Vientiane, the capital of Laos lies on the bank of the Mekong River. The city has kept its timeless charm with tree-lined avenues, brightly painted temples and quaint French architecture. Vientiane’s major attractions are the serene Buddhist monasteries that dominate the center of town. Among the most interesting temples, Vat Sisaket, Ho Phra Keo, Vat Ongteu and Vat Si Muang should not be missed. Another famous landmark is That Luang Stupa, the symbol of both the Buddhist religion and the Lao sovereignty. Vientiane also boasts a lively Morning Market where the best of Lao weaving can be found. Finally the surroundings of Vientiane offer great opportunities for eco-tourism such as boat trips on the Nam Ngum River and Lake or trekking in the Dane Soung area to discover antique Mon-Khmer sanctuaries and visit traditional villages. The National park (Phou Khao Khouay), popularly known as the mountain of the buffalo horn, is situated about 40 kms North-East of Vientiane. The most attractive visit is the trekking through the jungle and going up on to the tower to watch the wild elephants nearby Ban Na about 75 kms South of Vientiane capital.
Where to stay in Vientiane?
Vientiane does not have nearly the selection of accommodation as say Bangkok, but there are some solid choices and hotels that we highly recommend.
Green Park Boutique Hotel is capturing a Lao-style orientation with the finest contemporary architecture of Laos. The elegance of the interiors, both historic and contemporary combine to create one of the most stylish, luxurious and relaxing hotel. The Settha Palace Hotel serves as a testament to the long lost era of classical elegance, gracious service and French colonial charm. One of the most appealing hotels in the Lao capital, Ansara Hotel is designed in the French-colonial style. Rooms are decorated with flair and verve and several look out over the swimming pool. The Salana Boutique Hotel has a Lao contemporary style which is furnished by the real timber wood promoting a real sense of comfort and class.
What to see in Vientiane?
A full day city tour by bicycle or car exposes the main sites of the city and walks you through the historic periods of Lao culture. The tranquil Wat Sisaket was the only temple to survive the Siamese (Thai) invasion of 1827 and the beautiful wood-covered hallways are filled with thousands of Buddha statues. Directly across the street is Wat Phra Kaew which once held the Emerald Buddha now revered in Bangkok. The interior museum is a great place to learn about Buddhist culture and history.
A walk along Lane Xang Avenue might bring visions of Paris. Designed to resemble the Champs Elysees, this tree lined street in the centre of town even has its very own ‘Arc de Triomphe’. Slightly quirky, climbing to the top of Patuxai offers fantastic views of the city. Continuing out of town on Lane Xang Avenue, you reach That Luang. This magnificent gold-leaf covered stupa is the national symbol of Laos and one of its most important religious sights. Each fall, a massive festival is held in the grounds around the stupa and people from all over the country descend upon Vientiane to partake in the religious celebrations.
The capital is located on the banks of the Mekong River which forms the border between Laos and Thailand. In the late afternoon, the banks of the Mekong fill up with local stalls selling cold beers and fresh local food. Sitting by the river, you can watch the fishermen and catch a beautiful sunset view.
In Vientiane, you have the opportunity to discover one of delicious Laos Coffee. Laos produces one of the most famous coffees in the world that grown, often referred to as the ‘Champagne of Coffee’. Grown in Southern Laos on the Boloven Plateau, the beans are sought after for their delicious taste. A visit to the coffee centre will teach you more about the process of roasting and blending of the beans, and is concluded with a cupping tasting session.
For those interested in traditional crafts and textiles, a visit to Carol Cassidy should not be missed. Housed in a colonial mansion, Ms Cassidy has set up a series of looms and here traditional methods of dying and weaving are practiced resulting in beautiful, high quality silks. The charity shop Les Artisans Laos is a fascinating visit to watch recycled and renewable materials such as bamboo, palm, and mulberry leaves being turned in to quality notebooks, stationary and printer paper.
Learn about the tragic recent history of Laos at COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world and COPE provides prosthetic limbs for those who cannot afford it. COPE has a great display of information and exhibitions on the problems and work being done to help the victims.
If you have more than a day in Vientiane, it is worth it to take an excursion outside of the city where there are many delight to be had.
On the way toward the Thai border lies the bizarre Buddha Park. Built by an eccentric former shaman priest in the 1950s, this park has hundreds of stone Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. The Phou Khao Kway National Park is just an hour away from the capital. Here you can trek through dense forests, swim in cool waterfalls, and experience the diversity of Laos’ flora and fauna. A special Orchid Trek can be arranged, a unique experience where a local guide takes you on a journey through the park to try and spot some of the beautiful orchid species in the park.
North of the city is Nam Ngum Lake, the largest lake in Laos, and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Take a boat cruise on the lake and enjoy the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, hills and forests. With an abundance of fish in the waters, Nam Ngum Lake is a favorite fishing area for the locals and you will see the fishermen using hoop nets, regular nets and lines. Ban Pako, located 55km from the capital, is the perfect place to chill out and escape Vientiane. Set along the banks of the Nam Ngum River and surrounded by jungle, Ban Pako offers a glimpse in to the real rural Laos. A small eco-lodge, Ban Pako Lodge, is located there for those wishing to stay overnight.
Vientiane – Attractions
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang or Great Stupa is the most important national and religious monument in the country. This magnificent gilded structure was begun in 1566 by one of the nation’s most important rulers, King Setthathirat. The central stupa is enclosed in an imposing perimeter wall with cloisters on the inside, many adorned with Buddha images. Originally adorned with gold leaf, the main stupa has a brick core with a stucco layer on top. The whole structure was re-gilded in 1995 as part of the nation’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
The Patuxai Victory Gate
When the French took control of the country in the late 19th century they set about totally re-designing Vientiane in the same style as the Indochinese capitals of Saigon and Phnom Penh. The wide boulevards lend themselves to monuments on a grand scale and one such is the Patuxai war memorial. It was decided in the late fifties that Lane Xang Avenue - dubbed the Champs Elysees of Vientiane - should be crowned with its own version of the Arc de Triomphe (Patuxai in Lao means Gateway of Victory).
The temple was originally built in 1565 to house the Emerald Buddha. The Lao monarchy used this temple for their prayer services until Siamese invaders destroyed it (and took off with the Emerald Buddha) in 1828. The temple’s main features are the cloister walls containing over 2,000 Buddha images made of silver and ceramics and some original murals in the ordination hall depicting Buddha’s life story.
Vat Phra Keo
Originally the site of one of the city’s earliest temples, Vat Phra Keo is now a museum containing various religious and cultural artifacts. The most impressive displays are the Buddhist sculptures, some dating back over a thousand years.
Xieng Khuang (Buddha Park)
Situated 25km outside the capital, Xieng Khuang or Buddha Park as it is better known is well worth a visit. This bizarre creation of Luang Pu, a yogi mystic contains a host of Hindu and Buddhist statues ranging from Shiva and Vishnu to the Buddha himself. The statues and sculptures come in all shapes and sizes, some even large enough to climb around.
Nam Ngum Lake
Nam Ngum Lake is lies 80km to the north of Vientiane. The beautiful scenery over the Nam Ngum River and its green valley is enhanced by the presence of this spectacular lake, which is actually a man-made reservoir of a hydroelectric power dam, generating most of the electricity sold to Thailand. It is a rewarding experience to cruise around by motor-boat or spend the day or weekend at one of the bungalows or on the "floating restaurant boat" and enjoy the picturesque scenes of water, island, forest and fishing villages.
This small provincial town nestles along a scenic bend of the Nam Song River. The main attraction is the karst topography lining the west bank of the river with sugar loaf hills and dramatic cliffs covered by lush vegetation and peppered by caves and caverns, including the famous Tham Xang cave. During the 19th century, Tham Xang cave, with an underground spring and a stunning view over the valley, was used as a bunker in defense against marauding Yunnanese.