Vientiane was almost totally destroyed by the Thais in 1828. Under the French, many buildings were restored or rebuilt, and Vientiane became the administrative capital of Laos.
As major international capitals go, Vientiane is as small as you’re ever going to find. There’s not much to do, and little of historical significance, but still the city is worth a stop. There are remnants of French Colonial architecture, a bizarre triumphal arch, a few temples, a few markets, peaceful gardens, sunsets on the Mekong River, and decent restaurants along the water. Don’t miss the several street and indoor markets. One of the indoor markets is a great place to buy jade, 18-karat through 24-karat (yes, really) jewelry, silks, and other local crafts. Just walking the streets is pleasant, especially if you’ve recently come from Hanoi or Saigon.
You can easily cover all of the highlights of Vientiane on your own in two or three days, but the services of a good travel specialist never hurt is
Getting Around Vientiane
Vientiane is compact. There are few places you can’t easily bike or walk to. Taxis are easy to find. If you are going about on your own, make sure you get a card from the hotel so you can show it in order to get back, and ask the hotel staff to write down the places you want to visit (in local script) for the driver.
Walking around Vientiane is very pleasant unless it’s raining or hot. The city is small, and the traffic is still quite light. Keep in mind that many people just decide one day to get a scooter and start driving – training is optional. Drivers are not good about watching for you, so be sure to watch for them.
You can rent a bicycle at almost any hotel, as well as at street stalls and some bars. The cost is a few US$ per day. The quality of the equipment is hit and miss, and I recommend having your own helmet – they are almost never available in Laos.
Buses usually leave from the bus station next to the Morning Market. Some leave from Talaat Sao. If you are booking bus travel on your own, get your hotel to help so you get to the correct station and on the right bus! It is a short bus ride to the Friendship Bridge, and the cost is well under US$1.
There isn’t a city bus service – just buses to other parts of the country and the Thai border. Local buses and drivers are not the greatest. If you are going farther than the Friendship Bridge I suggest using the transport services of a tour operator.
You can rent a car, but if you are in an accident it is always your fault. Better to hire a car and driver or use the services of the tour operators. You can rent a scooter for about $10 per day for a small engine Honda; double that for a more powerful machine. The best place to rent a motorbike is your hotel. If they don’t rent them they will send you to a place that does and tell you what the rate should be. Remember that most local drivers are not very skilled.
Taxis don’t circulate; they wait at the markets, bus stations, and major hotels.
What to See & Do in Vientiane
Wat Sisaket, right, is the only temple that survived the 1828 invasion by the Thais. It is one of the most interesting temples in Laos, its walls covered with 6,840 Buddha images in niches and on shelves. There
are also Buddhist inscriptions from the 18th century.
Wat Ho Phakeo was originally built in 1565 by King Setthathirat when he relocated the Lao (Lane Xang) capital to Vientiane (from Luang Prabang). The king built the temple to house the Emerald Buddha he brought from the Kingdom of Lanna.
That Luang is the symbol of Laos. It is the most significant monument in Vientiane and was originally constructed in 1566 by the aforementioned King Setthathirat.US for constructing the new airport.
Patouxai was constructed (in 1958) entirely of cement and is centrally located. You can climb to the top for a great view of the city. Rumor has it that the monument was built with the cement provided by the
Morning market, Art galleries, Nightlife
Make sure to visit the Morning Market – the earlier the better. This is a huge shopping complex on two levels, and the place where both locals and tourists shop. The morning “parade” is fascinating. If you know gold and jade you can pick up some great bargains, but you can also spend a lot and buy junk.
There are many art galleries in Vientiane – surprising for a town of its size.
Vientiane is not exactly hopping in the evenings. Some of the restaurants put on evening traditional dance programs, and there are a number of pseudo-pubs, cabarets, and bars.
Day-Trips from Vientiane
The National Ethnic Cultural Park is about 20 km/12 miles south of Vientiane on the road to the Friendship Bridge and the crossing to Thailand. It is certainly worth a stop, especially if you can arrange it on the way to or from the border crossing. The park, called Suam Vatthana Tham, has walking paths, sculptures of important Lao heroes, and a zoo. You can see across the Mekong all the way to Thailand.
A bit farther south you will come to the Buddha Park. This is a statue garden with enshrined Buddha statues and images of Hindu gods. Keep in mind these two places contain many images that are holy to Buddhists.
The Mekong River provides many boating opportunities, both in power boats and canoes or kayaks. Local travel agents or your hotel can help you make arrangements. Be aware it may not be possible to enter Thailand by boat. You may have to disembark before the Friendship Bridge, cross, and pick up a Thai boat on the other side. If you are coming from Thailand, the same consideration applies. It is possible to get your Laotian visa at the Friendship Bridge – another reason why the boats stop here. The Mekong is placid and slow-moving; floating downriver can be a delightful experience.
By Air: The best way to get around Laos is to fly. While the countryside is lovely it can get monotonous pretty quickly and the roads, drivers, and equipment often leave much to be desired. The Wattay International Airport is six km/four miles west of town. Many of the better hotels provide free transfers if you book ahead.
By Bus or Truck: Beat-up buses and overcrowded trucks are the mainstay of travel for most local people and many tourists. If you really want to travel this way, go to the bus station next to the Morning Market at least a day before you want to leave and check on trip details. Many buses leave only once a day and that can be at 4 or . Checking ahead ensures you know the cost, time, and departure location. Prices are dirt-cheap – a few dollars to go almost anywhere in the country.
You can take a bus to Vietnam, as long as you don’t mind leaving between and . The trip takes all day over rough roads, and you end up in Lak Sao – not exactly a hot spot of tourism. The trip is quite uncomfortable. Ask your hotel which bus station to go to –these buses do not leave from the main station.
By Boat: Long-distance boat travel is fast disappearing in most of Southeast Asia. If you want to take a boat upstream to Luang Prabang, you need to go to Kao Liaw village, located about eight km/five miles west of town. Boats don’t leave every day, and when they do go, they leave pretty early in the morning (figure ). Fares are negotiable and depend on whether you are on a fast or slow boat. The slow boat is going to cost close to $20 and the trip takes four-five days. Sleeping accommodations are normally hammocks on deck. Check to see what, if any, food is included. At a minimum you’ll want to bring lots of water and other beverages, as well as non-perishable snacks.
There are speedboats to the north, but they are noisy and incredibly dangerous. Wear a helmet and life jacket. If you aren’t a good swimmer I suggest sticking to the slow boat or dry land. The trip takes a full day and the boats also leave from Kao Liew village. Boats rarely go south from Vientiane any more – it’s fly or go by road.
Overview and suggested itineraries in Laos
Main places of interest , Top sights and activities in Laos
History of Laos
Climate of Laos
How to get to Laos
How to get around Laos
Bokeo, Plain of Jars, Savannakhet, and Vang Vieng
Travel guide to Champasak
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Adventures in Northern Laos
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