The capital of Laos, Vientiane, felt like an underdog when researching which destinations to include in our travels around South East Asia. It isn’t the world heritage site of Luang Prabang, or the tubing, nightlife backpacker’s mecca of Vang Vieng, but Vientiane shouldn’t be overlooked. Let me tell you why.
Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang is a grand, impressive golden stupa a short tuk tuk ride from the central area near the river. Reaching just under 150ft tall, it’s an important national monument in Laos and it’s easy to see why. The surrounding temple buildings were beautiful to walk around, especially to see the golden reclining Buddha and the stunning colours of the paintings in the temple’s main hall.
The Patuxay Monument, also known as the Victory Gate, was apparently built with materials and funds gifted by the USA to build an airport. Instead they built Laos’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe as a “vertical runway”. A sign on the monument itself describes the it as a “monster of concrete” that looks grand from afar, but uglier the closer you get, which is almost true. The guilded carvings on the underside of the arch are striking and the views from the top of the monument are quite good, although the steps to the top do feel a bit like those in a car park with a few souvenir stalls thrown in in each level of good measure. Still, it was worth seeing for ourselves!
Wat Si Saket
We spent a bit of time wandering around Si Saket temple and relaxing in the gardens. Aside from the odd tour group, it’s a calm, serene place to reflect for a while, and I was struck by the beautiful flowers around the main prayer hall. The courtyard contains over 2000 Buddha statues and images.
View of Thailand across the Mekong River
Vientiane sits right on the Thai border, with just the Mekong river separating the two countries. The riverside park is a pleasant place to sit and look out over the water, especially in the evening when the sun is setting and the Night Market is gearing up for business.
Shopping for Lao crafts and souvenirs
We found a few really nice handicraft and souvenir shops in Vientiane, particularly in the central part of town near the river. My favourite was CAMACrafts on Rue Nokeokoummane. The shop caught my eye as it had a Christmas tree in the window decorated with handmade Lao-style Christmas decorations – the first sign of Christmas that we had come across during our trip. We spent a while looking around at the huge range of goods from more affordable souvenirs to high end woven silk that is worth having a look at even if you aren’t wanting to spend $500. Nearby Saoban Crafts sells a range of local goods as well including many fabric goods like scarves and blankets. T’Shop Lai Gallery sells luxurious soaps, oils and other handmade items and has a gallery upstairs.
Places to eat
My favourite foodie experience in Vientiane was having breakfast at That Dam Noodles just around the corner from That Dam stupa. We tried to go there for lunch around 12:30 one day, but they had already finished serving, so we went for breakfast the following day instead. I’m so glad we did – the clear broth is full of flavour and the noodles are perfect. A little pinch of the chilli oil (you don’t need a lot) was the icing on the cake for what was a cleansing and wholesome start to the day!
We had a great lunch at Laos Kitchen where you can get a range of Lao dishes. Their signature laab was absolutely delicious!
Common Grounds coffee house is a great place to get a good quality organic brew and their food is great too. Plus it’s all for a good cause, supporting local community and charity projects and businesses.
Rounding off the day at the Night Market by the river, or Ban Anou Night Market if you’re feeling brave (it’s pretty much all off-cuts and offal grilled on sticks), is a good way to get some authentic street food.
I’m glad we had our two nights in Vientiane during our trip as there was actually quite a bit more to see than I had realised. It was worth the trip to see Pha That Luang alone, but there were other gems to uncover as well.