The incredibly atmospheric city of Vientiane excels at glamorous French colonial mansions, exquisite Buddhist temples and stupas, diverse culture and some seriously tasty cuisine – in fact Laos’ capital is an absolute must on all Southeast Asian travel itineraries. Located in central Laos, Vientiane sits astride the mighty Mekong, very close to the border with Thailand.
Pha That Luang – This glorious golden temple (pictured above) is the cultural symbol of Laos and a visit to the Great Sacred Stupa, aka Pha That Luang, is a must. The most important religious structure in the country dates back to 1566 (although it has undergone many modifications) although legend abounds that Indian missionaries built a stupa here as early as 3 BC. Pass into the inner courtyard which is lined with a multitude of Buddha statues and get closer to the 45 meter tall stupa. This is the site of the important Bun That Luang Festival, which is held here each November around the full moon period.
COPE – A visit to this thought-provoking charitable foundation is essential – the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise specialises in providing prosthetics, wheelchairs and rehabilitation to those affected by Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). There are a series of moving documentaries, as well as exhibitions which details UXO, which it’s estimated still affects a quarter of villages in Laos.
Talat Sao, aka Morning Market – I think a traditional market is the best way to experience local life and this indoor example on Lane Xang Road is packed with residents browsing the plethora of goods on offer. One floor sells textiles, watches and electronics, whilst the other sells clothing, accessories and jewellery. Haggling, as in much of Southeast Asia, is expected.
Wat Si Saket – Vientiane is brimming with a mesmerising collection of temples, monasteries and stupas and the example of Wat Si Saket is undoubtedly one of the finest. Built between 1819 and 1824 this is thought to be the oldest original temple in Vientiane. Constructed in the Bangkok style by Chao Anou, the temple is particularly notable for its vast collection of Buddha images in gold, silver, bronze and stone – in fact nearly 7,000 fill the temple. One of the most intriguing cultural sights in Vientiane, there is also a small on-site museum.
Lao National Museum – There are a handful of engaging museums within Vientiane, including the National Museum, aka the Revolutionary Museum on the city’s Samsenthai Road. Housed within a low-level colonial building, the museum details Laotian life from 1353. The main exhibit serves to highlight the revolution during the 1970s via photos, artifacts, and re-creations of the battle for independence against both the French and Americans. Everything from pots, machine guns and dinosaur bones are exhibited within this former police commissioner’s house.
Haw Phra Kaew – This former temple on Vientiane’s Setthathirath Road today serves as a museum. King Setthathirath instructed the building of this highly ornate temple in 1565 in order to house his highly revered Emerald Buddha figurine, which was raided and now sits in the temple of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. War and rebellion destroyed Haw Phra Kaew twice and todays incarnation stems from the French Indochina period, being rebuilt between 1936 and 1942.
Buddha Park – Cross the Friendship Bridge into the intriguing sculpture park of Xieng Khuan which is a vast meadow filled with a collection of hundreds of Buddhist statues. Formed mostly in concrete, the Buddhist and Hindu deities were established in 1958. Buddha Park is a short taxi or tuk tuk ride from Vientiane.
Patuxai – The monument of the Victory Gate is likened to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, with the addition of intricate Buddhist embellishments. This version features four gates (rather than Paris’ two) and also stands ever so slightly taller. Crafted in 1969 from concrete donated by the USA, Patuxai sits within a park lined with palm trees. Visitors can climb atop Patuxai and enjoy the panoramic views over central Vientiane.
Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial – This museum opened in 1995 in honour of the late president's 75th birthday. Born in 1920, Kaysone Phomvihane served as the head of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party from 1955. He died in 1992 in this city and this memorial also served as his former home. The house itself is rather modest whilst the museum section details Phomvihane’s life.
Meet the monks – Dubbed ‘monk chat’ this is a monthly event held at the Sangha College (Wat Ong Teu), where local monks meet and chat (hence the name) with tourists. It’s a nice touch to meet the ubiquitous robed men that are such a common sight at the many temples in the town itself. As with all temples and stupas across Asia, do remember the rules regarding dress rules; women should dress modestly with covered arms and knees and men should also wear, at the very least, t-shirts and shorts. Shoes should always be removed before going into temples and homes of Buddhists.
Map credit; User:Burmesedays CC-ASA-3.0