Long tree-lined avenues, French colonial buildings, Vietnamese-Chinese chophouses and ancient temples remain to give this classic Indochinese city its particular timeless charm.
The fundamental allure of the city is centuries old: its location along a long stretch of the Mekong River, its pungent traditional foods and the low-key Buddhist culture that has sprinkled gracious temples and monuments throughout the city. High on the list of any visitor to Vientiane is Wat Sisaket, a picturesque Buddhist monastery containing what is thought to be the oldest structure in Vientiane. Another top attraction is golden-spired That Luang, best viewed at sundown for the effects of the sunset on its golden surface. In addition, the museum of Lao art, housed in the former royal temple of Haw Pha Kaew, and the Lao National Museum - an anachronistic hangover from the days of banner-hoisting socialism are also worth a visit.
If you need a break from Vientiane or have time to kill while your visa is being processed, it's easy enough to get out of the city in under an hour. The Vientiane province which borders the municipality will offer you the so – different but fascinating activities. The beautiful Vangvien and huge Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir is a pleasant retreat for boating, fishing and swimming, with scores of islands to explore, as well as a casino.
Slightly further afield but still within day-tripping range of Vientiane is the laid-back resort town of Vang Viang. Set amid spectacular scenery on Route 13, Vang Viang is a popular halfway stop between the capital and Laos's other major tourist city, Louang Phabang, and a major recreational centre in its own right, with hiking, river tubing and cave exploring among the activities on offer.
The City’s Attractions
1. That Luang
That Luang as the National Symbol is featured on the National Emblem of Laos. It was constructed in 1566 by King Say Setthathirath in a typical Lao style and is one of the best known That or stupas in Laos. Laos’ largest Buddhist festival of the year is held here on the full moon of the 12th month of the Buddhist calendar.
Archeological evidence suggests that, like most central and southern Lao Buddhist structures of significance, That Luang was built on top of an ancient Khmer site. What the original Buddhist stupa looked like is a mystery, but a Dutch trader, Gerritt van Wuysthoff, who visited Vientiane in 1641, left an awestruck account of the gold-covered "pyramid" he saw there. Between then and the early nineteenth century, the stupa was embellished and restored periodically, but this ceased after the 1828 Siamese raid which left the capital deserted. When French explorers Francis Garnier and Louis Delaporte stumbled upon That Luang in 1867, it was overgrown by jungle, but still largely intact. A few years later, Chinese-led bandits plundered the stupa looking for gold, and left it a pile of rubble. A photo on display in the National Museum, taken in the late 1800s to commemorate the visit of a group of Frenchmen, gives some indication of the extent of the devastation.
A French attempt at restoration was made in 1900, after which the stupa was disparagingly referred to as the "Morin Spike", a snipe at the architect, whose idea of a Buddhist stupa resembled a railroad spike turned on its head. Dissatisfaction with the design eventually led to another attempt in the 1930s. Using sketches done by Delaporte as a model, a re-restoration in brick and stucco was carried out over four years, and what you see today are the results of this effort.
The tapering golden spire of the main stupa is 45m tall and rests on a plinth of stylized lotus petals, which crowns a mound reminiscent of the first-century-BC Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, India. The main stupa is surrounded on all sides by a total of thirty short, spiky stupas, which can be reached via any of four gates in the crenellated walls that support the monument. The whole is in turn surrounded by a cloistered wall, vaguely Chinese in style. Within the cloisters is a collection of very worn Buddha images, some of which may have been enshrined in the original Khmer temple that once occupied the site. Until just a few years ago, only the stupas' spires were "gilded", but with the passing years, more and more gold paint has been applied, so that now even the inner walls and their crenellations are gold. The effect is best seen just before sunset or during the evenings leading up to the That Luang Festival, when the stupa is festooned with strings of lights, and moths the size of sparrows circle and cling to its glowing surface.
Patousai, or Arch of Triump, was formely known only as Anousavary (monument). Centrally located on Lane Xang Avenue, this monument was built in the 1960 commemorate those who died in past wars. It was modeled after the Arc de Triumph in Paris, yet retains its Laotian identity with traditional decorative motifs. Climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city.
It has been said that, along with coffee and baguettes, the Lao inherited a taste for pompous town planning from the French. Lane Xang Avenue, leading off north from Setthathilat Road, was to be Vientiane's Champs Elysées and Patouxai, 1km from the Presidential Palace, its Arc de Triomphe. While it would be impossible to mistake seedy Lane Xang Avenue for Paris's most famous thoroughfare, if you were to stand at a fair distance and squint, you might be able to convince yourself that Patouxai resembles its Parisian inspiration.
Patouxai is best visited in the early morning before the structure has had time to absorb much heat from the sun's rays. A handful of vendors selling souvenirs and refreshments are sheltered by a ceiling adorned with reliefs of the Hindu deities – Rahu devouring the sun, Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra on Airavata, the three-headed elephant. Decorating the walls just below the ceiling are characters from the Ramayana. Up close, it looks somewhat crude and unfinished, but the view of Vientiane from the top is worth the climb.
3. Vat Phra Keo
Vat Phra Keo was constructed in 1565 by King Xayasethathirath when he moved the capital of Lan Xang to Vientiane. It housed the Emerald Buddha before it was taken to Bangkok by the Siamese in the 19th century. Today it is a museum, which holds one of the most extensive collections of Buddhist artifacts in the country.
Vat Phra Keo was once the king's a personal place of worship, but now functions as a museum of art and antiquities. The museum houses the finest collection of Lao art in the country. Bronze Buddhas, many looted of the inlay that once decorated their eyes, line the terrace surrounding the building. Inside are some exquisite works, one of the most striking being a Buddha in the "Beckoning Rain" pose (standing with arms to the sides and fingers pointing to the ground) and sporting a jewel-encrusted navel. Also of note are a pair of eighteenth-century terracotta apsara, or celestial dancers, and a highly detailed "naga throne" from Xiang Khuang that once served as a pedestal for a Buddha image. Next to the throne stands an elaborate candle holder of ornately carved wood and almost identical to one still in use at Wat Sisaket. An arched metal rod attached to the wood is where the lighted candles were placed.
Outsized bronze statues of a kowtowing Lao boy and girl on the lawn outside the museum were once part of a tableau that included the statue of explorer Auguste Pavie. The Frenchman's statue is now located inside the French embassy compound across the street. Sheltered under an adjacent pavilion is a sample stone urn from the Plain of Jars, but this small, broken jar is a rather poor specimen and not really typical of those at the site.
4. Vat Sisaket
Vat Sisaket is the only temple in Vientiane that has survived the destruction of the city by the Siamese in 1828. It is the oldest monastery standing intact in its original form, and certainly one of the most interesting in the whole country. Inside the main hall, and along the walls of the courtyard surrounding it, are hundreds of little niches and shelves containing a total of 6840 Buddha images.
Built in 1818 by King Anouvong, Wat Sisaket is not only the oldest standing temple in Vientiane, but it is also one of the oldest monasteries in the country where many important documents and treasures are housed.
Surrounded by a tile-roofed cloister, the sim (temple) contains some charming murals similar in style to those found at Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew. The murals, together with the niches in the upper walls containing small Buddha images, and the ornate ceiling, are best taken in while kneeling on the floor. The Buddha images on the altar are not particularly notable, but a splendidly ornate hao thian, or candle holder, of carved wood situated before the altar is an example of nineteenth-century Lao woodcarving at its best.
Outside, the interior walls of the cloister echo those of the sim, with countless niches from which peer diminutive Buddhas in twos and threes. Lining the galleries are larger images that survived the destruction of 1828 and, in a locker at the western wall, a heap of Buddhas that did not. The shaded galleries are a cool and pleasant place to linger and soak up the atmosphere. Breaching the wall that runs along Lane Xang Avenue, the structure with the multi-tiered roof is the monastery's former library (closed to the public), where its palm-leaf manuscripts were once kept.
5. Lao National Museum
Lao National Museum where Lao history meets Marx in Vientiane's funky relic of the class struggle.
Just north of Nam Phou, on Samsenthai Road, the Lao National Museum is housed in the former mansion of the French résident supérieur and set in overgrown grounds with a hideous fountain and plumeria (frangipani) trees, the delicate blossoms of which are the national flower of Laos. Until recently known as the Lao Revolutionary Museum, the institution deals primarily with the events, both ancient and recent, that led to the "inevitable victory" of the proletariat in 1975. Inside, Laos's ancient past is crudely depicted on canvas, with scenes such as crimson-clad Lao patriots of yore liberating the motherland from Thai and Burmese "feudalists". Upstairs there are more crude oils: "French colonialists" are depicted as hair-faced ogres bullwhipping tightly trussed Lao villagers or tossing Lao tots down a well. Black-and-white photographs take over to tell the story of the struggle against "the Japanese fascists" and "American imperialists". Most of the best artifacts on display, including a wonderfully detailed Khmer sculpture of Ganesh and a bronze frog-drum, possibly used in ancient rain-making rituals, didn't fit neatly into the official socialist story line, and were, until recently, very neglected.
6. Talat Sao (Morning Market):
The best place to begin a shopping tour of the capital. It consists of three main buildings located in the centre of town on Lane Xang Avenue opposite the post office and central bus station, this extensive market carries mostly durable goods, ranging from Lao handicrafts, textiles and jewellery to imported household appliances.
The expansive Morning Market or Talat Sao, center in the middle of the city, is opened all day everyday and it is here that you can find everything and anything on sale. You can buy beautifully hand-woven silk and cotton textiles, handicrafts and other souvenirs, baskets, silk as well as inexpensive everyday clothing, silver, and gold jewelry, and endless items of hardware and home ware. It is always full of life, with a million things to look at and friendly shopkeepers showing off their goods.
7. Mekong Promenade:
Take a stroll along the Mekong river, watch the sunset, enjoy barbeque and Beer Lao on the river’s edge, get a workout in evening aerobics, go shopping or simply watch people pass by: this pleasant stretch of the Mekong in central Vientiane has a little something for everyone.
8. Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park):
This park, conceived in 1958 under the direction of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Laotian monk, hosts a collection of larger-than-life sculptures that merge Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
Situated some 25km southeast of downtown Vientiane on the Mekong River, Xiang Khouan or the "Budda Park" is surely Laos's quirkiest attraction – a tacky tourist trap to some travelers, one of the most interesting sights in Vientiane to others. This collection of massive ferro-concrete sculptures, dotted around a wide riverside meadow, was created under the direction of Louang Pou Bounleua Soulilat, a self-styled holy man who claimed to have been the disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Vietnam. Upon returning to Laos, Bounleua began the sculpture garden in the late 1950s as a means of spreading his philosophy of life and his ideas about the cosmos. After the revolution, Bounleua was forced to flee across the Mekong to Nong Khai, Thailand, where he established an even more elaborate version of his philosophy in concrete.
Besides the brontosaurian reclining Buddha that dominates the park, there are statues of every conceivable deity in the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon and even a handful of personalities from the old regime. Near the park's entrance is a strange edifice that resembles a giant pumpkin with a dead tree sprouting from its crown. Entering the structure through the gaping maw of devouring time, you can explore representations of the "three planes of existence": hell, earth and heaven. The crude and cobwebby figures that populate these rooms are reminiscent of a child's nightmare and, although the interior is rigged with electric lights, they aren't always turned on, so bring a torch (flashlight) if you want to see anything. A spiral stairway leads to the roof of the building, which affords a view of the park.
9. National Ethnic Cultural Park
Located 20 km south of Vientiane, near the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, this park features cultural exhibits, statues of Lao literary heroes, models of traditional Lao houses, a zoo, children's playground and restaurant with relaxing seating along the banks of the Mekong river.
En route to the Buddha Park you'll pass the National Ethnic Cultural Park, some 18km from the capital. This is Laos's answer to the tour-the-country-in-one-hour theme park, which almost every Southeast Asian country finds it necessary to construct. Concrete replicas of the traditional dwellings of Laos's ethnic minorities double as snack stands, and there are cement models of dinosaurs. If you're heading for the Buddha Park with a rental car or motorcycle, a swing through here isn't much trouble.
A small town about 160 km to the north of Vientiane which is overshadowed by towering limestone cliffs honeycombed by caves and tunnels. It lies on a picturesque bend in the Xong river and offers magnificent views, walking trails and cave explorations. A pleasant resort allows visitors a delightful getaway from city life.
Vangvien is a scenic district of Vientiane province, enjoying excellent weather with breath-taking views of rock and limestone mountains (Pha Tang, Phatto Nokham), caves and rock outcrops overhanging the Xong River. At only three kilometers of its center, you'll find Tham Chanh, Tham Phra, Tham Baat, and Tham Leusi the holy caves in the Chang rocky mountains.
2. Nam Ngum Lake
is situated about 80km to the North of Vientiane. The beautiful scenery over the Nam Ngum River and its green valley is enhanced by the presence of a vast, spectacular lake. This is a man-made reservoir of a hydroelectric power dam, generating most of the electricity sold to Thailand. The forests with a big variety of woods are still there on the thousands of islands dotting the lake. It is a rewarding experience to cruise around by motor-boat or spend the day or the week-end at the many bungalows or on the "floating restaurant boat" to enjoy the picturesque scenes of water, island, forests and charming fishing-villages.
3. On the way to Nam Ngum Lake
, a short detour will take you to Vangsang, an 11th century Buddhist archeological site, where primitive Buddha images are carved right on the rock cliff. A salt extraction plant using traditional methods and the Zoo can be visited at Ban Keun.
Vangsang Cave or Elephant Court is home to the remains of an ancient sanctuary dated over 300 years before the foundation of the Lane Xang Kingdom. Located at km. 48 on Route 13 (north) Vangsang consists of 5 large pink sandstone sculptures and 2 huge Buddha images. This place has now becomes a tourist center and a weekend picnic area for Vientiane residents.
Located at Ban Keun Village in Thoulakhom District, the zoo is about 60 kilometers from the capital Vientiane . Exotic and rare animals from the jungles of Laos are featured in a surprising example of excellent animal management in Southeast Asia .
Others in the Northwest
Vang Viang reclines on the east bank of the Nam Xong River, snugly settled between a spectacular spread of sawtoothed limestone karsts to the west and rolling hills to the east. You could easily spend up to a week here cycling, cave exploring, tubing, rafting and hiking, or simply relaxing and enjoying the lazy country atmosphere, good food and idyllic landscape.
Depending on when you get here, the town can in the space of a few days become totally packed out or almost empty, as the tourist crowds ebb and flow. When Vang Viang is crowded, it can feel very crowded, and the centre of town can seem like an inland version of Thailand's Hat Rin on Ko Pha Ngan. Still, a pleasant walk in the cool of the morning to a nearby cave, or a lazy float down the river, will dispel any notions that Vang Viang has become irredeemably spoiled.
The countryside surrounding Vang Viang is full of enough day-trip options to easily fill up a week. Scores of caves in limestone karst outcrops, tranquil lowland Lao and minority villages, and Kaeng Yui Waterfall, all make worthy destinations for a rewarding day's hike while the Nam Xong River makes for a fun afternoon of tubing, kayaking or rafting – tubes can be rented at a number of shops on the main street leading to the market.