Out of all of the capitals in Southeast Asia Vientiane takes the prize as the most laid back. You’d never believe it was the center of commerce, government and transportation.
It’s a testament to the attitude of the people of Laos. Not taking anything too seriously and having little or no sense of urgency. They do appreciate their leisure time and even though the Mekong River is the center of social activity in the evening it never felt too crowded there-the population of Vientiane is less than 800,000. Hell, there’s even enough room for paragliding.
Vientiane became the capital of Laos in 1563 and was the administrative capital during French rule. Vientiane has seen it’s share of adversity from being burned completely to the ground in 1827 by Siamese armies, Thailand is right across the river, to passing over to French rule in 1893, Japanese occupation in World War 2., back to reoccupation by the French in 1945 to being established as the center of power for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975. Laos, and it is properly pronounced without the s, is a communist country.
Vientiane is a mix of French colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and the odd leftover Soviet style building.
A great place to get started on your exploration of the city is a visit to one of the country’s most impressive Buddhist temples, Wat Ho Phra Keo, otherwise known as the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Once the royal family of Lao’s personal chapel it was here where the precious emerald buddha statue was reclaimed by the Thai army in 1778 after being snatched by the Laotian king. Today the Emerald Buddha resides at the Grand Palace’s Emerald Buddha chapel in Bangkok.
The temple is adorned with carved features, Khmer stone carvings and several Buddha statues. Wat Ho Phra Keo is no longer in service as a place of worship but acts as a museum and monument.
Wat Si Muang is also another worthwhile temple visit for the fact that it’s where the city pillar is located and the guardian spirit of Vientiane. Wat Si Muang is considered the mother temple of the city.
Round out a temple run with a look in at Wat Si Saket believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Vientiane still standing after the sacking of the city by Siam in 1827. It’s also believed because the temple was built in the Siamese style rather than Laoation style it was spared by the army who used it as their headquarters and compound. You can check out more than 2000 silver and ceramic Buddhist images, there’s also a museum on site.
Take a break at one of the many cafes or French bakeries in town. This is really one of the highlights of a visit to Vientiane. A coffee, French pastry, and relaxing to the slow groove of this unique capital experience.
There’s tons of dining options in Vientiane as well. I love sticky rice and fish larb, a mix of fish, greens and herbs, there’s also meat and veg versions. But it’s nice to know there’s lots of options out there like sushi, western, I really do love sticky rice though.
Afterwards grab a bike from your hotel or guesthouse and head out for ride around the town, enjoying the buddhist temples, quieter charming tree-lined streets and their French colonial homes. Enjoy the slow pace, that’s what it’s all about in Vientiane.
OK, so that was too slow for you? Grab a motorbike then. I personally wouldn’t attempt this in most major cities in Southeast Asia but the streets of Vientiane are pretty quiet, even in the midday and you can cover alot of ground and sites in a short period of time. It gets pretty hot depending on the time of year pedalling around here so a motorbike is a good option if you’re comfortable driving a two wheeler.
After that it’s back to the cafe culture of Vientiane. Coffee is Laos’ 5th biggest export. Originally cultivated by the French over a hundred years ago there’s a plethora of shops around the city serving the country’s best beans. Walking around the town checking out the mix of architecture and eclectic shops in between breaks at fruit shops and little restaurants fits nicely with the pace of Vientiane.
One other site in Vientiane that shouldn’t be missed is Patuxai, the war monument dedicated to those who fought for freedom and independence from France. Familiar looking because it resembles Paris’ Arc de Triomphe it features typical Laotian mythical creatures including the kinnari or half-woman, half bird. It’s 5 towers represent the five principles of coexistense with nations of the world. The towers also represent the 5 Buddhist principles of “thoughtful amiability, flexibility, honesty, honor and prosperity”.
Funding and cement for Patuxai came from the United States. Money and materials that were originally intended for a new airport. The Royal Laotian government instead chose to build the monument garnering it the nickname “the vertical runway”.
Also near Patuxai is the World Peace Gong, one of several situated around the world that symbolizes peace and unity among all religions and countries.
Back to the Mekong for a little exercise, paragliding or just some enjoyable sunset viewing. Sometimes discovering a city’s culture doesn’t take alot of effort, in fact in the case of Vientiane, giving in to the slow pace is the quickest way to cultural immersion in the laid back capital of Southeast Asia.
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