One of the most thrilling things about Southeast Asia is just how much diversity there is: in the nature, the people, the cultures, and so on. There is one trait that most Southeast Asian countries share, however: their major cities and capitals are very, very busy places.
Vientiane provides a refreshing contrast to this tendency. It’s far removed from the hectic hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s busy Hanoi, or Thailand’s high-rise Bangkok. Like Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Vientiane is extremely low-rise for a capital city. This, combined with its location on the banks of the sleepy Mekong River and the general laid-back attitude of its residents, has led to the city possessing an extremely relaxed atmosphere.
Far from being the simple transport hub which many visitors imagine it to be, Vientiane is a city that deserves your time. In this article we’ll take a quick look at its interesting history, before outlining some of the city’s can’t-miss sights, and advising you on the best time to visit.
Local people have been living on the site of Vientiane since around 1,000 A.D. The city has been the capital of modern-day Laos since 1563, when it was moved down from LuangPrabang by King Lane Xang. This was done in an effort to escape the rampaging Burmese, but the city still ended up being completely destroyed by the kingdom of Siam (modern-day Thailand) in 1827.
After Laos fell under French rule in the late nineteenth century, Vientiane was rebuilt and became the center of the colonists’ operations. It was subsequently invaded by the Japanese in World War Two, before being liberated in 1945, and changed hands in the Laotian Civil War through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Since the conclusion of that conflict, however, and after a very turbulent history, Vientiane has thankfully enjoyed several peaceful decades!
What to Do
· Check Out the Temples
The majestic stupa of That Luang is almost certainly the most significant religious structure in the country. Some even describe it as the national symbol of Laos, a claim backed up by its placement on Lao banknotes. There’s reportedly been a stupa on the site since the 3rd century A.D., and you can soak up the many centuries of history as you stand there and marvel at the golden Buddhist creation. That Luang should almost certainly be your first stop on your trip to Vientiane.
You’re really spoiled for choice when it comes to temples in the Lao capital, with so many historically significant offerings. Wat Si Muang was the original home of Vientiane’s city pillar; Wat Ong Theuserves as the nation’s number one Buddhist teaching center; Wat Sisaketis thought to be the only temple in the city to have survived the Siamese attack in the 19th century; and finally, Wat Ho PhraKaew was the original home of the famous Emerald Buddha, which now resides inside the Grand Palace in Bangkok after being taken by the Siamese invaders.
· Take a Walk Along the River
As we mentioned in our introduction, the lazy Mekong River is one of the main factors behind Vientiane’s sleepy feel, and its placid pace of life. To truly understand the city, you should make sure to spend some time along the Mekong. Walk along the embankment, grab a coffee or a beer at one of the many cafes on the nearby road, or stock up on souvenirs and local bites to eat at the lovely, quiet night market there.
· Visit the Lao National Museum
With Vientiane having served as the base of operations for the French forces for so long, you’d expect to find a healthy amount of colonial architecture there. The city certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score, and one of the nicest examples is the Lao National Museum.
In addition to its outer pleasantness, this excellent museums houses a large number of fascinating artifacts, harking from the age of the dinosaurs, through early human history, and up to the modern age.
While Vientiane has an unmistakably unique feel to it, it’s somewhat lacking in marquee architectural attractions, particularly outside of its temples. That’s where Patuxai steps in. This dramatic structure, which sits at the heart of an important roundabout, is reminiscent of the Parisian Arc du Triomphe, though it has its own distinct Laotian twist to it.