Vientiane is hardly one of the great
capitals of the world. At just over 300,000 people with no
major industries, it isn't an economic powerhouse. However,
it’s a comfortable, relaxing place large enough to be of interest
but remaining intimate. This, combined with the Laotians’
easygoing attitude, makes Vientiane one of the most problem-free
cities in the world.
The city sits on
a bend of the Mekong River, which forms Laos’ border with
Thailand. It is a pleasant and relaxed place to spend a few
around Vientiane's leafy promenades with a mix of Laotian
temples and French colonial buildings, most of them crumbling
into decay, pausing at the thatched beer gardens on the riverbank
and the morning market of Talaat Sao, is a joy. Nobody takes
much interest in you unless you want attention, and nobody
seems interested in ripping you off. The local markets are
a pleasant experience and a good place to buy local handicrafts.
Food in Laos is
similar to Thai cuisine: Vietnamese and Chinese dishes are
also common. Laotian coffee is very good. There are several
good hotels and a range of international and Laotian restaurants.
As is the case in Vietnam, apart from the buildings, there
is little left from the colonial period, but one of the French
legacies is an appreciation of good food, and a ubiquitous
supply of croissants.
Although it lacks
the heritage sites that are a feature of most Asian capitals
(most were destroyed by the Thais in 1827), it has enough
to keep you occupied for at least a couple of days: the relaxing
atmosphere often lures people to stay longer.
Vientiane can easily
be explored on foot or by bicycle to visit its Wats, museums,
colonial architecture and ‘Buddha Park’. Pha That Luang, 4km
from the city centre, is Laos’ most sacred shrine. Built in
the 16th century, sacked by the Thais in 1827 and restored
(badly) by the French in 1900 (they did a better job in a
further restoration completed in 1935), it’s interesting rather
than spectacular. The base of the stupa has walkways and stairs
connecting the different levels, designed for the faithful
to climb. Each level has different architectural features
pertaining to Buddhist doctrine.
Other imposing civic
buildings are the unfinished Patuxai monument, reminiscent
of the Arc de Triomphe, and a new Chinese-financed cultural
The national Lao
Revolutionary Museum has a well-presented pre-history section,
but it’s main asset is a rare collection of a communist propaganda
with slogans such as ‘barbaric slavery under the imperial
yoke of France’, ‘capitalist running dogs’ and ‘imperialist
The Xiang Khouan
(Buddha Park) is an eclectic assemblage of Buddhist and Hindu
statues scattered around a riverside meadow, dominated by
a gigantic reclining Buddha. Hundreds of concrete structures
combine Buddhist and Hindu philosophies representing a variety
of deities. Fashioned by a self-titled ‘holy man’, the park
was created to promulgate his beliefs and to reveal his ideas
about the universe.