“Vientiane is one of the most beautiful cities in the world”
– said pretty much no one ever
If you have been travelling around Asia, passing through Bangkok, Hanoi or Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane is definitely lacks the “WOW” factor. It’s not ugly nor beautiful. It’s not boring nor interesting. Everything about this city is average. With a population of only 850,000, it is possibly the smallest capital city you will find in Southeast Asia.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to give it a chance, Vientiane actually has a lot going for it. From beautiful French-inspired architecture, to the many ancient temples and fascinating cultural stops, Vientiane might just be as enjoyable. The best part is, you’ll have the majority of places all to yourself without the stress of having photobombers.
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Appreciate the charming Patuxai Victory Monument
This war monument was built to commemorate the lives of those who fought for freedom from France and Siam. Known as the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane, the monument is uniquely designed with ornate decorations of Laos mythology and origin.
For a small fee, you can climb the spiral staircase to the top for a panoramic view of Vientiane.
Admission: Free; 3,000 Kip to climb up
Visit the oldest temple in Vientiane
Built in 1818, Wat Si Saket was the only temple not destroyed during Thai invasion in the 19th century. Still in its original form, there are more than 10,000 Buddha images and murals covering every inch of space in this temple. Most silver, stone, bronze, and ceramic Buddhas on displayed are between 100-400 years old.
Admission: 10,000 Kip (US$1.20)
Be awed by a 16th century colorful Wat
In contrast with Pha That Luang, Wat Inpeng the less visited temples found near the banks of the Mekong river. The temple was destroyed in 1827 during the invasion by the Siamese who destroyed most of the town. It has been rebuilt and renovated several times. Today, it is an active temple with resident monks.
Keep a look out for Black Stupa
Once glimmered under the weight of a pure gold exterior, and guarded by a seven-headed serpent (a ‘Naga’) that tried to protect Laos during the Siamese-Laotian war, the black stupa was what left behind today. A crumbling historical relic, it stands in the centre of a traffic island on a busy road like a heap of dirty bricks.
Watch a movie in Lao
If you think an old city like Vientiane can’t possibly equipped with a proper cinema, think again. On my way to COPE, i happened to pass by the mall and popped in to escape the heat.
Explore COPE Visitor Center
A visit to COPE Visitor Center is undoubtedly the one essential must-do, even if visiting Vientiane for only one day.
Between 1964 and 1973 the US army dropped over two-million tons of ordnance on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capital in history. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a non-profit based in Vientiane that runs rehabilitation centers aiming to provide care and support to UXO survivors, including orthotic and prosthetic devices and physiotherapy. Buy a souvenir in the gift shop or enjoy a coffee from the café will indirectly support the work of COPE.
Admission: Free (donations will be much appreciated)
Indulge in affordable French cuisine
It is not the local Lao cuisine you must try in Vientiane, it’s the FRENCH cuisine! Having colonized by the French from 1893 until 1946, Laotian still serves plenty of food inspired by the French. Most restaurants offer a 3-course set meal at very reasonable price (from 120,000 Kip), totally worth the try without flying to France!
Learn history in Lao National Museum
Set in a run-down but charming French colonial building, the museum is eye-opening and informative about this landlocked nation’s long and complex history. There are ancient pottery pieces and Khmer artifacts, Vietnam war-era weapons, drugs seized from raids and much more. This is probably one of the best places to visit in Vientiane to understand this undeveloped country better.
Admission: 10,000 Kip (US$1)
UPDATE: The Lao National Museum has a new home!
Wander around the eccentric Buddha Park
Built by a Hindu-Buddhist priest in 1958, the Buddha Park isn’t so much a temple but a collection of bizarre-looking Buddha statues. Locally known as Xieng Khuan (“Spirit City”), this quirky park is located 25-kilometers outside of Vientiane.
From Central Bus Station close to Talat Sao (morning market), take Bus number 14, a green and white bus that runs regularly to/from the Friendship Bridge. Buddha Park is a few kilometers past Friendship Bridge. This journey will take you 1-hour and cost 6,000 Kip (less than US$1). A shared tuk-tuk will take shorter travelling time but it will cost you 70,000 Kip (US$8).
Admission: 15,000 Kip (US$1.70)
Join in aerobics class by the promenade
As twilight is approaching, head to the riverside promenade and join in a public aerobics class. Classes set up at around 6:00 p.m. every evening in unison to the blaring music emanating from old-school enormous portable speakers.
Fee: 5,000 Kip (US$0.50)
Catch sunset along Mekong riverside
If working out is not your thing, take a seat on the concrete embankment and take in the glorious Vientiane sunset instead. It seems as though the whole of Vientiane turns out to enjoy the twilight hours here, and it’s a cool place to get a feel for the general vibe of Vientiane and chat with young locals eager to practice English with foreigners.
Get lost in the Night Market
Every night, the Chao Anouvong Park nestled along the banks of Mekong transforms into a bustling and vibrant night market. Though the stuff is more or less the same across its neighboring countries, the price is certainly much lower as it is meant for local shoppers.
Lastly, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @wanderrsaurus on Instagram!