My initial impression of Vientiane was that it’s another humid Southeast Asian city that is dusty, undergoing huge development and crowded with tuk tuk drivers offering you their services at every corner. But within its grungy appearance, this former French colony surprises with its glittering temples and stupas, stylish old French villas, Instagram-worthy cafes, and laid-back lifestyle.
Situated by the banks of the Mekong River, the city of Vientiane is the capital of Laos, and the largest city in the country. Capital since 1563, the city is so steeped in history that involved invasion, colonization and war throughout the centuries… and finally, freedom and independence. Vientiane of the now has much to see and much to admire — and except for the dust (that gave me a bad cough), the more of Vientiane I discovered, the more at-ease I felt in the city.
I was in Vientiane with my travel buddy Wilson from placesandfoods.com; and during our short trip — we spent long days in the sun visiting its ancient temples, walking its historic streets, and sampling the yummy Laotian cuisine. So after 2 days in the city, here is a list of my favorite things to do in Vientiane.
1. Patuxai Victory Monument
The monument (or gate) that symbolizes victory, the Patuxai Victory Monument was built between 1957 to 1968 and stands tall in the center of Vientiane. It’s easy to spot the structure towering above the smaller buildings around the city — it stands on one end of the main road that leads up to the Presidential Palace.
For LAK3,000 (less than US$0.5), we climbed up to the top of the monument for a panoramic view (and lots of photos!) of Vientiane. Patuxai resembles the Arc de Triomphe of Paris (and is sometimes referred to as the Laotian version) — but the architecture is Laotian, and we noticed lots of sculptures and decorations of Buddha and other mythological beings on its walls.
2. Buddha Park
Built in 1958, Buddha Park lies about 25km (40-minutes taxi ride) from central Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan, the small park is scattered with beautiful Buddhist and Hindu sculptures — there’s even a gigantic Sleeping Buddha and a mythical gourd that can be climbed for sweeping views of the park (the stairs are narrow and eerie with 3 levels of clay sculptures depicting hell, earth and heaven).
We arrived at the park a little before 9am and had it to ourselves, and were later joined by buses of tourists. Entry is LAK15,000 (US$2); and we took a taxi for LAK350K (US$43) — I think it was too expensive (but we wanted to avoid the dust); so for a cheaper option, take the tuk tuk for LAK250K (US$31), or the bus.
3. COPE Visitor Center
Stories of war and the effect on those involved are always heart-wrenching to hear and read about — and COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise, a non-profit organisation that provides rehabilitation services and access to artificial limbs and aids to the victims of UXO and those with disabilities across Laos) has a Visitor Centre that educates its visitors with informative exhibits on the unexploded ordnance (UXO) found around Laos, prosthetic displays, stories of the war that befell Laos, and documentaries on its survivors and UXO victims. Entry is free, but donations to help support COPE are welcomed. It was an emotional visit.
4. Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is a golden stupa in Vientiane, believed to be originally erected in the 3rd century by Buddhist missionaries from India to house a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Though the relic is no longer in its place, and the stupa has been built and rebuilt again throughout the years — Pha That Luang is considered the most important national monument and symbol of Laos.
Glimmering under sun, the enormous golden stupa is a sight to behold. It stands in the center of the grounds of the entire temple complex; which also houses other new temples, stupas and statues, as well as a golden Reclining Buddha. Entry into Pha That Luang costs LAK10,000 (~US$1).