Vientiane is the smallest capital in South East Asia and one of the two that rest on the mighty Mekong river (the other one being Phnom Penh). It lies on the only plain in the northern part of Laos, just across Thailand from where it’s easily accessible by train or bus. Despite the fact that there are no railroads in Laos, there is a train that crosses the Friendship Bridge that unites Laos with Thailand and ends its journey a few kilometers before Vientiane. Just like the whole country, Vientiane is a pretty quiet and slow-paced city, especially when compared to the other metropolis in the region.
Vientiane’s urban grid was traced during the French rule in the beginning of the 20th century and follows the characteristics of the terrain. The dominant direction is semicircular, parallel to the Mekong, whilst the secondary one goes perpendicular to it. Most of the hotels, bars and restaurants are located between three main streets parallel to the river: rue Samsenthai, rue Setthathhilath and rue Fa Ngum. Considering the size of the city combined with the economical power of its residents and the reasonable width of the main avenues, traffic jams are relatively rare.
The Main architectural landmarks are all, or almost all, connected by the main perpendicular avenue Lan Xang, that starts at the Presidential palace and ends at the triumphal Victory monument called Patuxai, built not so long ago (in 1969). Two of the three most important temples are located next to the palace: Wat si Sakhet is the oldest temple in the city, containing 2000 silver and ceramic Buddha sculptures inside little wall niches, while Haw Pha Kaew is a national museum of religious art, with a great collection of Buddha images. Some 3.5 km away is the most important national monument in Laos – Pha That Luang. A large gold covered stupa dating back to 1566, though the original structure was probably built in the 3rd century.
Due to its proximity to the river, and since most of the important sites are within walking distance, the most convenient location to stay is near the three main streets. The majority of first class hotels and cheap bed and breakfasts or hostels are located in that area. Take note that the accommodation offered in Vientiane lags behind that of Thailand or Cambodia.
As mentioned above, Vientiane is a relatively small city, where most of the tourist spots are reachable by foot. In general walking is a good option, and the only place away from the center, The Pha That Luang temple, is 20 minutes away by bike. Bicycle rental agencies with reasonable prices are easy to find in the city center. Another good option to move around the city is to hire a tuc-tuc. Remember to be reasonable when bargaining.
Vientiane is not a world class tourist destination. Its modest architecture and shopping opportunities and a lack of spectacular monument, and good choice accommodation are the main reasons. However, the fact that massive tourism is still not there is a big plus, and is probably the reason why the city maintains its original charm. The people of Vientiane are authentic: this is reflected in their hospitability, slow pace, and the elegant traditional outfits that many women still wear. Together with few beautiful architectural landmarks it is the rhythm and people that make Vientiane worth visiting.
Vientiane Travel Guide
- Stay in the city centre. Happy Frog recommends Xaysomboun Boutique Hotel
- The national monument Pha That Luang;
- Wat si Sakhet and Haw Pha Kaew;
- That Dam stupa;
- Few remaining French colonial villas.
- Have brunch at Joma and dinner in Kop Chai Deu near the Nam Phu fountain.
- On foot, by bicycle or tuc-tuc.
- Visit the Buddha Park just outside Vientiane.
DO NOT MISS:
- Shop at the Morning Market on Lan Xang avenue;
- Climb the Victory Monument for some beautiful views;
- Watch the sunset and people exercising on the Mekong bank;
- Discover the semi-illegal discos on the road to the airport.