Vientiane is the capital of Laos. But, unlike most capital cities that you’ll encounter, it feels more like a large town. This is nice for those of you that enjoy walking as, though tuk tuks are readily available, you can walk to pretty much every site worth seeing if you’ve the time and inclination.
We booked to stay in Vientiane for 4 nights and were advised that, actually, this is probably too long. However, we ended up extending the stay to a week. Admittedly some of these additional days weren’t spent site seeing so much as enjoying the laid back vibe of the city and eating some truly great food.
So, what to do?
1: THE COPE VISITOR CENTRE
If you’ve only got one day in Vientiane, then this is the place to visit. COPE are an organisation working with people experiencing mobility related disabilities providing, prosthetics and rehabilitation. During the “Secret War” Laos became the most bombed country, per capita, ever. Regrettably a vast amount of unexploded ordinance (or UXOs) still litter the country and this has resulted in the necessity for an organisation such as COPE.
The visitor centre is free to visit and walkable distance from the city centre. It is, however, a fairly long walk so you may prefer to take a tuk tuk or rent a bicycle instead. It is fair to say that COPE is not an easy day out, the stories of people affected by UXOs are heart-wrenching but it is important to learn about and an excellent cause to donate to.
The centre is relatively small so you wouldn’t need to allot more than 2 hours to half a day. There is an air conditioned cinema within the centre and, if you choose, you can spend hours in here requesting different videos from the COPE library to be played. The particular video we watched was called “Surviving Peace” and can also be found on youtube if you would like to find out more.
2: Patuxai and Pha That Luang
Patuxai also goes by the Arch De Triumph or the vertical runway (named after the fact that the concrete used in construction was a gift from America for the purpose of building a runway… Laos decided against this).
Located in the centre of a large roundabout, from a distance, Patuxai is impressive. It is flanked by a manicured garden with fountains at the front and back. However, once you get a little closer, it becomes less impressive. It is growing into disrepair. Despite this, for 30000 Kip, you can enter and ascending the arch and, at the top, get a pretty good view of the city below. The inside is filled with gift shops which is a little strange but, all in all, it is quite an interesting thing to see.
Slightly beyond the Patuxai, is Pha That Luang, a golden stupa which is believed to enshrine a breast bone of the Buddha. It’s a very impressive site to behold and the area surrounding the stupa has temples and a small market so there is a lot to explore. We walked here from the city centre but, this is a fairly long walk so make sure that it is a distance you are happy to cover before setting out and take water.
3: SUNSET ON THE MEKONG
Vientiane is on the banks of the Mekong river. Along the banks, behind the night market, are a set of steps. This is a popular place for people to gather and watch the sunset before heading back to the night market. Along the steps people patrol selling soft drinks and beers. It is even possible to get a massage while the sun goes down. The sunset is beautiful and we’d highly recommend spending and hour or so sitting and enjoying the view.
We found a few fantastic, vegetarian friendly places to eat. Our favourite, it has to be said, was The Living Library. This hasn’t been open long and is located within the old library of Vientiane. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, you can sit outside in the shade, within an air conditioned conservatory or in the main body of the building below shelves of books. The food is the beautiful that we’ve ever seen and, luckily, delicious and reasonably priced. When I mentioned that we extended our stay in Vientiane, we must be honest and say that one of the reasons for the extension was to fit in another dinner at The Living Library.
At second place on our list is Reunion Café. This lacks the aesthetics of The Living Library, being much more similar to the typical canteen style eateries that spill out onto pavements across Asia, however, the menu is also fully vegetarian, well priced and very tasty.
5: Buddha Park
This is one of the few sites in Vientiane which does require a bus ride. We opted for taking a local bus, as it was only 8000 Kip. The local bus can be caught from Central Bus station (it isn’t very well sign posted so keep your eyes peeled for the number on the front of the bus). There are a lot of tuk tuk drivers hanging around the bus station who will try and get involved and may tell you that the bus will take hours to get to Buddha park and you should travel with them. This isn’t the case, the bus takes about 30 minutes (maybe a little more) and drops you right outside the park. When you’re done at the park, cross the road and turn left where you’ll see a bus stop sign so you can catch the 14 back to town. Tickets can be bought on the bus, you don’t need to go to the ticket office. Each bus has a conductor (with a name badge saying Conductor) so head to them to make your purchase.
There is an entrance fee of 15000 kip to get into the park and they don’t accept credit cards or have ATMs nearby so make sure you’ve got enough cash to get you there and back and into the park before setting off. The park is small but very interesting to look around, we’d recommend about 3 hours to visit the park (including travel time).