Vientiane may be Laos’s capital. But spend time at its temples and strolling along the Mekong riverfront and you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a pretty provincial town. Time moves at its own pace here, making it a truly unique South East Asian city.
Vientiane is a small, flat city, therefore perfect for covering by bike. Most hotels can arrange hire for those who fancy cycling. Metered taxis have become increasingly visible, while private cabs are easy to find. Tuk-tuks are available, but sometimes make multiple pick-ups. Negotiate fares before setting off.
Although Vientiane is smaller than other Southeast Asian capitals, it has a surprising number of things to do. The golden stupa of Pha That Luang should be your first stop. Originally a Hindu temple dating back to the third century, today it’s one of Laos’s most important Buddhist sites. Monks pad through its cloisters, where statues of Buddhas loom at every turn.
Vientiane’s other must–see religious site is Wat Si Muang. This golden temple is home to the city’s guardian spirit, an old Buddha statue that the city’s population believes can grant wishes. The place is always busy with locals making offerings.
The fascinating Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial pays tribute to Laos’s most revered leader. The bronze statue out front is just a taste of things to come, with the museum housing a full-scale model of Kaysone’s childhood home and school classroom. Artefacts look at Laos’s war with the U.S. and its role in that country’s fight with neighbouring Vietnam.
No trip to Vientiane is complete without taking a sunset stroll along the Mekong waterfront. The whole city seems to emerge for this nightly ritual, with youngsters playing football or kicking back with a Beerlao as the light fades.
A visitor centre for a disabled charity has fast become one of Vientiane’s most interesting and heart-warming destinations. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) helps local people get over debilitating injuries suffered as a result of landmines and unexploded bombs from its late 20th century guerrilla war. The information centre has films on show, plus a gift shop that donates all proceeds to the charity.
The excellent Laos Textiles Museum offers the chance to learn about traditional design, with a focus on the country’s minority ethnic groups.
Vientiane’s French colonial past, coupled with a rich local culinary tradition, makes it one of the best cities for food in South East Asia. Makphet, which helps train disadvantaged kids in kitchen and restaurant skills, serves a range of Laos classics. Try the lahp: a traditional dish of minced fish with herbs and raw veg.
Fresh bread fiends should check out Le Banneton, which serves croissants that would make a Parisian blush. Its baguettes are excellent too. For more French flavours, but with a Laotian twist, try Bistrot 22. The cauliflower soup is a highlight, while the steaks are first rate.