Despite the fact that Vientiane is the capital of a sovereign nation, Vientiane certainly feels like one of the world’s biggest small towns. The population of the city, which stands at 500,000 souls, is positively tiny by Asian standards, granting the place an ease and relaxed nature that sets the tone for the entire country.
While there are no temples that are famous region-wide, there is still plenty to see for the culture vulture, as Buddhism is basically the state religion, as it is in Thailand. Lao food isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but there’s still plenty of charming places by the Mekong to have a freshly cooked BBQ-ed dinner with an ice cold Beer Lao as the sun goes down.
There are many places in Laos worth your attention, but the multivariate charms of Laos’ first city implore you spend a few days here and travel in a way this country truly requires: slowly.
There are a ton of temples in Vientiane’s city centre that command your attention. As far as temples that may be of interest to you, Wat Si Saket stands chief among them. The oldest Buddhist temple in Vientiane, it owes its staying power due to the fact it was built in the Thai style, thus escaping being burnt in a major Siamese raid in 1828. In the inner cloister, you will find many Buddha idols made of stone, wood, silver and bronze.
One kilometre to the east of downtown, situated between Thanon Setthatirat and Thanon Samsenthai, lays the brilliantly decorated Wat Si Muang. Amongst the many Buddha idols in the outdoor courtyard lies a statue light enough to be lifted. Believers feel that if you can lift it three times, Buddha will answer any questions you have and grant your wishes. Not sure on the validity of this, but it can’t hurt to try!
Moving away from the temple, be sure to check out the Lao National Museum, which details the history of this tiny nation carved from French Indochina. Artifacts include jars taken from the Plain of Jars in Central Laos, implements from the stone and bronze ages, as well as war remnants from struggles against the Siamese (Thailand), the French and the Americans.
Finally, review the good work done by the folks at the COPE visitor centre. After the Vietnam War ended, which saw Laos become the most heavily bombed nation in the history of the world, the countryside was absolutely littered with mines and UXO – unexploded ordinance. This has led to many Laotians stepping on or handling these fragile devices, resulting in countless blown-off limbs over the past several decades. Watch documentaries on the whole issue, read stories by survivors and see the many prostheses used over the years to help the Lao people regain a normal life. In the attached café, buy Lao coffee and homemade ice cream, where proceeds go towards the centre’s good works.
Relaxation and Entertainment
When you’ve finished learning about the history of Laos and admiring Vientiane’s temples, it’s time to just chill out and relax. Start by going out for a Lao Massage. Similar to Thai massage, this style of rubdown can be rough at times, but the techniques are designed to release the tension in your body, so suck it up and take it like a man/woman (if they are too rough, just politely shake your head)!
Now that your body is tension-free, go watch young Lao fighters try to beat the crap out each other’s bodies at a Muay Lao match. Once more, this style of kickboxing is quite similar to the Thai style, but it still makes for an action-packed evening full of thrills and chills. For many good fights, get your tuk-tuk driver to take you to the Kuanjai Sikhot Boxing Gym out near the airport.
Food in Vientiane has two major highlights. The first centres around the riverfront at sunset, where many people, tourists and locals alike, cheer the departure of the sun with an ice cold Beer Lao. Of note is Bor Pen Yang Bar and Restaurant, located near the Ban Anou Night Market, where after your sundowner beers, you can go hunting for some street food. A wide variety of Lao and regional foods are available, from laab to Vietnamese pho, chicken/beef/pork satays to miang (a lettuce-wrapped snack with peanuts).
Finally, being the former home of French colonial rule in the country, there is a wide variety of French restaurants in town. Many restaurants offer multi-course set lunches, so set aside $10 and prepare for a decadent break from the endless cycle between rice and noodle dishes.