the three nearby waterfalls, Tat Xai, Pha Xai and Tat Leuk.
Finally you have Ang Nam Ngum, a massive artificial lake created by the damming of the Ngum river in 1971. The lake offers stunning sunset views from both the shore and peaceful lake cruises. What were formerly the peaks of the valley are now small isolated islands. Two of these islands were used to exile prostitutes and petty criminals after the Pathet Lao takeover of the country in 1975.
As the capital of Laos, Vientiane has plenty to offer in terms of culture and arts. The Centre Culturel et de Cooperation Linguistique hosts dance and art exhibitions, discussions on literature, live music and even French cult films. In the Lao National Opera Theatre, you can see classical operas, or traditional Lao plays and performances. For something livelier, you can pay the National Circus a visit, featuring spectacular acrobatics and even clowns.
There are also a couple of museums in Vientiane where you can get a taste of the local culture. First, the Lao National Museum, where many of the collections focus on the revolution, is appropriately zealous. You also have the Lao Textile Museum, displaying a range of traditional Lao textiles, although a visit should be booked beforehand.
Should you fancy a night out, you might consider giving the Lao Bowling Centre a visit. This bowling alley is one of the few establishments that are allowed to stay open late into the night, and is the traditional way for young Laotians to spend a night out on the town. Play some bowling, drink beer Lao, and hang out with the locals for a truly memorable night out in Vientiane.
Similarly, Vientiane has a lot to offer travelers’ palettes. A wide variety of international and fusion food can easily be found, as well as modern reimagining’s of Lao staples like Larb. Mekong fish is also a local favorite, either grilled or as part of Koy Pqa, a freshwater fish salad.
More than anything else, noodles is what Vientiane does best. Hundreds of different variations exist, with perhaps the most popular being Fer, a local version of the Vietnamese Pho.
Pi Mai, the Lao New Year (sometimes known as Songkran), is celebrated in mid April and is probably the country’s most famous festival. Lasting for three days, the celebration is one long water war, where everyone, including tourists are considered fair game. Get yourself a water-gun and join in on the fun, just watch out for sneaky youngsters waiting to dump a bucket of water on your head! While the festival is amazing fun and should not be missed, you should remember to regularly wash out your eyes using bottled water, as the water guns are often filled with water taken straight from the Mekong.
By comparison, Bun Pha That Luang, celebrated in early November, may seem like an almost relaxed affair. It’s the biggest temple fair in Laos, and it starts with a massive Circumambulation around Wat Si Muang, followed by a procession to Pha That Luang, which is beautifully illuminated at night all week long. After a week of festivities, the celebration climaxes on the morning of the full moon with the dak baht ceremony, consisting of thousands of monks coming from all around Laos to receive alms from the citizens. Finally, in October, Bun Nam is celebrated by numerous boat races down the Mekong, while the streets along the shore are lined with food stalls, discos, carnival games and beer gardens. The festival lasts for three days and nights, and feels entirely out of the ordinary compared to your more standard celebrations.