Arriving in Vientiane after a pleasant stay in the former capital of Luang Prabang, it was immediately clear that the two places couldn’t be more different. Instead of charming French colonial buildings, I found myself surrounded by drab socialist architecture. Instead of the peaceful riverside cafes I’d grown accustomed to, I discovered an ugly concrete boardwalk, separated from the river by large fields of overgrown grass. “Should I have come here at all?” I wondered on my first evening in town. But after a few days of exploring, I discovered that there’s more than first meets the eye in this 1,000 year old city.
While we can partly blame the Laotian government for letting their capital get to the state that it’s in, there are some historical reasons for why Vientiane lacks the atmosphere or charm of Laos’s second city. Vientiane has been sacked numerous times by foreign armies throughout its long history. It was conquered more than once by the Thais, and the city was also home to a scuffle between the French and Japanese during World War II. Again, more violence took place during the Laotian Civil War of the 1970’s.
While, in my opinion, the city as a whole lacks any particular atmosphere, I was pleasantly surprised to find how well-preserved its individual attractions and temples are. When looked at in isolation, they can even rival any of the magnificent temples that Luang Prabang has to offer. Add in some quirky attractions like the Buddha Park and the iconic Patuxai monument, and Vientiane contains more than enough to see and do during a short weekend trip. Here’s a guide to the most interesting places to visit over the course of a few days in Asia’s forgotten capital.
Vientiane is much, much larger than the central peninsula of Luang Prabang. With that said, it’s by no means a huge city. With the exception of Pha That Luang, all of the places mentioned below can be reached comfortably on foot, provided you’re staying in a relatively central location. And even Pha That Luang can be reached by walking, although not very comfortably.
There’s no clearly defined city center of Vientiane, but if you’re based relatively close to the Kua Din Bus Station, just behind the Talat Sao Shopping Mall, you’ll have easy access to all the landmarks mentioned here. Feel free to visit them in any order you please, starting with whatever is closest to you. The famous Buddha Park, covered in a separate article, is outside the city and can be reached by bus from Kua Din, but you’ll probably want to dedicate an entire separate day for that excursion.
Setthathirath's Central Temples
King Setthathirath was the 16th century ruler responsible for moving the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. And he’s also the man behind some of the city’s most stunning temples. Fortunately, they remain in excellent condition to this day. A couple of these can be found on the appropriately named Satthathirath Rd. Meanwhile, one of his later descendants, Setthathirath V (a.k.a. King Anouvong), would build the majestic Si Saket Temple on the same street. These temples are easily accessible from most hotels and provide a great starting point for the city’s storied history and important architecture.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket, conveniently located just across the road from Wat Phra Kaew, is one of Vientiane’s main highlights. If you only have time for a few temples in Vientiane, be sure to include this one. Established in 1818, Wat Si Saket was built using the Siamese, rather than the Laotian, style of temple architecture. And this is likely one of the reasons why it still stands to this day. When the Siamese sacked Vientiane (for the 2nd time) in 1827, they used Si Saket as their base, leaving it unscathed.
The temple is known for its seemingly endless amount of ceramic and bronze Buddha images which surround the main hall in the center. Arriving at the temple, you might even have a deja vu moment, as pictures of Si Saket’s statues are some of the most commonly used stock images used to represent Laos in general. It’s said that the temple contains over 6,000 statues in total – even more than Luang Prabang’s Pak Ou caves!
Haw Phra Kaew
Haw Phra Kaew was built by King Setthathirath for one purpose only: to house the Emerald Buddha statue. Today, the stature is considered the palladium of Thailand and sits in the Royal Palace at Bangkok. It once sat in this very temple in Vientiane, however, for over 200 years.
The inside of the temple is now a museum and you can find a number of old Buddhist relics on display. Despite the temple’s importance, it’s not especially big, probably because it was once used as a personal temple for the king and closed to the general public.
To learn more about the Emerald Buddha statue and its journeys throughout Laos and Thailand, be sure to read this article.
Wat Si Muang and the City Pillar
Wat Si Muang is a highly significant temple for locals but hardly known amongst foreigners. The temple was built by the original King Setthathirath in the 1500’s. Legend has it that around that time, angry spirits were causing trouble throughout Vientiane. A pregnant woman named Si Muang is said to have decided to sacrifice herself to appease the gods and protect the city.
The temple was built on the same spot where Si Muang died, although it was destroyed by the Thais and then rebuilt again in 1915. Walking around the temple courtyard, you’ll find a pile of bricks that are said to be from around the time of Si Muang. As the current incarnation of the temple was built so recently, it’s hard to compare it architecturally with Setthathirath’s other masterpieces. However, Wat Si Muang still makes for a fascinating visit for anyone interested in Laotian folklore and legends.
Don’t miss the more recent structure nearby which contains Vientiane’s city pillar. In Southeast Asia, most city’s have city pillars which are, quite literally, pillars that are believed to protect and provide good fortune for their cities. The structure surrounding Vientiane’s pillar was just built in 2012, but when you consider the history of Wat Si Muang, which also functions as the city’s protectorate temple, the location is very appropriate.
The Patuxai Monument
The concrete arch known as the Patuxai Monument has become sort of the de facto symbol for the Laotian capital. Built by the French in the early 1960’s, the monument and the park surrounding it attract hordes of foreign visitors and locals alike. Oddly, though, the local government doesn’t seem too proud of their city’s most popular landmark. A quote from an informational plaque inside reads: “From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.” This is a strange statement, especially considering the concrete monstrosity that is Vientiane’s riverside boardwalk! (See below)
I first arrived at the monument during my first evening in the city, as I’d read about the excellent sunset views from the top. But the stairway up was already closed before sunset, so I decided to return again the next afternoon. If you’re hoping to watch the sunset, keep in mind that the opening times for the interior of the monument may vary.
Along the way up, you’ll come across numerous gift shop areas before reaching a spiral staircase that takes you all the way to the top. As Vientiane is a city devoid of skyscrapers, the Patuxai monument is the best place to get a panoramic view of the place. But unsurprisingly, Vientiane’s skyline isn’t too much to get excited about.
In contrast to many other capital cities throughout the world, Vientiane doesn’t have a whole lot in store to reward those who like to aimlessly wander. At least not from my experience. But if you are keen to do some exploration on foot, here are a few of the places you may want to check out. All have been marked in the map above.
A number of legends surround That Dam, an ancient large stupa. It’s said to be home to a large seven-headed naga serpent, while other accounts mention it once being covered in gold that was looted by the Thais. Whatever the case may be, the stupa today is covered in thick overgrowth, left to decay in the middle of a small roundabout.
To make matters worse, during my visit the area around the stupa was completely flooded, making it impossible to get a close-up view. That Dam, at least, is within easy walking distance of the Patuxai Monument. While not worth going out of your way for, it may be worthy of a slight detour if you’re in the area.
Anouvong Park and the Mekong
Vientiane’s so-called “riverside” is many visitors’ biggest surprise and disappointment, especially after experiencing the scenic riverside promenades of Luang Prabang. The ugly concrete walkway borders an even uglier grassy field and not the Mekong itself. Walking further along, you’ll also encounter numerous abandoned and rusted metal contraptions left along the grass.
The area, at least, features a miniature night market and even some song and dance performances for the locals to enjoy. The adjacent Anouvong Park is also a popular gathering spot, although it isn’t much more than an open space.
I would later see this same part of the river from the other side, where the Thais have done an excellent job in Nong Khai. Hopefully, Vientiane can step up their game and improve this part of their city soon.
Lesser Known Wats
Nearby the river, further down the western end of Setthathirath Rd., are a number of lesser known temples to explore. Among the more impressive ones are the large and elaborate Wat Inpeng, as well as the unique bright yellow temple of Wat Mixai.
Pha That Luang
Saving the best for last, it’s time to head to the glistening golden chedi of Pha That Luang. Legend has it that the sight of Pha That Luang has been a significant holy spot for a very long time. Supposedly, monks from the Indian subcontinent ruled by King Ashoka arrived in the area as far back as the 3rd century BC, possibly even bringing one of the Buddha’s bones.
Later, in the 11th or 12th century AD, the Khmer arrived at the spot and supposedly established a Hindu temple there. Ancient Laos had many interactions with the Khmer, and Pha That Luang even contains a statue of Jayavarman VII, the 12th century Khmer ruler who built Angkor Thom. (It was also the Khmer, by the way, who gave Laos their palladium, the Phra Bang statue, back in the 1300’s.)
Like many other significant landmarks in the city, Pha That Luang was once looted by the Thais who took most of its gold. Several attempts to rebuild it got interrupted by conflicts such as the Franco-Thai War and World War II, but the temple was finally reconstructed after the war’s end.
The golden chedi is the only area of the huge temple complex that costs money to enter. The price is reasonable, at 5,000 kip, but somewhat of a letdown. The inside views don’t necessarily provide a better perspective of the stupa that you can’t already get from the exterior.
Take your time and explore the complex and be sure to visit That Luang Tai Temple nearby. The outside contains many interesting statues and a giant sleeping Buddha, while the inside is covered wall to wall with colorful murals.
FROM WITHIN LAOS:
The cheapest way to reach the capital from elsewhere in Laos is to take a bus. Most buses will drop you off at the terminal just outside Talat Sao mall. If you’re coming all the way from Luang Prabang, prices can range from 150,000 – 200,000 kip. Understand, though, that some dub this the “bus ride from hell.” The roads in Laos are bad, and 10 hours on a bumpy, cramped bus is often too much for many people to bear.
Many people break up the journey by staying a few nights in the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng, which is located roughly in the middle of Laos’s two biggest cities.
As I wasn’t interested in either Vang Vieng or a bumpy 10-hour ride, I decided to fly. Though by far the easiest option, domestic flights in Laos tend to cost a lot more than in neighboring countries. Expect to pay around $100 USD for a flight, when a similar domestic flight in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam would only cost you a third of that.
Vientiane is a popular overland destination for people traveling in Thailand. Either they use it as an entry point to explore the rest of Laos, or simply renew their Thai visa at the embassy before heading back. In any case, if you’re coming from Thailand, the town on the Thai side of the border/river is known as Nong Khai. Nong Khai is accessible from Bangkok by train or bus, and it’s not too far from Udon Thani airport, either.
From Nong Khai you can take a bus straight into Laos. However, keep in mind that even though Laos has a visa-on-arrival system, many bus operators demand that you get your Laos visa in advance to avoid any potential slowdown.
Vientiane, of course, has an international airport which you can reach from most major cities in Southeast Asia or from within Laos. However, flights to and from this airport, whether international or domestic, tend to be pricier than other routes in the region.
One way to save money if you’ll be traveling in Thailand first would be to fly to Udon Thani airport from either Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Then, just take a bus over the border to Vientiane. You can do this for roughly a third of the price for what a direct international flight to Vientiane normally costs. The same also applies in reverse.
As mentioned above, you’ll be fine if you base yourself within walking distance of Talat Sao Mall. That way, you can reach the destinations mentioned in the article on foot, or even more easily by taxi. And as the bus station is just outside the mall, it also allows you to get to the Buddha Park or even across the border to Thailand very easily.
Though not the most popular city in Asia, there are nevertheless a wide range of accommodation options in Vientiane, especially for the budget traveler. I found a good deal on my hotel but ended up being much less than impressed with management, so I’m not going to recommend it. Hopefully you will have better luck than I did.
As mentioned above, all of the locations featured in this article are accessible on foot, provided you’re staying in a relatively central location. Pha That Luang, however, is best reached by taxi. I made the 30-40 minute journey there on foot myself, but it wasn’t a very interesting or pleasant walk. I didn’t hesitate to arrange a taxi back.
Vientiane has regular taxis, tuk-tuks and bicycle rickshaws. Whichever option you choose, it’s best to haggle and negotiate a price before getting in, as the first price they’ll tell you will be greatly inflated. At the time of writing, there are no Uber or Grab services in Laos.
Another option would be to rent a bicycle. Vientiane’s traffic isn’t nearly as hectic as other capital cities in Southeast Asia.