From the Xieng Khuan to visiting the vibrant night market, Baia Dzagnidze tells us all about eight of the best things to do in Vientiane to capture the culture and history of Laos' capital city.
Vientiane, the active capital of Laos, is located in a curve of Mekong River and borders with Thailand. For several decades, Laos was a sleepy state, but as it started to gradually open up to tourism and foreign investment, Vientiane has experienced immense change and keeps on expanding.
Here, you can find monks in orange robes walking alongside tourists, French colonial villas restored into restaurants or small hotels and dusty streets adorned with beautiful frangipanis. Despite the fact that the country is quickly moving to the modern world, it still remains untouched by massive commercial and infrastructural projects. Therefore, the best time is now to discover the city's intact charm.
1. Explore the Xieng Khuan (the Buddha Park)
Filled with more than 200 Buddhist and Hindy sculptures, the Xieng Khuan park is a definite must-see landmark. Located 25 kilometres from the capital, the park is easily accessible via public transport or tuk-tuk, and you can also explore it as part of a guided full-day tour.
Built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, the Buddha park is a bizarre but absolutely amazing place to visit. The sculptures scattered across the park are of different height and shape, including a 40-metre high reclining Buddha. One of the important sculptures is a pumpkin-shaped structure that incorporates three floors and represents hell, earth and heaven. The entrance looks like a demon's mouth, while stone ladders inside lead to a bird’s eye view of the park.
Each sculpture is terrific in its own way, not because of their size, but because of interesting details and motifs crafted on them. It should be noted that a similar park does exist across the river, on the side of Thailand.
2. Visit the National Symbol of Laos
That Luang is a huge Buddhist stupa covered in gold. Located in the centre of Vientiane, the stupa is believed to have been originally built in the third century to accommodate a breastbone of the Lord Buddha. However, the present stupa was constructed by King Setthathirat in the 16th century, whose statue can be seen at the main entrance of the site. That Luang is an important national monument and a symbol of the country, attracting pilgrims from neighbouring countries for various occasions and festivals held here.
3. See the Replica of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris
Patuxai Victory Monument in the centre of Vientiane is dedicated to those who were killed during the independence fight from France, along with the nation’s previous invaders – Japan and Siam (Thailand).
Located at the end of the main avenue in the capital, a big, square arch is redolent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. However, it is customised to the country’s traditions and culture.
You can climb to the top for a small fee and enjoy panoramic views of the city, its old-fashioned districts, temples and greenery all the way to Thailand.
4. Shop at the Night Market
Every evening at around 5 p.m., the night market opens up on the boulevard along the Mekong River. Look for red-roofed stalls (they are hard to miss!). Everything you desire can be found here: souvenirs, personal care items, clothes, electronic devices, Beer Lao T-shirts, cheap sunglasses, snacks and more. Even if you are not planning on buying anything, it is a great way to explore the local lifestyle, enjoy the evening breeze and see a great sunset.
5. Learn the History
Visiting the Lao National Museum is a great way to learn about the culture, history and people of this great country. Situated in an old French colonial building, a former mansion of a French Governor, the exhibits here are a bit discoloured, while the building itself is falling apart.
Even if the variety of photographs and artifacts is not as broad and well organised as it should be in a national museum, there are however some captivating exhibits to see. Here, you can get acquainted with pre-historic items as well as modern history. The second floor of the museum features detailed exhibitions of Laos’ unstable modern history starting from Siamese raids, to the French colonial period and ends with the American military occurrence during the Vietnam War. The museum strongly highlights the fight for independence and the beginning of the communism era in 1975.
6. Explore the Temples of Vientiane
Laos' capital boasts many temples which are all scattered across the city. Unfortunately, none of them are very old due to constant invasions of neighbouring countries. However, they are still impressive, splendidly decorated and worth a visit. Sometimes you can even see ruins of ancient temples next to new ones. Wat Si Saket, Wat Si Muang, Wat Ho Phra Keo and Wat Ong Tue Mahawihan should be on your radar. You can visit some of Vientiane's temples on a half-day Vientiane city bike tour.
7. Help the Victims of Unexploded Weapons
During the American-Vietnam War, Laos was affected as well. More than 270 million bombs were released on the lands of the nation and it's said that 80% of them have never exploded. As such, remote parts in particular, remain dangerous for both people and animals.
A local non-profit organisation, Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), is another must-visit place once in Vientiane. The organisation offers clinical treatment and rehabilitation for locals with physical disabilities who became victims of bombs.
The organisation's visitor centre is an impressive museum and free to visit. You can make a donation or buy souvenirs to help the charity.
8. Enjoy a Traditional Herbal Spa Experience
Vientiane is full of spas and massage parlours, however for a more memorable experience, head to Wat Sok Pa Luang, situated three kilometres away from the centre. It should be noted that this particular venue might not be for everyone as the facilities here are very basic; though you get a very authentic experience and true local hospitality at the very heart of nature.