Vientiane is known for its laidback atmosphere, and its list of quaint, uncrowded, yet on the whole impressive attractions reflects this fact. Age old Buddhist temples are scattered throughout, while quirky riverside markets sit next to interesting cultural sites and colonial French architecture. Love it or hate it, life moves slowly here – but that gives visitors more time to enjoy the small everyday events that you might miss in the bustle of a bigger city. Grab your camera and hit the streets; you’ll feel like a local in no time!
Our list of Top Ten Attractions in Vientiane demonstrates exactly why you might find yourself booking a couple of extra nights in this often overlooked capital city. From the stunning golden ‘That Luang’ stupa, to the vibrant Night Market, if you delve deep enough there’s a wealth of interesting things to do and see in this picturesque Mekong riverside spot.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
This famous Buddha Park (also known as Xieng Khuan) is located 25km outside Vientiane and features over 200 elaborately designed religious statues and sculptures, including a huge 40-metre high reclining Buddha image.
The monk who built the park back in 1958 studied both Hinduism and Buddhism, which explains the curious mix of religious styles. Among the pick of the bunch is Indra, the king of Hindu gods, who is depicted riding a three-headed elephant. You’ll also find a four-armed deity sitting on a horse as well as another one with 12 faces and many hands. The statues are as impressive in size as they are in detail, and there’s a great spot to view the whole park from three-storey building near the entrance.
That Luang – Vientiane Great Stupa
That Luang, or The Great Stupa, is the most sacred monument in the whole of Laos, and certainly one of the country’s most beautiful. Dating back to the 16th century, this giant golden temple complex looks more like a fortress than a place of worship with its set of turrets surrounding a central stupa standing 148 feet tall.
Located around four kilometres northeast of the capital, this must-see Vientiane sight is easily reachable by tuk-tuk, or if you’re feeling energetic, by bicycle (which can be rented from many guesthouses in the city centre).
Patuxai Victory Monument
The impressive Patuxai Victory Monument is one of the most distinctive landmarks amongst the modest Vientiane skyline. The massive concrete arch – reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – is intricately designed with images of Hindu Gods and is topped off with five towers all in the traditional Laotian style.
The monument can be found at the centre of Patuxai Park, an area that makes for a pleasant evening stroll or place to relax. For a small fee you can actually climb (or take the lift) to the top of the tower – a great chance for some stunning city views, particularly at sunset.
Vientiane Night Market
Take a stroll along the river front in Vientiane at night and you can’t fail to miss this giant sprawling market, with its instantly recognisable red-roofed stalls and crowds of tourists who come to snap up a bargain – or to just soak up the laidback Mekong atmosphere.
Vendors begin to set up their stalls around sunset, selling all the typical night market products you’d expect such as souvenirs, electronics, clothes, accessories, and paintings – although you can find some more unique items if you look hard enough. The promenade is well worth a visit in the evening for its gorgeous sunset alone, as well as the array of streetside eating options that seem to pop up on every corner.
Wat Ho Phra Keo
The famous Wat Ho Phra Keo is a stunning Buddhist temple near the centre of Vientiane that dates back to 1565. The striking appearance, however, is not the only reason for its well-documented fame throughout this part of Asia. Wat Ho Phra Keo once housed the Emerald Buddha after it was snatched from northern Thailand (then Siam) by the Laotian king. The sacred jade statue was then reclaimed by the Thai army in 1778 and now takes pride of place in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok.
Often referred to as ‘The Temple of the Emerald Buddha’, this sacred site is well-worth a visit – with or without the precious statue – purely for its magnificent architecture and its fascinating historical significance.
Lao National Museum
Those wanting to discover more about the history and culture of Laos should look no further than The National Museum. The old colonial French building in which the museum is housed has a good range of exhibits, artefacts and photographs ranging from prehistoric times up to the present day.
On the ground floor you’ll find a bit of a mixed bag, with dinosaur bones lying alongside pottery shards and Khmer sculptures. Upstairs is dedicated to detailed and educational exhibitions depicting the more recent history of Laos – from the Siamese invasions and the French colonial period to the American military presence during the Vietnam War.
Wat Si Muang
Wat Si Muang is one of Vientiane’s most popular sites of worship. Alongside its interesting Laos-Buddhist architecture, it provides a fascinating story that still holds great significance with the Laotian community today. According to local legend, the temple is named after a young woman, Si Muang, who sacrificed herself at the construction site of the main building over 400 years ago in order to appease angry spirits.
Visitors today can enjoy a visit to the temple, soaking up the unique spiritual atmosphere whilst observing the steady flow of Buddhist worshippers who come to pray and make promises to the deities above.
Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise
Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is a charity based in Vientiane that provides treatment and rehabilitation programmes for Laotian people with physical disabilities – many of which have come as a result from unexploded weapons that are scattered throughout the countryside as a result of the Vietnam War.
COPE also has five other rehabilitation centres spread across eight provinces in Laos, allowing victims, many of whom are children living in rural areas, convenient access to this crucial healthcare. Visitors to the Vientiane centre can learn more about this fantastic charity and its background through various exhibitions and documentary films on show. You can also see for yourself how prosthetic limbs are made at the onsite workshop.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket is known as the only temple in Laos which survived the Siamese occupation that destroyed much of the capital in 1828. The site is also famed for its cloister wall housing more than 5,000 Buddha sculptures of varying sizes and styles, reflecting the long on fascinating history of this temple. Today, Wat Si Saket stands majestically near the centre of Vientiane; its bright yellow pillars and detailed red roof (all of which are the result of various restorations since its construction) really make it stand out as one of the must-see temples in town.
Lao Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage
Lao Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage offers a refreshing alternative to the typical massage shops and spas lining the streets of Vientiane. The centre is three kilometres out of town, but is well worth the extra effort in getting there. In an open-air traditional house, guests can take a herbal spa made from boiling a mix of herbs beneath a sealed room, before moving outside to take a massage in tranquil natural surroundings.
A trip to the Lao Herbal Steam Sauna and Massage could be made into a day out in itself, with the peaceful Wat Sok Pa Luang temple (a good landmark to look for when you’re on your way) and several local restaurants all nearby, offering a true taste of Laotian hospitality and their simple lifestyle.