A lot of the buzz on Vientiane is that it's a sleepy backwater town that hardly seems like it should be the capital city of a country in one of the world's most dynamic and frenzied corners of the globe. With neighbors like Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and even Phnom Penh, I'll admit that Vientiane is definitely a change of pace .... but things are changing! The Laotian capital is now experiencing a period of fast paced growth and development, but it admittedly still lags behind regional peers in terms of hustle, bustle, and general excitement. Though it may be sleepy I'd caution you not to sleep on this city - I found it charming for exactly that reason. Vientiane is laid back enough that it became the site of a travel "first" for me - the first city where I rented a bicycle and used it as my primary means of transportation during my stay! At 61 countries visited now, Vientiane remains the only city in the world where I felt comfortable enough to rent a bike and wander around.
Which isn't to say there is nothing going on here. Quite the contrary, I was quite entertained for the three days we (I was with my fiance) spent meandering through the side streets and roadways crisscrossing their way out from the bend of the Mekong River that cradles the city. The food culture in the Laotian capital kept us stuffed and well-fed every day of our trip, the energy of the night market running along the banks of the river was better than any shot of espresso to wake us at sunset, and the peacefulness of the golden temples that dotted the city were a welcomed escape from the scorching heat of the southeast Asian sun. There was much to love in Vientiane but the following three sights were my favorite. Standard waiver - my opinion, my thoughts. Have different ones? Cool! Love to hear them in the comments below. Here we go ....
Patuxai is an interesting site on its own merits but gets a bonus bump from me due to the addition of some political and aviation-related intrigue. Back in the late 1950s the United States gave funds to the Laotian government to build a new airport. After what I'm assuming is a lot of careful deliberation and reflection, the powers that "were" decided to scrap that plan entirely and instead used the funds to construct the concrete archway that sits in the middle of an oblong roundabout in Vientiane today. That's how Patuxai earned its nickname - "the Vertical Runway." Cute story, right?
Honestly the archway looks nice from far away but once you get closer you can see it's a bit of a concrete monstrocity. A total Monet as Cher from Clueless would say. And I say that with love as I'm a big fan of various concrete monstrosities across the globe. As a former French colonial territory I think it's easy to make a quick glance and assume it's a copy of the much more famous and well-known Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It's not. The arch incorporates traditional Laotian design motifs that reflect the nation's long cultural history. A closer look at the structure will reveal various iterations of Naga kings, apsara, and murals featuring Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra.
The archway has four entrances from the cardinal points of the compass and the main floor is dedicated to vendors and seating for people looking to escape the pounding heat that's ever present in Laos. For a small fee (which was 5000 Lao kip when I went, about .60 USD) you can climb the archway through seven floors of shops, vendors, and office space until you reach the open air pavilion at the top from which you can see a relatively unimpressive view of the the city. But the real charm of the site isn't the view to be honest, it's the history and atmosphere.
Patuxai seems to be a fun gathering place for locals as the majority of the people that were there while we explored were simply lounging about and taking a break from the day - clusters of old men chitchatting in the shade, children begging parents for some pocket money to buy ice cream from one of the vendors nearby, etc. If you're looking for a regal, elegant monument to the liberation of Laos from its historic oppressors, this probably isn't the prime example for that. Concrete isn't the most expressive or attractive of mediums to work with. But I do think Patuxai is interesting for its history and story, and for being a focal point for the city's residents to gather and relax.
PHA THAT LUANG
It wouldn't be Southeast Asia without a temple or two, would it?
Vientiane's offering in the grand temple category is Pha That Luang, a Hindu temple built in the first century that has seen multiple iterations of rebuilding and Buddhist conversion over time. The current version finished construction following damage incurred during the Japanese occupation and their subsequent retreat at the end of World War II. It now sits in quiet splendor on the edge of the city's downtown core, a relatively easy but sweaty bike ride from most of the city's hotels and hostels.
The entrance to the temple complex is marketed by a statue of King Setthathirat, sitting regal and covered in colorful flower garlands.
Despite being one of Laos' most important temples, it retains a peaceful and calm atmosphere. Join the mix of worshippers, lounging locals, and the scarce tourist as they make their way around the temple grounds and explore the hidden nooks and crannies of the complex. The three-tiered stupa is of course the centerpiece and main draw of the site, vibrantly gold and spired against the backdrop of the blue sky. We choose to circle the stupa to take in its scale and features before wandering off along the edges of the walls to explore other aspects of the temple.
Apparently in years past the temple complex was not walled and cars, bicycles, and motorcycles had free reign to drive around and through as they pleased. The site is now gated and walled from traffic though, and the walls around the stupa contain a variety of statues of long since deceased royals, images of the Buddha, and prayer offering locations for worshippers. It's not particularly big and can be quickly seen in about 15 minutes or more thoroughly explored in 30, but you might take a page from the locals and find a quiet little corner of the temple with a precious bit of shade for a portion of the grueling afternoon. There are few places in Vientiane with a better view!
XIENG KHUAN / BUDDHA PARK
Save the best for last! Well, at least in my humble opinion that is.
Xieng Khuan (also called Buddha Park and dozens of other variations of these two options) is the brainchild of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Laotian monk who combined elements of Hinduism and Buddhism in his religious devotion. It is from this unique perspective that the park was created - a mix of Hindu and Buddhist iconography that dots a small patch of cleared land in the jungles about 15 miles outside of Vientiane along the Mekong.
The sculptures throughout are all made of concrete and haven't exactly been kept in excellent condition. While they may look quite old they're at most 50 years old, many being quite newer than that. The combination of barely there maintenance and the tropical humidity and heat gives the art a bit of an aged veneer despite their relative newness. The park lacks any coherent melody with art work ranging from Buddha heads with skulls on top to undersea demons devouring the living. It's like Alice in Wonderland if Alice were from Southeast Asia and had a bit of a demonic streak.
Probably one of the most interesting and popular sculptures in the entire park is what is often called the "pumpkin" or "pumpkin tree". It's a piece near the entrance of the park that resembles a gourd with a tree structure on top of it. A demon's gaping mouth allows passage inside for those who are keen to explore. While many of the other statues in the park are interesting, the pumpkin wins out for most people as they're eager to climb inside of it and make their way up through three floors (representing hell, earth, and heaven) before coming out on top of the gourd at the base of the tree. There's a concrete "barrier" a bit down the structure to prevent you from falling but it's as useful as the broccoli in your order of beef & broccoli - there but useless. As with a lot of things you do when you travel, climb at your own risk.
From the top of the pumpkin you can take in the entirety of the park, which as you can see below isn't massive at all. It's easily seen in half an hour if you're hoofing it through or in an hour or two if you're taking your time looking at each piece. Getting here from Vientiane isn't too difficult with plenty of taxi options from the city center (negotiate!) or tour companies offering half day trips to the site or full day trips with the afternoon spent on a boat on the Mekong.
There they are, my top three sites in the up and coming capital city of Laos, Vientiane! Think I missed something? Overlooked your favorite? Let me know! Until then, happy travels!