Broad tree-lined avenues, the mix of French colonial and Lao architecture, and a peaceful atmosphere make Vientiane one of the most pleasant Asian cities.
Broad tree-lined avenues, the mingling of French colonial and Lao architectural styles, and a general air of tranquillity combine to make Vientiane one of the most pleasant cities in Asia.
For a capital city, Vientiane is remarkably quiet, laid-back and, above all, petite – the population of the entire metropolitan area is fewer than 750,000 (although it is still comfortably the largest city in Laos). Indeed, the visitor familiar with the bustle of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, or the free-wheeling chaos of Vientiane's sister heritage cities, Saigon and Phnom Penh, could be mistaken for thinking that they have stepped out of contemporary Asia.
Vientiane has been controlled at various times by the Vietnamese, the Siamese, the Burmese and the Khmers – and, more recently, the French. A positive result of all this outside intervention is that the streets are a compelling mélange of Lao, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, French and even Russian influences in architecture, cuisine and culture. It is home to a little over 10 percent of the country’s population, but a far larger share of its wealth.
A quiet timelessness pervades the city, where even the markets seem spacious and well ordered. Yet beneath the demure facade, Vientiane is lively, both culturally and socially, and much awaits those with time to explore, from beautiful temples and stark Soviet architecture to excellent dining venues.
Vientiane is a fine place to visit all year round, but especially good during the cool season between December and February. March and April can be very hot and hazy.
Singaporeans and citizens of other ASEAN member states can visit Laos for 30 days without a visa. Make sure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket. Visitors from many other countries can get a 30-day visa on arrival at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane for between US$30 and US$45, depending on what passport you are holding.
Currency is the Lao kip. There are ATMs and currency exchange facilities at the airport. Banks in the city centre also have ATMs accepting international credit and debit cards, and can change foreign currency including Singapore dollars.
Taxis and tuk-tuks make the 15-minute journey from Wattay International Airport into town, but there is no airport bus service or other public transport. For short trips in and around Vientiane, stick to tuk-tuks and jumbos (a larger version of the tuk-tuk); the pedicab (samlo) has virtually disappeared with the increase in motorcycle and car traffic.
Although Vientiane is the capital city it's still only a medium-sized town; nevertheless watch out for motorbikes as you cross the busy streets. Petty crime is almost non-existent in Laos, although over the last few years the number of tourists reporting thefts has risen. Most crimes are easily avoided - don't flaunt your money and other valuables and always keep a lock on your suitcases. Be particularly careful of water and ice; only consume water that comes from sealed containers or has been boiled thoroughly.
|How are you?||Sabai dee baw|
|Fine, thanks||Sabai dee|
|Nice to meet you||Nyin dee tee hu chak|
|Goodbye (person leaving)||La gon|
|Goodbye (person staying)||Sok dee|
|Thank you||Kop chai|
|You're welcome||Baw pen nyang|
|What's your name?||Chao seu nyang?|
|My name is…||Koy seu…|
|Where are you from?||Chao ma tae sai?|
|I come from…||Koy ma tae…|
|Where is…?||You sai…?|
|Bus station||Satanee lotmeh|
|Tourist office||Hong kan tong teeow|
|How much is…?||Tow dai…?|
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Wat Si Muang
Wat Si Muang is the location of the city's sacred pillar and the dwelling place of its guardian spirit. The temple dates back to the 1560s, and was built to affirm King Setthathirat's choice of Vientiane as the capital of Lan Xang. Sages chose the site, and a hole was dug to receive the massive stone pillar. Before the pillar could be lowered into the hole, a human sacrifice to the city's guardian spirit was required. Eventually a pregnant woman rushed forward and jumped in the hole. The ropes supporting the pillar were released, and the city's safety was assured.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket, built in 1818, was the only temple not destroyed by the Siamese when they razed the city in 1827. The ordination hall (sim) sits on a raised terrace, in a style inspired by the temples of Bangkok. Niches in the walls of the cloister and sim hold most of the temple's 6,840 silver, bronze, wood, stone and clay Buddha images. The sim also contains jataka murals depicting tales from the lives of the Buddha. Some of these have not been restored since they were originally painted in the 1820s; others were restored at the beginning of the 20th century.
Haw Pha Kaew
Haw Pha Kaew was formerly the temple of the Lan Xang and Lao monarchy but is now a museum. King Setthathirat built the temple in 1565 to house the venerated Pha Kaew (popularly known as the Emerald Buddha) image. The Siamese looted the image in 1779 (it now resides in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok), and later razed the temple in the 1827–8 sacking of Vientiane. The current structure dates back to the 1940s when it was rebuilt, purportedly to the original plans. Of most interest are the Buddhist sculptures around the terrace and the gilded throne and wooden carvings in the ordination hall.
Lao Revolutionary Museum
The Lao Revolutionary Museum was originally the residence of the French Governor. The museum displays historical photographs and artefacts relating mainly to the rise of the Pathet Lao to power. The principal rooms cover the French colonial era, the struggle for independence (1945–54), the American Resistance movement (1954–63) and the 1975 Communist victory. A few of the exhibits are captioned in English and their Communist rhetoric provides an interesting Marxist propaganda view of history, sometimes amusing to those uninitiated in the jargon. Peripheral rooms contain some Khmer sculptures.
Vientiane's very own Arc de Triomphe, the Patuxai (Victory Gate) sits in the centre of the traffic island at the northern end of Lan Xang Avenue. Built during the 1960s, the large grey arch is sometimes called the 'vertical runway' as it was finished with concrete purchased by the USA to build a new airport runway. The monument commemorates the Lao who died in wars before the Revolution. While from a distance it resembles its Parisian counterpart, the bas-reliefs make it, on closer inspection, wholly Lao. Good views can be had from the top across the whole city.
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is Vientiane's most sacred site, and an emblem of the Lao nation. The name means 'Great Stupa'. The current stupa dates back to King Setthathirat's reign in the 16th century. The structure suffered great damage in the 18th and 19th centuries at the hands of invading Burmese and Siamese armies and marauding Chin Haw (Chinese Muslim) gangs who stole many of the treasures inside. The French restored the stupa in 1900, but by all accounts made a bad job of it. The current spire dates to another French restoration in the 1930s based on the architect Louis Delaporte's drawings from the 1860s.
Vientiane has a number of beautiful architectural sites and they tend to be clustered in a small section of the city near the river. Start your cultural tour at the Nam Phu, the central fountain at the heart of downtown Vientiane. Walking east along Setthathirat Road you will pass the National Library, an attractive old French colonial building. Continuing on past a series of restored French colonial villas, you soon arrive at the Presidential Palace, originally built as the French colonial governor’s residence. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public.
Across Setthathirat Road from the Palace is Wat Si Saket, probably the oldest temple in Vientiane. Today it is home to the head of the Lao sangha, the order of Buddhist monks. Next door to the Presidential Palace is the former royal temple of the Lao monarchy, Haw Phra Kaew. No longer used as a temple, Haw Phra Kaew now serves as a museum; its garden is a peaceful retreat from the dust and heat.
Continuing southeast along Setthathirat Road you will pass the French Embassy on your left and a residential complex including the Roman Catholic Cathedral. From here it’s a short walk to one of the city’s most active temples, Wat Si Muang. The temple is filled with Buddha images, at least one of which dates from the 1828 Siamese invasion. Worshippers believe the image holds the power to grant wishes, and offerings are brought to the temple when a wish is fulfilled.
Nam Phu, National Library, Presidential Palace, Wat Si Saket, Haw Phra Kaew, Wat Si Muang.
It’s a surprise arriving in Vientiane and realising the depth of French cultural influence still apparent in the city. It is also a pleasure to be able to breakfast on croissants and café au lait, and there’s no better place to do this than at Le Banneton on Nokeo Khumman Road. Alternatively you might fancy a freshly baked baguette with pâté available from any number of street stalls around the town.
Lunch poses a number of agreeable alternatives, especially if you fancy something spicy as Lao food is famed for its fiery qualities. The Lao Kitchen on Hengboun Road, near the Lao National Museum, serves an excellent laap ped, a minced duck salad with fresh vegetables and sticky rice. If you don’t want it too spicy just say mai phet. If you're more in favour of a steaming bowl of noodles, make a beeline for the Noodle House. Also on Hengboun Road, it does a wonderful selection including Vietnamese-style pho, Chinese yellow noodles and the local Lao speciality khao poon, also known as Lao laksa.
After dark Vientiane’s food scene steps into overdrive. Incredible French restaurants abound, all offering exceptional value. One of the very best, Bistro 22 on Samsenthai Road, has a very refined and inventive menu. It’s a dining experience that would not be out of place in any of France’s larger cities. It’s not always on the menu, but if it is try the foie gras and finish with a crêpe au chocolat.
Le Banneton, Lao Kitchen, Noodle House, Bistro 22.
Keeping the kids interested in Vientiane is difficult as most of the sights in town tend to be cultural, but if you’re prepared to spend a day travelling beyond the city limits then things can get quite rewarding. Hire a taxi and head north on Route 13 for 25km (16 miles), where the Nam Tok Tat Son waterfall lies just off the main road. The waterfall is a set of modest rapids and is a great place to splash about and have a swim.
Continuing north along Route 13 you’ll come to Talaat Lak Haa-Sip Sawng (Km 52 Market), a large daily market, and from here on to Vang Sang or 'Elephant Place', an old Mon sanctuary featuring 10 sculptures of the Buddha on cliffs. The name refers to an elephant graveyard found nearby.
Still on Route 13, head to the town of Phon Hong and turn off east to Ang Nam Ngum, a large reservoir. At the main pier in Na Keun take a boat cruise around the large lake and view the beautiful scenery. Restaurants on the waterfront offer tasty fish lunches.
From Na Keun head south towards Vientiane to the town of Ban Keun. Just before the town lies the Thulakhom Zoo also known as the Lao Zoo. The zoo has tigers, macaques, sun bears, a white elephant and plenty of other animals and birds to keep the kids happy. From the zoo it’s a 60km (37-mile) trip back to Vientiane along Route 10.
Nam Tok Tat Son , Talaat Lak Haa-Sip Sawng , Vang Sang, Ang Nam Ngum , Thulakhom Zoo.