Often upstaged by its quieter, more romantic cousin Luang Prabang, or even the more boisterous younger brother, Vang Vieng, the capital of Laos, Vientiane, still packs a surprising punch for a city that is often more of a transit destination than a city that draws travelers in its own right.
But, although it doesn’t quite have the incredible viewpoints, stunning temples or mesmerizing limestone cliffs of its siblings, you should miss exploring Vientiane at your peril. This French-influenced hub of café culture, eclectic architecture and vibrant street life has so much to offer, which is why you need to follow this rundown of the ultimate things to do in Vientiane.
Climb the Patuxai Monument
One of the landmarks of Vientiane, the Patuxai Monument is almost instantly recognizable as it resembles many other famous victory gates from around the world, most notably the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
That becomes even more poignant when you find out that it was built as a monument to those Laotian fighters who fought for the country’s independence from France.
You are able to climb all the way to the top of the monument, which provides some of the best views across the city. And not to mention that there are some market stalls nestled within the monument selling everything from trinkets to very touristy wares.
Address: Lane Xang Avenue, Vientiane
Hours of operation: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm daily
Fun fact: The Patuxai, built between 1957 and 1968, was constructed using US funding and cement that had been earmarked for a new airport, giving the monument the nickname of the ‘Vertical Runway’.
Enjoy the café culture
As with much of the Southeast Asia region, the French left their mark on Laos, which isn’t too much of a surprise with it having been a French Protectorate from 1893 to 1953.
Alongside the colonial buildings you’ll still find scattered across Vientiane, one of the biggest influences that still remains is the huge café culture in the city.
So, if you’ve been traveling for a while and are in desperate need of a great cuppa, along with a golden croissant or two to remind you of Europe, then there are pretty much great places on every street.
Best of the bunch has to be the Bakery by Boris. Set in its own lush surrounds, and handily next to the next recommended attraction, Wat Si Muang, Bakery by Boris was set up by Boris Luangkhot, a Paris-trained pastry chef. Make sure you have this little gem on the list, you won’t regret it!
Address: Bakery by Boris
Hours of operation: 7:00 am to 8:00 pm
Visit Wat Si Muang
While it’s true that Luang Prabang is better known for its temples, you should still make a turn at some of Vientiane’s own examples. One of the best in the city is Wat Si Muang, which is built in the traditional Laotian style, with its distinctive sloping roof.
The temple was built in 1563, in the former Kingdom of Lan Xang and is considered the home of the ‘guardian spirit’ of Vientiane. It’s worth spending a bit of time exploring the large ordination hall and checking out the small seated stone Buddha which, as legend has it, has the power to grant you a wish by lifting it off its pillow three times while recounting your request.
Address: 15 Rue Bourichane, Vientiane
Explore Xieng Khuan
Also known as the ‘Buddha Park’, Xieng Khuan, which is around 25 km (15 miles) from Vientiane, is one of the stranger places that you’re likely to visit when in Laos, but also one of the best things to do when you’re in Vientiane.
This sculpture park, set on the banks of the mighty Mekong, was started in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a priest who used influences from both Hinduism and Buddhism to create more than 200 slightly strange statues and artworks.
Although the statues look really ancient, they’re actually only decades old at most. However, this doesn’t detract from the overall experience; it’s an eerie and mysterious place. Some of the best pieces in the Buddha Park are the multi-levelled structures that depict Heaven, Earth and Hell, and the 40m reclining Buddha.
Address: Deua, Thanon Tha, Vientiane
Hours of operation: Daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
Check out the COPE Visitors Center
Everyone has heard of the Vietnam war and the damage that it did to that country, but what most don’t realise is that the conflict had lasting, devastating consequences for Laos and the Laotian people. Shockingly, Laos is the most bombed country on earth, with an estimated 270 million dropped on the country, and still around 80 million unexploded ordinances (UXOs).
COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise), set up in 1996, is a non-profit organization that provides care and support for those who have been affected by these UXOs, and offers a touching exhibition dedicated to the subject that you can visit.
It’s a hard story to hear, but a really important one in better understanding what the Laos people went through during these years, and difficulties that parts of the country are still facing over 40 years later.
Address: Boulevard Khou Vieng, Vientiane
Hours of operation: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm daily
Wander around Wat Si Saket
Built in 1820, Wat Si Saket is the oldest temple in Vientiane, having escaped the destruction brought about by the Siamese in 1828. What makes this temple so special is that it houses over 10,000 images of the Buddha, with some dating back to the 1500s, so definitely a worthwhile stop when in Vientiane.
Address: Ave Lane Xang, Vientiane
Pro tip: It’s also located just across the road from Haw Phra Kaew, the former temple that housed the Emerald Buddha, which can now be found in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok. Although now the temple is a museum, housing everything from religious art to 2,000-year-old jars from the famous ‘Plain of Jars’ of the Xieng Khouang Plateau.
Pay a visit to Pha That Luang
Regarded as the most important landmark in Laos, Pha That Luang is the national symbol of the country. Although it has gone through many reconstructions, a temple on the site of the golden stupa has been ever-present in Vientiane for more than 1800 years.
Originally a Hindu temple, Pha That Luang was rebuilt as a Khmer temple in the 1200s, before falling into disrepair. The structure was then rebuilt into something much closer resembling today’s Buddhist temple under King Setthathirat in 1566. Although this was destroyed and subsequently re-built several times over, the last time after the second world war.
You can’t go to Vientiane without visiting this iconic national symbol, so make sure you spend an hour or two wandering the temple complex.
Address: Thanon That Luang, Vientiane
Hours of operation: 8:00 am to 4:00 pm
Go shopping at the riverside night market
What better way to round up the list of best things to do in Vientiane, than with the best evening activity in the city: Visiting the riverside night market.
If you’re keen to get some great street food, buy some cheap t-shirts and stock up on Thai-style elephant trousers, or even some pretty impressive imitation goods, the Vientiane Night Market is the one for you.
Address: Mekong Riverfront, Vientiane
Hours of operation: Daily from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Whether it’s sipping a steaming cup of French-pressed coffee or ascending the winding stairs of the Patuxai Arch, the sprawling city of Vientiane is filled with amazing things to do, and should definitely feature on your Laos itinerary.
Use it as your gateway to the many-splendored sights of Laos as you explore more popular places like Luang Prabang but do remember not to miss this often overlooked city, as you take in the spellbinding sights of Vientiane, the ‘City of the Moon’.