Things to see & do in Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane can at times feel so laidback that it seems ready to slip gently into the Mekong, on whose bank it sits.
The atmosphere here is completely at odds with other Southeast Asian capitals such as Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Vientiane appears relatively untouched by modernisation, with its distinctly low-rise architecture, tree-lined boulevards down which tuk-tuks noisily trundle, and relatively few tourists. Here they joke that the ‘PDR’ of the People’s Democratic Republic actually stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush’, and you’ll find that even our whistlestop tours of Laos slow to a languid pace once they reach the capital.

Situated at the bend of the Mekong River, close to the Thai border, Vientiane was virtually destroyed by the Siamese army in the 1820s after an unsuccessful rebellion. When Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, colonists rebuilt the city which is why, wandering around, you’ll often see hints of Paris. Besides the Patuaxi monument, an homage to the Arc de Triomphe, this is most evident in the charming riverside old town with its cafe culture, and the fading but still handsome mansions.

What to see in Vientiane

Wat Si Saket

When the Siamese army ransacked Vientiane in 1827, only one temple in the entire city was left standing: Wat Si Saket. It was built by the leader of the rebellion against Siam, King Anouvong, the last king of Vientiane (he came to a very sticky end when his uprising failed). Part of the temple is now given over to a museum which houses some 10,000 images of Buddha, in varying states of repair, the oldest of which dates to the 16th century. Relations between Thailand and Laos are now far more amenable, of course, symbolised by the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge which links the two countries across the Mekong just south of Vientiane.

Buddha Park

Situated in a picturesque meadow by the river southeast of Vientiane, the Buddha Park is a pleasant and fascinating place to spend a few hours. The tree-lined gardens are dotted with statues, of humans, gods, demons and animals, most relating to Buddhism and Hinduism. None of the statues are ancient, but many of them are wondrously bizarre – you enter through the gaping mouth of a demon. Highlights include the 40m-long sculpture of a reclining Buddha, and a four-armed deity on horseback.

Pha That Luang

This 45m-tall golden stupa is a national monument and has become an iconic symbol of Laos – it’s probably the most recognisable structure in Vientiane. Said to contain a holy relic – a breastbone of Buddha – the stupa glows beautifully at sunset. In fact sunset really does appear to be the best time of day anywhere in Vientiane, especially by the river. One of the country’s most important Buddhist festivals is held here at full moon during the 12th lunar month, preceded by several days of festivities.

COPE Exhibition Centre

The Laotian Civil War ran alongside the war in neighbouring Vietnam between 1959 and 1975. From around 1961 the involvement of Russia and the United States, fighting their proxy war, began to escalate significantly and vast quantities of ordinance were dropped over Laos, much of it still unexploded today. Since the war ended, many civilians have been killed or wounded after stepping on leftover bombs, and the COPE Exhibition Centre serves two purposes: providing insight to the intensive bombing campaign, its causes and ongoing effects through its museum, and as a non-profit organisation supplying prosthetic limbs to survivors. Many of our Laos trips visit COPE for a sobering but ultimately inspiring take on the country’s recent yet little-known history.

Patuaxi

The Victory Gate bears a close resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, with distinctive Laotian flourishes in its design, and venerates those that died in the struggle for independence from France. It was built using concrete donated by the USA, originally intended for an airport, hence the monument is nicknamed ‘the vertical runway’. Climb a spiral staircase to an observation deck for sweeping panoramas across the city.

Riverside

Our Laos vacations usually spend a couple of days in Vientiane. During free time, the one thing you ought to do is get yourself some parklife down by the river. It’s a lovely spot to mingle with local people, join in with an open-air aerobics session, watch a procession of monks or browse the stalls at the night market that’s nowhere near as touristy as many others in Southeast Asia. Which is just so typically Vientiane.

Our top Laos Vacation

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Laos vacations, tailor made

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Best time to visit Vientiane

The climate of the Laotian capital is generally one of heat and humidity. The best time to visit Vientiane is during the dry season between November and February, when it tends to be a little cooler – it’s only around 21°C in December.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Benh LIEU SONG] [Intro: Francisco Anzola] [Wat Si Saket: Basile Morin] [COPE Exhibition Centre: Mario Micklisch] [Best time to visit Vientiane: Francisco Anzola]
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