Located on the banks of the Mekong, Laos’ charming Capital, Vientiane, is more of a sleepy overgrown village than the usual frantic, bustling South East Asian City.
Riding a bicycle around the quiet frangipani lined streets of Vientiane is a great way to explore the city and is certainly a privilege you can’t do in many of Asia’s capitals.
From the heavenly smelling bakeries to the grand colonial architecture, (there’s even a replica Arc de Triomphe monument!), you’ll spot the French influence everywhere you look. Yet, with monks with orange umbrellas wandering the streets and steaming noodle stands – the city has the distinctive Asian twist – of course.
The atmosphere is certainly laid back and unlike some places, you won’t be pestered for a tuk-tuk every five minutes – most of the drivers are asleep!
As the sun begins to set, head for the banks of the Mekong River. Take a seat at any one of the cheap riverside restaurants and try the delicious river fish. Sipping a Beer Lao as the sunsets overlooking the Mekong is a must.
Places to Stay in Vientiane
A focal point of the town is the ‘Nam Phu’ (Fountain) located on the main Setthariat Street, where you’ll find many of Vientiane’s popular restaurants, bars and cafes. There is a large selection of accommodation from your fancy riverfront colonial style hotel to your cheap youth hostel.
Things to Do in Vientiane
Buddha Park: About a half hour drive away from Vientiane, you’ll find Buddha Park. (Xieng Khuan) A quirky sculpture site that is home to over 200 concrete, slightly bizarre Hindu and Buddhist statues, including a huge reclining Buddha. The park was built in 1958 by a self-acclaimed Priest-Shaman named Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat who wanted to spread his philosophical and spiritual ideas through his sculptures. He also built a similar site just over the border in Nong Khai, Thailand called ‘Wat Khaek’ after he was forced to flee to Thailand because of the revolution in Laos. Many tourists hire a tuk-tuk for the whole day to explore Vientiane’s main sights, which includes the trip to Buddha Park.
Pha That Luang: Pha That Luang is a dazzling golden stupa situated on the East side of Laos’ capital, Vientiane. It is a highly important symbol of Buddhism and the national monument of Laos. Legend has it that this was once the site of an Indic temple dating back to the 3rd century that housed a piece of Lord Buddha’s breastbone. The temple is also the site of one of the largest and most significant temples in Laos taking place on the night of the full moon in November; when thousands of locals encircle the Stupa with candles. It’s a wondrous sight.
Patuxai: Vientiane’s concrete version of the Arc de Triomphe is at first an unusual sight in Laos. Built in 1969 to commemorate the people of Laos who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Climb the stairs for views over Vientiane.
Wat Si Saket: There are many temples in Vientiane, but the oldest and prettiest is Wat Si Saket, which dates back to 1818. With its pleasant courtyard and interesting murals the Wat makes for a worthwhile visit.
Cafe Culture: Inspired by the French, Vientiane has a great cafe culture. Had your fill of noodle and rice dishes? You’ll find delicious baguettes, pastries, cakes and fresh baked goods in Vientiane’s selection of great eateries. Some of the best include Joma Bakery, the Scandinavian Bakery and Croissant D’Or.
Khop Chai Deu: With live music and an always vibrant atmosphere, the restaurant/bar ‘Khop Chai Deu’ is one of the most happening spots in Vientiane. Located on the corner of Settharitat Street, opposite Nam Phu fountain, it’s a great place to meet other backpackers and have a few more of those essential Beer Lao’s!
Monk Chat: Some of the temples in Vientiane offer a weekly ‘Monk Chat’ where foreigners are invited to speak to the monks, learn a little more about Buddhism and ask questions about their lifestyle. For the monks, it’s a great opportunity for them to practice their English. Foreigners must wear appropriate clothing and be respectful at all times. (Touching the head of a Monk is not allowed and women should not touch a Monk at any time.)
Visit the UXO Museum: During the Vietnam / American War, more bombs were dropped on Laos than on the whole of Europe during World War One! And, ironically, Laos was not even involved in the war in which they suffered such hardships. The sad truth is, that today there are many unexploded mines littered across the countryside, still today causing injuries and loss of limbs to many. The Museum explains the work being done to uncover the mines and prevent further injury – volunteers and donations are much needed.
Laos Adventures: There are many adventures that can be planned from Vientiane, such as trekking, biking, rafting and stays in eco-villages. Green Discovery is a well-respected company that can help you explore the surrounding area.
Getting to Vientiane:
From elsewhere in Laos:
- From Northern Laos: Many people travel by bus from Vang Vieng which is a three-hour journey.
From elsewhere in South East Asia:
- From Thailand (Nong Khai): From Bangkok, many backpackers take an overnight sleeper train to Nong Khai on the Thai / Laos border. (It’s also a popular route for those doing a border run from Thailand, as Vientiane is one of the closest places with a Thai Embassy offering a free 60-day tourist Visa.) From Nong Khai, it’s a short bus journey across the friendship bridge to Laos.
- From Vietnam: The journey ‘Hanoi to Vientiane’ is renowned in backpacking folklore as an epic bus trip, taking at least 24 hours and with lots of shenanigans taking place on the way! From tales of travellers getting abandoned at the border because they won’t pay to stay in a hotel for a few hours, to stories of sharing the journey with the aisles packed with rice bags and livestock, it’s certainly an experience and gives you some good stories!
- Fly to Vientiane from South East Asia: Laos’ main airport ‘Wattay Airport’ are starting to cater for more international flights. Try cheap local airlines such as Air Asia for flights to and from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur, Phnom Penh, Chiang Main, Bangkok, Siem Reap and a few other nearby destinations in South East Asia. There is a $10 USD departure tax for international flights.
Where to go next?
- Vang Vieng: Vang Vieng is now rediscovering itself as an eco-tourism hub after the notorious activity of tubing has been forcibly calmed down…
- Tha Kaek: Deep in the heart of the central Laos countryside, Tha Kaek is the starting point for a legendary scooter adventure through stunning scenery and friendly villages.
- Four Thousand Islands: (Si Phan Don) Take it easy, relax, then just chill out some more! There’s little else to do here in this backpacker hang out, (the main island being Don Dhet), just one of the tiny islands sprinkled on the vast Mekong. Spend your days lazing in a hammock spotting the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin.
- Hanoi (Vietnam): Buses crammed with backpackers leave every day heading for Vietnams capital Hanoi. Take lots of snacks it’s going to be a long ride!
- Nong Khai (Thailand): Just across the border into Thailand is the pleasant and often overlooked town of Nong Khai. A great riverside market and fish restaurants and some great surrounding countryside to explore, Nong Khai is worth a few days stopover.