Compared to the hectic, bustling capitals in other Southeast Asian countries, Vientiane's deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you've done the round of temples, the best thing to do here has always been to wander down to the riverside, relax with a cold Beerlao - the national beer - and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
Of course, the booming tourism industry is changing this by slowly but surely bringing the excesses of Thailand and China to this formerly sleepy city. Just like any other Southeast Asian capital/major city, Vientiane is experiencing a building boom. Even its Presidential Palace is having a major makeover-addition and a new convention centre has opened recently.
Settled since at least 1000 CE, Vientiane became an important administrative city of the Kingdom of Lan Xang ("million elephants") in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane experienced a resurgence when it became the capital of the French protectorate, a position it kept after independence 1953, and was unchanged after the communist revolution in 1975. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 210,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.
Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the main roads running parallel to the river are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chanthabuli, contains most of Vientiane's government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lane Xang, runs from the Presidential Palace (now used for government offices and for state receptions) to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos.
Vientiane is best viewed as a comfortable transit point for other places in Laos, or as a recuperative stop on the way out. It's a pleasant enough place, but generally, there is little reason to spend more than a couple of days here.
· Lao National Museum (Revolutionary Museum ພິພິຕະພັນແຫ່ງຊາດ), Thanon Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). 08:00-12:00, then 13:00-16:00. Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are modest though very interesting in depicting some of the early history. They include one of the original Jars from the Plain of Jars and various stone and bronze age implements. The second floor provides us with a great insight into the 18th Century Laotian Kingdom and the customs of the day. It would appear that the Loatians didn't treat their guests quite as well in those days, often keeping them from leaving the country for several months. The floor builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese (Thai), French and American imperialists. Exhibits include items such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane's chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People's Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. The final rooms provide an insight into some of the modern advancements, though these are fairly dowdy and uninspiring. A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits are labelled in English, though some French labelling remains, occasionally to the exclusion of English. Foreigner: 10,000 kip, Laotian: 2m000.
· Patuxai (Victory Gate), Avenue Lane Xang.
A local rendition of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to trump the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a "monster of concrete" when seen up close - and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead: hence the nickname "the Vertical Runway". The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant though lacking of shade during the day time. You can climb up to the 7th story for a nice view of central Vientiane and three levels of souvenir shops with less than enthusiastic sales people sitting about. Features a musical fountain nearby that attracts visitors from around Laos and Asia, as well as a World Peace gong presented by Indonesia. Roving cameramen will be happy to charge you for photos near these attractions. 3000 kip (to climb).
· COPE Visitor Centre, Khou Vieng Road (1km from Talat Sao (Morning Market) Opposite Green Park Hotel). 09:00-18:00. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE, is a local not for profit organisation that provides orthotic, prosthetic, rehabilitation and advocacy services for survivors of UXO accidents and other people with disabilities in Laos. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), conflict spilled over into Laos in a secret war where more than 500,000 bombing missions dropped over two million tons of ordnance on the country. The COPE Visitor Centre provides visitors with the opportunity to understand the impact of UXO on Lao PDR, issues related to disability in developing countries and the work of the COPE project through a free permanent exhibition. The Visitor Centre is open from 9am to 6pm daily. Visitors are invited to watch documentaries on UXO, read survivor stories and interact with rehabilitative devices. The Visitor Centre also hosts a gift shop selling wares from local Lao organisations and the Karma Café where delicious homemade ice cream and Lao coffee are available. Exhibits are appropriate for all ages. Free parking. Free entry.
· The Art of Silk, Manthatourath Road, Lao Women's Union, ☎ 7719798 or 2202547. Mon-Fri 9am-4pm. A local magazine says "Phone before visiting as there is no permanent staff." free(?).
· Kaysone Phomvihane Museum, km6 Dongdok Road, ☎ 911215. Tue-Sun 09:00-16:00. Museum about Kaysone Phomvihane. Foreigner: 5,000 kip, Laotian: 2,000 kip.
· Lao People's Army History Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Nongsangthong, ☎ 900662. Tue-Sun 08:30-16:30. Museum about the army. Foreigner: 5000, Laotian: 2000.
· Memorial of president Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Phonsa-art. Tue-Sun 08:30-16:00. Foreigner: 5000, Laotian: free.
Temples and Stupas
Some temples (indicated below) charge an entry fee of 2,000/5,000 kip for Lao nationals and foreigners and are open 08:00-16:00, with a noon-13:00 lunch break. The monks of those that don’t charge a fee will be grateful for a small donation in the box.
· Wat Si Saket now signposted as Sisaket Museum. Entrance fee 5,000 kip. Corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Setthathirat. With very contemplative ambience, probably the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style and hence left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid in 1828. Within the cloister walls are hundreds of niches housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the centre of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha's past lives.
· Hophakaew Museum. Entrance fee 5,000 kip. Thanon Setthathirat (opposite Wat Si Saket). An elegant, and majestic structure, King Setthathirat's former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 - the image is now housed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew - and came back in 1828 to raze the temple for good measure. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. The temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, lithe, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down "calling for rain" pose.
· Black Stupa (That Dam). Thanon Bartholomie (off Thanon Samsenthai near the US embassy). The mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. It was renovated in 1995 but still has an attractive patina of age, and is slowly being overgrown again by lush grass vegetation. Warning: there have been dog attacks here at night.
· Pha That Luang. 5,000 kip Entrance fee (2,000 kip for Laotians). Thanon That Luang (2 km east from Patuxai). The national symbol and most important religious monument of the country, That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then. All days 08:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00. Accessing the inner courtyard gives you a slightly closer view of the stupa, and lots of Buddha statues. Vientiane's most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.
· There are two temples beside That Luang: Wat That Luang Neua to the north(ish) and Wat That Luang Tai to the south(ish), both presently being renovated.
· Wat Si Muang. Between Thanons Setthatirat and Samsenthai, about 1km east of the centre. Free. Disney-esque and gaudy in set-up, one would not think that it's a religious compound. Despite its small size, the temple is very active. Followers believe that lifting the small Buddha statue 3 times from its cushion means that your prayers or questions will be answered. The city pillar is being housed in a pagoda-like structure now being constructed separately on another block northwest across the street.
· Wats Onteu, Inpeng, Mixay and Haisok are along Thanon Setthatirat right in the town centre, and therefore the most likely temples to be visited by tourists.
There are many more temples all over the town, but it must be said that if you are out to admire temples Luang Prabang is the place to go, not Vientiane.
· Monk Chat. Once a month, local monks gather at the Sangha College (Wat Ong Teu) for chats with tourists.
· Green Discovery Laos, on Setthathirat Road (next to Khop Chai Deu). Agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism. They have a 100% safety record. The trips are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Green Discovery is committed to ensure that local people not only benefit financially from tourism but also are their true business partners by helping to develop our programs and activities. City tour Vientiane: See the landmarks and highlights of Tad Luang with its Buddha relics, of the Kaisone Phomvihane and Hor Pra Kheo museums, of Wat Sisakhet and Wat Simuang, or Patuxai, the ‘vertical landing strip’, all of which have to tell their own stories. Embark on day tours to Nam Ngum reservoir or the whimsical Buddha Park. In the outskirts of Vientiane, take a thrill with zip-line adventures inside the Nam Lik forest, watch wild elephants at Ban Na, or discover the beautiful world of orchids of Phou Khao Khouay. Start from here cross-country motorbike or cycling tours, enjoy kayaking trips to Vang Vieng or do cave expeditions.
· Zip-Lining Adventure. Beginning of January 2010 Green Discovery opend up the first Zip-Lining park in Nam Lik just 2h away from Vientiane. Zip-lining gets you the feel of freedom while whooshing from tree to tree along steel wires in up to 37 meters height and 180 meters in length! Scaling the dizzying heights on ropes, giant nets, sling or U-bridges and getting back to earth through ‘abseiling’ adds to the extra-ordinary excitement.
· Trekking through nature parks. The National Protected Area of Phou Khao Khouay is the nearest National Park to Vientiane, the nearest point just over an hour away. Besides some great scenery and beautiful waterfalls, the NPA offers trails through dry evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, numerous waterfalls and rivers. Wildlife is abundant but elusive. Tours can be booked with Green Discovery Laos firstname.lastname@example.org
· Picnicking on the Shores of Nam Ngum Lake, 90 km from Vientiane. A local favourite. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake's islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).
· Lao Massage, ☎ 02028582332. Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go. They won't say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant. The one next to The Drop Zone on Chao Anou Road is particularly delightful. The massage parlour does not really have a name, and the most prominent signboard merely says "now open". Don't go to the famous Wat Sok Pa Luang to a Lao Massage. It burned on June 2013. US$10-16/hour.
· Centre Culturel et de Coopération Linguistique (French Cultural Centre), Lane Xang Road. Situated very close to Patuxai, it has a French library and a small theatre that shows plays and films. The cultural centre have often free photo exhibitions about the Laos culture and its people.
· Grooming (Holiday Barber), Chou Anou Road (across from the Home Ideal Department Store). The best salon in Vientiane. To get an idea of how reasonable the pricing is, here are some of the services and their prices: 1 hour long massage for 30,000 kip, manicure/pedicure and foot scrape for 30,000 kip, Brazilian blowout 100,000 kip.
· Muay Lao (Kickboxing) (Kuanjai Sikhot Boxing Gym), (on the same road as the airport, going out of town; head towards the Sekhai Market. Make a right turn right before the market, then go straight and make the first left turn, go straight another 700 m), ☎ 020 566 32835. A national sport of Lao PDR. Similar to Muay Thai, but not a tourist trap like most gyms in Thailand
· Meditation (Lao Dhamma Center), (on Route 13, to the south, at km38),. Peaceful Buddhist meditation centre with a daily schedule dedicated to sincere meditation practice. Foreigners are welcome. It is difficult to find such a place elsewhere in Laos.
· Yoga (Vientiane Yoga Studio), (Khouvieng Road to Sokpaluang Road, first paved street on the right), ☎ 7851 0490,. Offers yoga and dance classes daily. 60,000 kip per class.
· Bicycle Touring (Vientiane ByCycle), (tours start at the parking lot of Khong View Restaurant), ☎ +856 205 581 2337. half and full day.Vientiane ByCycle offers awesome guided bicycle tours through and around Vientiane. They take you off the beaten track to places where you usually wouldn't go. Along villages, temples, school yards, the banks of Mekong River, crematoria, markets, and local businesses. They have excellent quality mountain bikes. Make reservations through their website.
· Adina Spa, 170 Phonesaath, Kaysone Road (half a kilometre north of Patuxay Monument.), ☎ +856 21 414138. Daily, 09:00- 22:00. Adina Spa is well-known as the first to have opened its doors to offer full service spa and massage treatments in Vientiane. Started in 2005, this spa has provided excellent service to visiting dignitaries.
· Champa Spa, Fa Ngum Road (on the Mekong Riverfront), ☎ +856 21 251926. Daily, 09:00 - 22:00. Champa Spa has pretty much has all the services you would expect from a spa and massage place.
· Lao Bowling Centre, Boulevard Khunbulom,. Daily, 09:00 - 22:00. A visit to a bowling alley is a definite ‘must-do’ for anyone interested in a lively night out with loud music, cold beer and chatty, smiling locals. 13,000 kip per game.
Beer Lao is everywhere. The Lao like to drink their beer with ice, so if it's an ice cold beer you're looking for, check if the bar you're settling into has a fridge. Many other shops stock and supply booze, some of which may well be counterfeit.
· Vientiane State Import/Export Enterprises, Samsenthai Road (next to Phongsavanh Bank). a duty free, state owned liquor store. Limited selection but the cheapest price in town for popular brand name liquor by the bottle. This place is pretty good in terms of product authenticity but nothing is 100% guaranteed.
There are many restaurants in Vientiane. They offer a wide selection of cuisines, from Chinese to Tex-Mex. More restaurants open all the time, but many are there for just a few months before they go under. A few are successful and stay and may even flourish. It’s a question of offering something special, either in the way of the food served, or the atmosphere, or the friendly and competent service.