Vientiane, the capital of Laos, sits on the Mekong River, just across from the more visited country of Thailand. Lao people, who share the same culture as many northern Thais, are laid back, VERY friendly and less concerned with making a quick buck off of tourists than their southern neighbors. This alone makes a trip to Laos a welcome change from Thailand (as many visitors do come from Thailand). Laos is a beautiful place, and Vientiane is certainly worth spending a few days in, with a few gems that you shouldn’t miss if you’re in town.
Explore the Temples
If you’re in the region, you’ve probably been to Bangkok. Seeing the temples in Bangkok will leave you feeling many things. Awed, yes. But, you’ll also grow tired of the crowds and become annoyed with being charged money at every opportunity. You don’t have to worry about this in Vientiane. Though many temples are newer (most were burned during the Siamese invasion 200 years ago, then rebuilt), these temples share some of the same histories and can sometimes be enjoyed all to yourself.
The temples are all located close to the city center. The best way to see them is to hire a Tuk Tuk driver near your accommodation for the entire day. Tell him where you want to go, and this should run you around 400-500k Kip (45-60 USD). Alternatively, you could arrange a private tour with a guide. Either way, make sure to hit these spots for a well-rounded experience:
Wat Si Saket
Built 200 years ago, and home to thousands of Buddha statues. Used as an HQ during the Siamese invasions due to its Thai style of Architecture. You’ll notice many are missing heads, damaged during the Siamese invasion.
Haw Phra Kaew
The former home of the Emerald Buddha (the famous religious relic now kept in the Bangkok Wat Phra Kaew at the Royal Palace) before being sacked by the Siamese in the 1800s. They’ve added a few new Buddhas to make up for the loss, don’t worry. Some are over 1,000 years old, and you may get the place all to yourself during the week.
Pha That Luang (Golden Stupa)
The Golden Stupa is said to be the burial grounds of Buddha’s breastplate (Yes, the man the whole religion is named after). Sacked, burned and rebuilt more than once over the past 1,800 years.
That Dam (Black Stupa)
The Black Stupa is the oldest remaining original structure from before the Siamese invasions. The Lao people believe it was covered in solid gold, taken by the Siamese. Legends have it a 7 headed dragon lives inside the stupa that protects the city from the Siamese (Thais), currently sleeping. I wondered when I was told this if the dragon was sleeping when Siam successfully sacked the city and burned it to the ground hundreds of years ago, but I kept my mouth shut.
Catch a Mekong Sunset
There’s something strangely relaxing about enjoying the view of the sun setting over Thailand from across the wide expanse of the Mekong River, especially with a cold beverage in hand. There are more than a few great open-air restaurants right on the water (I recommend Tummour or anything else in that area) that have great food and live, upbeat Lao music. Some nights the local rowing teams are hard at work rowing up and down the river, a popular sport here. Great way to relax after a hot busy day.
See the Buddha Park
Buddha seems to be a theme here, I know. Vientiane is well stocked in this department. That said, you will want to add the Buddha Park to your list if Buddhist temples are on your list at all. It’s an outdoor park about 30 minutes out of town containing hundreds of large Buddhist and Hindu statues created by a well-known Buddhist/ Hindu mystic in the 1950s, though they certainly look much older. Very cool to see.
Visit the Patuxai Victory Monument
At first glance, it may appear you’re in Paris. Not quite. This monument was built by the Lao people (not the French) to remember those lost in the war for independence from France. Interestingly, it was completed in 1968 with funds given to Laos by the US during the US/ Vietnam War, intended for a runway. A very interesting piece of history that summarizes Laos well, and you can also climb to the top for a great view of Vientiane.
Visit the COPE Center
Laos is, to this day, the most heavily bombed country in the world. Nearly as much ordinance fell on Laos during the US/ Vietnam War, as did the entire planet during World War 2. Let that sink in, I’ll wait.
**Pause for Effect**
Civilians in Laos continue to suffer as a result of the unexploded (UXO) ordinance in the ground. An average of 300 per year, 40% of whom are children, are maimed or killed by UXO across the country. The COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Center is the foremost organization in Laos supporting the wounded while spreading awareness and accepting donations to continue their work. Visiting the COPE center impacted me profoundly, and I encourage anyone, especially Americans, to visit when in Vientiane.
There are no feelings of ill will by any of the survivors or staff here towards Americans. This is a deeply revealing statement about the mindset of the people of Laos. Truly an eye-opening and somber experience.