Laos and Vientiane
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Nearly three-quarters of Laos is covered in mountains and forested hills that are too steep to live on.
The Mekong River is vital as a transportation route for cargo and passengers, a source of electricity at dams, a water supply for crops, and a home to fish which are an important food in the diet of Laotian people. There are three plateaus between the mountains and the Mekong River—the Xiangkhiang, the Khammouan, and the Bolovens Plateaus.
The Xiangkhiang is the largest, while the Bolovens Plateau near Cambodia provides more fertile farmland where coffee, tea, rice, strawberries, and pineapples are grown. The lowland region is the most vital to the Lao. There, the Mekong River floods the soil providing rich nutrients to grow enough rice and other crops to feed the whole country for one year.
Most of the country's population lives along the river, which winds more than 2,600 miles (4,180 kilometers) from Ch ina through Laos to the ocean in south Vietnam. Only 10 percent of the country is below 600 feet, and the highest peak, Phu Bia is 9,242 feet (2,817 meters).
The town was founded during the late 13th century, and in the mid-16th century the capital of the Lao kingdom (a state known as Lan Xang) was moved to Vientiane from its previous traditional location at Luang Prabang (now Louangphrabang).
Vientiane still has some of its older wooden structures, despite its government offices, foreign embassies, and schools. Its modern industries include brewing, lumber processing, and the manufacture of brick, tile, textiles, cigarettes, matches, detergents, plastic bags, rubber sandals, and iron and steel. The Lao farmers of the surrounding area tend rice, corn (maize), and livestock in some of the best alluvial lowlands of Laos.
The National University of Laos (founded 1995) in Vientiane has faculties of agriculture, architecture, education, and forestry, among others. Ho Phakeo, the national museum, is located in the city, as are the Dongsaphangmeuk Library and the National Library.
At Vientiane the Mekong River is navigable only by small craft; passage to the right bank was solely by ferry until 1994, when a highway bridge was opened. Vientiane has an international airport, and highways link the city with Louangphrabang and Savannakhet in Laos and with Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The Nam Ngum Dam north of Vientiane provides enough hydroelectric power for the surrounding areas and for export to Thailand as well.
Vientiane is known for its laidback atmosphere and it's true that life moves slowly here, attracting those who enjoy a peaceful, relaxed vibe. Exploring centuries-old Buddhist temples is one of the most popular things to do in the Lao capital, which you can do on foot, bicycle or tuk-tuk. Quirky markets sittin next to the Mekong River, colonial buildings as museums displaying thousands of artefacts dating back to prehistoric times….small shops selling trinkets, famous Lao silk, and elegant and exotic jewelry, silver markets and cozy eateries care calling for you, so grab your camera, hit the streets, and you’re bound to find a host of interesting sights in Vientiane.
Here are spots not to be missed in and around Vientiane:
1. The Patuxai Victory Monument
Patuxai Victory Monument is one of the best known landmarks in Vientiane and was designed to resemble the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
It is however also carved with symbols of Hindu Gods and has an additional five towers which resemble traditional Laotian buildings making this something of an East meets West kind of attraction.
The monument is part of the wider Patuxai Park and this is a great place to come if you want to go for a serene walk at sunset.
You can also take in the views across Vientiane from the top of the Patuxai Victory Monument either by climbing a set of stairs to the viewing platform or using an elevator.
2. Xieng Khuan
Xieng Khuan is also known as Buddha Park and is some 25 kilometers outside Vientiane.
As you would guess from the name, is known for having more than 200 religious statues which are scattered all over the lush grounds.
The piece de resistance here is a sculpture of a reclining Buddha which is some 40 meters high and the park was the brainchild of a monk who designed the area in 1958 and who was interested in both Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, which is why you will find a mix of different influences here.
As you walk around make sure to look out for the sculpture of Indra who is atop a three headed elephant and who is considered to be the king of the gods in Hinduism.
Other highlights include famous gods on horseback as well as deities with multiple faces and arms.
3. That Luang
That Luang is also called the Vientiane Great Stupa and has the claim to fame of being the most sacred building in all of Laos as well as one of the most picturesque.
The stupa dates from the 16th century and is a large complex that features the central stupa covered in gold leaf which soars to a height of 148 feet.
This is then surrounded by pretty turrets in the typical Laotian style and the whole complex is around four kilometers outside of the center of Vientiane so it makes a great place to visit as part of a day trip.
4. Vientiane Night Market
Vientiane Night Market is located along the scenic waterfront in the city.
The market usually gets going around sunset and you can come here to buy a range of items like clothes, textiles, accessories, handicrafts, paintings and myriad souvenirs.
In addition to the actual market stalls you will also find a wide range of street food stalls here where you can snack on some traditional Laotian snacks like barbecued meats, making this one of the cheapest places in Vientiane to dine in the evenings.
5. Wat Ho Phra Keo
Wat Ho Phra Keo is a Buddhist temple in Vientiane which was built in 1565 and is also one of the most spectacular buildings in the city.
It is famous as it used to be the location of the famous Emerald Buddha statues which was stolen by Laotian royalty from Thailand before being retaken in 1778 and returned.
You can still see the statue in Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok and the temple in Laos is still known as the ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha’ in reference to the story of the carving.
Even without the sculpture, this is also a very pretty temple in its own right, so it is well worth a visit.
6. The National Museum
If you want to know more about the history and culture of Laos, then you need to head to the Lao National Museum, also sometimes referred to simply as The National Museum.
The museum is actually housed inside a building that was constructed during the French colonial period and you will find a huge number of interesting exhibits on sale here.
These include local artifacts like paintings, sculptures and jewelry, and you will also find galleries dedicated to period photographs.
There are even galleries that date from the prehistoric period that showcase dinosaur bones and ancient pottery fragments.
7. Wat Si Muang
Wat Si Muang is one of the most popular temples in Vientiane and is a great place to visit if you want to see some of the finest Laotian Buddhist design work in the country.
The temple takes it name from Si Muang who, local legend has it, was a young Laotian woman who sacrificed herself to please the local gods and allow for the building to be erected some 400 years ago.
The design features of the temple are truly stunning and you will also be able to watch long streams of pilgrims here worshipping at the temple.
8. Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket has the claim to fame of being the only surviving temple in Laos from before the invasion of Siam in 1828. Unfortunately much of the city was razed to the ground at this time, but the temple managed to avoid being demolished and you can come here to check out the 5,000 sculptures of the Buddha for which it is also famous.
Other design points to look out for also include the yellow pillars that hold up the roof of the temple which is itself painted a vibrant shade of red.
9. Kaysone Phomvihane Museum
The Kaysone Phomvihane Museum was opened to commemorate the 75th birthday of the president of Laos and is also a monument to one of the most famous communist leaders in Indochina.
The museum is made up a number of galleries that tell the story of Kaysone, who in real life was actually rather private about his day to day affairs.
Both inside and outside the museum you will see a number of statues of Kaysone made of bronze and you can also check out a range of his personal memorabilia.
There is even a model of his home as a child and a model of the cave he hid inside in Hua Phan Province.
10. Lao Textile Museum
This small museum used to be privately owned by a local family who also own the Kanchana Boutique.
Nowadays however it has morphed to become one of the key cultural sights in Vientiane and is located around a gorgeous little Laotian compound.
Here you will find a typical wooden house which is filled with ancient weaving tools and looms, and there are also antique textiles here that represent the various ethnic groups in Laos.
If you want to get hands on then you can also take a textile painting class.
11. Cycling tour around Vientiane
Bicycle touring around Vientiane has become increasingly popular in recent years and you can now sign up for a tour with several companies like Vientiane ByCycle.
You can usually opt for half day or full day tours and a local tour guide will take you around the city to out of the way spots such as villages, temples and markets.
You can also cycle along the banks of the scenic Mekong River and this is a great way to check out the city and also get a workout in at the same time.