Discover Vientiane's Charm: 6 Local Experiences

The majority of travelers stay briefly in Vientiane before heading north, but Mick Shippen urges you to linger longer and discover the charms of Laos' capital city.

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Photo © Getty Images/Chna Thip Khway Khng / EyeEm

Laos’ self-imposed isolation in the 1980s and ‘90s meant Vientiane was left behind by its neighbors. The Communist government ended trade and diplomatic relations with many countries in 1979, a move that affected all aspects of social and economic life in the small landlocked country. Today, even though the country is still a one-party state, Vientiane is finally awaking from its slumber, shaking off its image as southeast Asia’s sleepy backwater, and enjoying playing catch-up.

There’s a palpable energy on the streets of Vientiane today, fueled by investment from ChinaVietnam and Thailand. However, outside influences aside, Vientiane’s renaissance is real, and its young, forward-looking population is confidently helping to forge a modern identity. New buildings seem to change the skyline each month, the café and restaurant scene is blossoming, and the youth are tapping into their creativity.

In this sprawling city on the Mekong River, there is much to see and discover at numerous annual festivals and events, the biggest and most boisterous being the annual Boun Pi Mai celebration in mid April. It’s a time for visiting temples to take part in the ritual bathing of Buddha images in order to make merit (merit-making is important to Buddhist practice: it will help determine the quality of the next life), and when water fights occur in the streets from dawn until dusk.

Getting Around

The best way to explore the city is by bicycle or on foot. Although taxis and Tuk Tuks are also an option, travelers coming from Thailand or Vietnam will find them expensive. Buses in the city are cheap, but the network is limited.

There are no trains in Laos, other than one that runs on just a couple of lines over the border bridge to Thailand.

Where to Eat

Lovers of local food experiences should rise early and head to Kua Din fresh market or one of the weekly organic markets around the city, sign up for a cooking class or culinary tour with Tuk Tuk Safari, and search out a restaurant serving authentic cuisine such as Doi Ka Noi.

Beyond the City

There is a lot to see, and plenty of opportunity for day trips and day hikes in the countryside, where waterfalls tumble and fascinating villages thrive.

Alms-giving at Phra That Luang

Considered the spiritual heart of Laos, Phra That Luang is a golden stupa (a mound-like structure containing relics used as a place of meditation), dating from 1566, set in the center of a quadrangle. Each November, the grounds surrounding the temple host a vibrant week-long festival with food stalls, music, and merit-making at the stupa. The event ends with a mass alms-giving ceremony that draws thousands of monks from all over the country.

That Luang stupa, Vientiane, Laos. Photo credit: Getty Images/Spaceindy

Xieng Kuan Buddha Park

Created by one of Laos’ great eccentrics, Xieng Kuan Buddha Park is an essential day trip from Vientiane. Located on the banks of the Mekong River, 15.5mi (25km) south of the city and just 1.5mi (3km) from Friendship Bridge on the Laos-Thai border, the park was established in 1958 by Bounlua Sulilat. The shaman priest recruited local people to build enormous surreal concrete sculptures, including a 164ft (50m) reclining Buddha, and numerous other statues that combine elements of Buddhism and Hindu mythology.

Xieng Khuan Buddha Park near Vientiane, Laos. Photo credit: Getty Images/Barry Kusuma

Bronze Buddhas at Haw Phra Kaew

Built in the 1550s, Haw Phra Kaew originally housed an Emerald Buddha image but when neighboring Siam (Thailand) sacked Vientiane in 1778 it was stolen and taken to Thonburi, the then capital of Siam. The revered Buddha now resides in Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok. Haw Phra Kaew was also destroyed during the Siamese invasion and rebuilt by France in the 1930s when it was the colonial power. Recently restored, the temple-cum-museum houses a collection of fine bronze Buddha images. 

That Dam

That Dam or the Black Stupa is a crumbling Vientiane landmark which is thought to have been built to house relics of the Buddha. Although today weeds and plants grow in the brickwork, local folklore says that it was once covered with gold. Legend also says that it is inhabited by a seven-headed snake, known as a naga, that protects Vientiane. Today, the neglected stupa acts as a roundabout for the city’s traffic. 

Wat Si Muang

Wat Si Muang is a small but beautiful temple and the site of the city pillar, which marks the symbolic heart of the city. The original ordination hall was razed to the ground by fire in 1828 and rebuilt in 1925. It’s an auspicious and very popular temple as it is said to be protected by the spirit of a young girl, who sacrificed herself when the pillar was erected here. Across the road, stallholders make and sell wax floral decorations to present as offerings.

Tad Moun Waterfall

More of a series of rapids than a waterfall, Tad Moun is one of the closest areas of scenic natural beauty to Vientiane. Located 13mi (21km) from the city, the area is a popular picnic site with locals. There are lots of food stalls and bamboo pavilions to relax in when not enjoying the water. 

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