Vientiane – A Day In The Languid Capital City Of Laos

Updated: SEPTEMBER 2021

I knew better than to expect a concrete jungle and traffic choked streets typical of most Asian metropolises. And yet, I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent of time warp in this capital city by the Mekong.

The sixties style airport, the crumbling French architecture, the sputtering tuk tuks, the languid pace of life itself! That we arrived on a Sunday, which also happened to be the Lao National Day, heightened that impression considerably.

One could be forgiven for thinking this tranquil land and its smiling, imperturbable people have never been touched by strife. But this is the capital of a country wracked by civil war in the not too distant past, carpet bombed during the Vietnam war by US forces and crushed by three decades of communist rule.

It is this political legacy, ironically, that has preserved the essence of the unique Lao heritage. I can’t help wondering how much the locals appreciate this status quo, however, while we gush over the city’s provincial charm.

Progress or preservation? That’s a tough question and one I have pondered many times while celebrating a shiny new landmark back home.

Wat Ong Teu
That Dam (Black Stupa), Vientiane
The That Dam (Black Stupa) is a ruined ancient stupa that occupies a roundabout in the heart of the city. It is believed to be inhabited by a seven-headed serpent that protected residents during the Siamese invasion.
Exquisite wooden Buddha in Wat Sisaket with an orange brocade sash draped across one shoulder
Exquisite wooden Buddha, Wat Sisaket
That Dam (Black Stupa), Vientiane
Close-up of That Dam (Black Stupa).

The view from our fifth floor window was strangely familiar. Knock off those Buddhist accoutrements, and I could have been gazing at the terracotta tiled roofscape of my hometown complete with coconut palms and that constant in my nostalgic daydreams: a gently flowing river in the horizon.

We could easily have stayed a few more days. In the event, I ran downstairs and got the receptionist to move our morning flight to Luang Prabang to the last of the following day.

There isn’t a lot to do in Vientiane, whose name is derived from the ancient Pali for ‘City of the Moon’. No overwhelming architecture or archaeological sights to explore.

Most landmarks – the Wat Sisaket and the Wat Ho Phra Kaew, the National Museum and a cluster of smaller temples and markets – are all within walking distance of each other and can be fitted into an easy day’s itinerary.

But remember, they do take a long lunch break and close at 4pm, effectively staying open for under 6 hours. The Arc du Triomphe inspired victory monument, Patuxai, and the iconic symbol of Vientiane, the Pha That Luang, close at 5pm.

The cute little Wat keeper's son with a stick in his hand.
Wat keepers son

Potent Beer Lao further eased us into a mellow holiday mood. Our first al fresco Laotian meal (at Kop Chai Deu) of fried chicken with Kafir lime and pungent peppers accompanied by sticky rice was a delicious portent of good things to come even if our restaurant of choice was closed on account of National Day.

Later, we browsed through the night market and then segued up to the riverfront. The promenade was deserted save for a few stragglers from the market. We lingered a while inhaling the balmy air redolent of frangipani and those damp, fishy riverine scents that I miss so much. Then we walked back to our hotel, content in the knowledge that the shimmering course of this mighty river would follow our footsteps through Indochina.


THINGS TO DO IN VIENTIANE, LAOS

Vientiane, where few landmarks are what can be termed ‘must-dos’, is a gentle initiation to the Lao way of life. Soaking in its unhurried vibe is the most enjoyable thing to do.

Pha That Luang

Local legend dates Pha That Luang to 3 AD when (Indian) Emperor Ashoka’s emissaries constructed the stupa to house a relic of the Buddha. The ruined ancient stupa was reconstructed in the style of a Khmer Temple in the 13th century but it again fell into disuse. When King Setthathirat shifted his capital to Vientiane from Luang Prabang, he rebuilt the stupa/temple in its current style – since considered uniquely Lao – and covered its outer surfaces in gold. His smiling statue tops his memorial monument directly in front of the shrine.

The wat’s gold was looted in subsequent wars with Siam, Burma and China and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the French colonial government decided to restore it to its former glory. Only the pinnacle is now covered in real gold. The rest is gold paint.

Hours: 08.00- 16.00
Entrance: 10,000 Kip

Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang, Vientiane
Setthathirat Memorial In front of Pha That Luang
View of the red and gold decorateive pediment of the sentinel shrine of Wat That Luang Neua from the courtyard of Wat That Luang
View of the Sentinel Shrine of Wat That Luang Neua from the inner courtyard of Wat That Luang

Haw Phra Kaew

The famed Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok after having travelled extensively around the region over several hundred years!) was housed in the royal temple of Haw Phra Kaew before it was carted away to Siam (Thailand). The beautiful 16th century shrine is now a museum exhibiting Lao religious art.

Hours: 08.00- 16.00
Entrance: 10,000 Kip

Naga (serpent/dragon) balustrades in Wat Haw Phra Kaew.
Naga balustrades in Wat Haw Phra Kaew
Row of bronze Buddhas in Wat Haw Phra Kaew.
Bronze Buddhas in Wat Haw Phra Kaew

Wat Si Saket

is the oldest temple in Vientiane, the only Laotian religious structure in the capital that survived the 1827 occupation by Siam. It’s main attraction is its multitude of Buddha statues – over 10,000 bronze, stone and wooden sculptures in varying sizes -inside the ornate sim (ordination hall) and along the walls of the arcade that surrounds the inner courtyard. Photography is prohibited inside the Sim.

Hours: 08:00 – 16:00
Entrance: 10,000 Kip

Multiple rows of bronze Buddha statues in Wat Si Saket.
Buddha statues in Wat Si Saket

Patuxai

Patuxai (or Patuxay) is the β€œGate of Triumph”: a mid 20th century Laotian interpretation of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with a wide avenue leading up to it. It is gilded and painted in Lao style with a pretty blue ceiling above the ground floor entryway. There isn’t really much to see on the upper floors other than fair views through Buddha shaped metal grills.

Hours: Weekdays 08:00 to 16:30; Sat & Sun 08:00 to 17:00
Entrance: 10,000 Kip

Patuxai - Vientiane
Patuxai at the end of Lane Xang Avenue
Painted ceiling of Patuxai.
Metal window grill in the shape of the Buddha in the upper level of Patuxai - Vientiane
Metal window grill in the shape of the Buddha in the upper level of Patuxai – Vientiane.

MORE THINGS TO DO

  • The night market isn’t worth seeking out but we did enjoy our quiet walk along the modest promenade post dinner.
  • I hugely regretted missing a visit to Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles Workshop. We had set aside time for it but found it closed, probably for National Day. It comes highly recommended.
  • I also wish I’d made time for a working temple like Wat Si Muang that locals frequent and for a local village market.
  • Trekking in Phou Khao Khuay National Park – with a guide – seems worthwhile with an entire day to spare.
  • The Buddha Park is featured on most ‘Things To Do In Vientiane’ lists but the accounts and photos of the place didn’t appeal to either of us so we skipped it.

VIENTIANE TRAVEL LOGISTICS

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something following a link on this page I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your support is much appreciated.

Getting to Vientiane:

BY AIR: Wattay International Airport is serviced by several international airlines from South East Asia and beyond. We flew Bangok Air.

BY TRAIN: Direct trains ply between Bangkok and Thanaleng Train Station or Nong Khai Station. Take the bus or a taxi to the centre of town. Book train tickets on 12Go Asia.

Buses connect Southern China and several SEAsian destinations but it takes over 12 hours.

GETTING AROUND VIENTIANE

Tuk tuks and taxis are cheap and plentiful. You can get your hotel to call one or hail them on the street.

Where to stay in Vientiane:

Vientiane’s tourist accommodation scene isn’t the most exciting especially in the high end to luxury range.

We stayed at the Salana Boutique Hotel: A clean and centrally located property that spotted a discrepancy in our flight details and alerted us and helped us change our onward flight.

FIND MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE.

VIENTIANE FAQs

Is Vientiane safe?
It is one of the safest cities in SE Asia and the people are most gentle and friendly.

What is special about Vientiane?
As mentioned right in the beginning, its languid, laid back vibe.

Is Vientiane worth visiting?
It is indeed!


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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

79 thoughts on “Vientiane – A Day In The Languid Capital City Of Laos

    1. Thank you Kathryn. Your Egypt trip must have been amazing. Shall be over to catch up with all your posts soon πŸ™‚

  1. What a beautiful entry, Madhu… reading this and looking through the photos brought back many fond memories of my time in Vientiane this past May. You describe the city perfectly! I loved the chirping birds and insects, the sheer silence, the languid pace… and the food too, what a pleasant surprise it all was!

    1. Yes, I was surprised too, despite reading your – and Bama’s – accounts, by how much we loved the place πŸ™‚

  2. So many great photos. I just can’t pick a favorite. I like to think of the sound of that river and the taste of that food.

    1. Oh yes, the food in Laos was fabulous. Quite similar to Thai, but with a more intriguing combination of flavours and ingredients.

  3. Great photos of a beautiful city. I had to check where Vientiane was on the map. The East is so beautiful and different to the West in many ways.

      1. I used to have neighbours who were originally from India.Their son, who was born and brought up in Scotland, married a woman from India and the family all moved back to Kolkata.

        Mrs Basu used to cook some wonderful Indian dishes and I would be told of life in India. I must travel to the East as it sounds fascinating.

  4. Madhu, what a lovely thing to read this post at the end of December. It brought back so many nice memories. I really love the way you described Vientiane, and I did feel exactly the same. Look forward to your story on Luang Prabang!

    1. Glad you like it Bama.
      Vientiane reminded me so much of the South India of a few decades ago! Hope ‘progress’ doesn’t make it a clone of our cities.

    1. Yes, we returned on the 18th Gilly. The reason why I am so behind on my posting schedule, comments and blog reading πŸ™‚

    1. That sounds perfect……if they can find the balance. I fervently hope they do.
      Thank YOU for reading Marina. Wish you a Happy New Year πŸ™‚

  5. Hi Madhu,
    This is really interesting! I love the photos, and the informative description, as always. It sounds like a wonderful trip altogether.

  6. It’s so wonderful to be sitting there in your camera bag … wonderful photos again, don’t know how to say it … the little boys is one of my favorite – also I really like when you take photos on the details around you … like the window .. happy painter and your market loot. Magical.

    1. Laos is a magical country Viveka. I hope to return to its smaller towns in the South someday. Thank you so much for your kind comments πŸ™‚

  7. Vientiene is one of those places that everyone seems to pass by very quickly but I ended up there for almost a week waiting for visas and really got into the slow pace of life and met some lovely people. Thanks for bringing back some great memories with your photos.

    1. How wonderful! I wouldn’t mind getting stuck in a lovely place like that πŸ™‚ Have you written about it?

      1. I haven’t written much about Asia as it was a while back and I don’t have many photos, but I’m getting a negative scanner so will try and do a few older posts when I do.

  8. I love the little boy! What a pretty place and the smell of frangipanis is heavenly. I have one on my balcony and I love to stand in front of it and just breathe.

  9. Vientiane – I always thought that sounded so poetic and now I know why. Lovely post conjuring up the sights, sounds and smells of a distant land.

    1. Thank you Suzanne.
      The poetic sound is a Gallic corruption of ‘Vieng Chan’ by the way! The French can make anything sound romantic πŸ™‚

  10. What a beautiful description of Vientiane. To visit a place where you can see everything in one day is rare. It’s those places I would like to linger at longer. We didn’t get to Vientiane but spent a few days in Luang Prabang. I’ll be interested in your thoughts on LP. Lovely photos, Madhu, especially the window at Patuxai, my favorite.

    1. Thanks Lynne. Yes, of late we are attracted to such smaller places as well.
      As for LP, my images would pale in comparison to Ron’s awesome collection πŸ™‚

  11. I was trying click on the little boy pic to make it bigger. He’s too gorgeous. πŸ™‚ What a lovely place to visit, Madhu. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Isn’t he? I have another one of him bawling after a tiff with his brother which is just as cute πŸ™‚ Still not familiar with the new uploader AD. Think I have sorted the link now.

  12. Wonderful post Madhu; how great to be able to take these trips, and how great for us to be able to follow along through your wonderful photos.

  13. We are planning an international trip this next year. Trying to decide between Asia and New Zealand. Your photos give us much to ponder.

    1. That is a hard decision!
      Would have to be a choice between ‘cultural immersions’ v/s ‘the great outdoors’. New Zealand is high on my list too. Have had my fill of culture for a while πŸ™‚

        1. I think that would be the right choice for you, going by your interests πŸ™‚ We have been putting off Australia till we can take off for longer stretches of time.

        2. You would need about that much time to do both countries at a stretch. Happy planning LuAnn πŸ™‚

  14. Thank you! And to you too πŸ™‚
    Yes, we spent a considerable time watching that little boy at play πŸ™‚

  15. Isn’t it amazing that the first impression of a place is the utter astonishment we felt standing in a half empty street! I can remember almost daring the traffic to come bearing down on me, but of course, it never materialised! That was the closest to a timewarp I’ve ever entered – back to small town living fifty years ago, really. And sitting by the river at sunset … I loved Vientiane too, and was glad to have been able to relax into its somnolent rhythm – and that evening light you captured in your shot of Patuxai. It was lovely to see the statues of Haw Phra Kaew all dressed for National Day, but it was your picture of the Nagas, with the ‘terrace’ of the temple above, and the touch of orange shirt … just loved that!

    Yes, i enjoyed your post, Madhu, and am so glad you’re back to tell us all about your adventures in the land of a thousand elephants. πŸ™‚

    Oh, and if we don’t ‘talk’ before Monday, happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, I loved the nagas too! Am thinking of doing a post on all the naga sculpture I photographed through Indochina! Have never seen so much Hindu Iconography as I did in those two weeks!
      A very happy new year to you too Meredith πŸ™‚

      1. That would be a wonderful post Madhu because you’re right – Hindu iconography was everywhere – and often interestingly ‘distorted’ by indigenous imagery. πŸ™‚

  16. You really find the most interesting places. I’m so glad for the opportunity to broaden my horizons through your blog. Thank you for sharing.

  17. All these cities were time stopped, like Cuba, have, unwittingly, preserved their old architecture . πŸ™‚

  18. So, there is actually a place on this earth where a time warp and languid pace of life still exists…how I long to go there. And The Land of a Million Elephants is such a beautiful name.

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