Vientiane, Laos: A capital city that forgot to behave like one

SE Asia Games, Vientiane

SE Asia Games, Vientiane

I heard much about Vientiane being a very laid back capital where there is little to do for the visitor. After spending over a week in Laos it was hard to imagine anything other than a chilled city as the centre of this smiling, easy-going nation. Happily, Vientiane lived up to its billing, with one notable correction; there IS much to do here, and if you spend three nights in Vientiane as we did, you have no reason to get bored.

As we travelled through Laos the previous week there had been only one main topic of conversation for Lao people: the SEA games. These are the SE Asian Olympics, and were being held this year in Vientiane. Teams from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Myanmar, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, Malaysia and Singapore joined the hosts Laos in competing for gold medals in several hundred sports. Watching the crowds on TV we were thankful for our luck in deciding to book a hotel room in advance, as others who we met described their difficulty in finding a bed during the Games.

Certainly the multi-national crowds of spectators added to the festive atmosphere in the city. Every Lao person seemed to be wearing a T-shirt supporting their team, and the largest foreign contingent, the Vietnamese, were also out in force, waving their flag and blaring horns through the city centre. The football tournament sparked the most passion, and on our final day a major party was in store with Laos competing for the 3rd place medal and Vietnam in the Gold medal final. Sadly both lost, and the small victorious Malaysian crowd were hardly noticeable in their celebrations.

The giant reclining Buddha, Vientiane

The giant reclining Buddha, Vientiane

We did chill out in Vientiane, but also got to see a few of the city’s impressive sights. Perhaps the most memorable is the Buddha Park, around 25km from town (close to the Friendship Bridge, the main crossing into Thailand). The park is not large, but is crammed with some of the most extraordinary Buddha statues, including one reclining Buddha which must be over 100 feet in length. There are also statues of many deities from the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. The park was full of visitors from Laos, as well as many of the visiting sports people who were taking a break from the SEA Games. A local bus runs directly to the park from the city’s Talat Sao bus station and takes around 45 minutes. The bus ride itself was an adventure, crammed in with many traders heading to the market and children on their way to school.

Tha Phat Luang, Vientiane

Pha That Luang, Vientiane

Vientiane’s most notable landmark is Pha That Luang. This is not only an important national monument but also a place of holy significance. A 40 minute walk from town brings you to this golden marvel, with two impressive wats flanking the central monument. It’s a calm and peaceful place to linger and enjoy the intricate detail of the buildings in the complex, although after 10am the heat gets quite uncomfortable, and there are not many places to escape the blazing sun.

Patuxai, Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe

Patuxai, Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe

Halfway to Pha That Luang is Patuxai, Vientiane’s version of Arc de Triomphe. Built in 1969, it is a bit of a hideous concrete lump from close up, although from a distance it makes a striking and powerful landmark. The views from the top are worth the climb, although be prepared to pass an enormous souvenir market as you climb the stairs to the summit.

As elsewhere in Laos, the noodles and rice were delicious and very cheap, and we enjoyed yet more sub $2 meals. One extravagance we had was a few visits to JoMa bakery. We found this place first in Luang Prabang, and were happy to see another branch close to our hotel. It does wonderful cheesecake, and the best fruit shakes in Laos!

There is not much traffic in the city, and even in rush hour the cars and tuk-tuk seem to have plenty of space to make their way across the fairly small downtown area. As elsewhere in SE Asia, we saw no signs of road rage, with near misses on the road invariably greeted with a smile.

Vientiane offered a relaxing, indulgent yet entertaining three days for us, and while it might not have the magical atmosphere of Luang Prabang it is still the capital of this small, beautiful country, and is worth a few days to explore.

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6 Responses to “Vientiane, Laos: A capital city that forgot to behave like one”

  1. Allan Nall #

    Hi Sameena
    Just read the blog. Your holiday enjoyment must be tremendous. I can see why you go on these exciting holidays. My only concern is you and Andy will continue to enjoy it so much that you won’t come back! Everything is OK at Roberts just in case you are worrying.
    Happy Xmas and New Year.
    Best Wishes

    December 26, 2009 at 11:22 am
  2. Hi Allan
    Glad you are enjoying the blog. Don’t worry, will come back to work. How else am I going to pay for future trips?
    Happy New Year

    December 28, 2009 at 9:01 am
  3. ken #

    Hi friend,

    Hope you had a nice holiday in Laos.
    Very nice blog.


    January 25, 2010 at 12:35 am
  4. denis #

    Yeah, we visted the Pha That Luang too. And on our way there we stopped for some pizza at Swedish Pizza and Baking House that was located right along the main street to That Luang.
    And the next day we went to the buddha park a bit outside of Vientiane.
    Luang Prabang is also awesome.

    March 21, 2010 at 4:50 am
  5. we’re going to Laos in the coming April, will take your info into considerations on what to see in Vientiane.
    What was your favorite place / town in Laos, by the way?

    February 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm
    • Hi Vira, hard to name a favourite, but I was particularly glad we took a couple of days to head up to Nong Khiaw from Luang Prabang. Small laid back town set in beautiful scenery and plenty of great hiking nearby. But honestly, I enjoyed everywhere we stayed in Laos- hope you do too! 🙂

      February 17, 2012 at 8:39 am