Keep an Open Mind About Vientiane, Laos

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Patuxai at sunset—C.Helbig

In my last post I wrote about our high expectations for Luang Prabang with all its glowing reviews. In contrast, we arrived in the Lao capital of Vientiane with doubts. Many accounts of the city call it boring and lacking attractions. Lonely Planet describes it as “languid”, which gives the image of a lifeless place. They’re wrong. While Vientiane lacks the charm and tourist appeal of Luang Prabang, it has a lovely authenticity and plenty of worthwhile sights, activities, and places to eat/drink. The city has a warm and embracing feel, especially around sunset when locals congregate along the banks of the Mekong and around Patuxai.  I have very fond memories of our two days in this sweet place.

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Mike at the entrance of Wat Sok Pa Luang—C.Helbig

Vientiane is clean, compact, and easy to navigate. The “downtown” core and Mekong strip can easily be explored on foot. Attractions a little outside the centre, like the Victory Monument, COPE, and Pha That Luang are a quick tuk-tuk/bike ride away. Vientiane is a great place to explore on bike as it is flat and traffic is not bad. We found the best deal of the trip at Mixay Bikes where we rented two old cruisers for 10,000Kip ($1.25) for 24 hours. Here’s the things we most enjoyed during our strolls and rides around town:

Meditation with the Monks 

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Meditation at Wat Sok Pa Luang—C.Helbig

We stumbled upon the free, open to everyone meditation at Wat Sok Pa Luang and it was one of the memorable things we did during our trip. Offered on Saturdays at 4:00pm, the session includes chanting, seated and walking meditation, and a question/answer period. It was wonderful way to slow down in the middle of a rather ambitious travel schedule. We happened to be in town during a special Buddhist holiday: Makha Bucha—a celebration that commemorates a speech given by Buddha in which he laid down the first monastic regulations and predicted his own death. This made the experience all the more special.

Fiery Sunsets, Local Activity, and Food along the Mekong

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Fiery sunset and local activity on the Mekong—C.Helbig

The riverside promenade extends for several kilometres and comes to life in the evenings. Although it’s not classically beautiful, there’s something very alluring about the sunsets shrouded in dry season dust, and the laid-back nature of locals enjoying the close of another day.  There’s a huge market on one end, catering mostly to locals, and a fantastic strip of eateries with gorgeous displays of seafood, fruit and vegetables on the other end.

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It’s the same everywhere—C.Helbig

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Long strip of fabulous riverside eating spots—C.Helbig

Speaking of food, I just need to throw in that Vientiane has an astounding selection of good restaurants and cafés that serve up everything from local, to French, to Canadian favourites…yup, Canadian— I had a mean Nanaimo bar at Benoni Café (go figure!).

The COPE Visitor Centre

A visit to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is at the same time heartbreaking and heartwarming. Exhibits and films bring to life the devastation caused be UXO (unexploded ordnance). Before visiting I had no idea that Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. About 30% of the roughly two million tons of ordnance that was dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973 did not explode. As many as 25% of the country’s villages are still contaminated with UXO, and over 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by UXO since bombing ceased. Even in recent years, there are about 100 casualties annually, many of them children.* COPE, a not-for-profit organization, is dedicated to supporting UXO survivors through orthotic and prosthetic devices and rehabilitation activities. This place should not be missed.

*From National Regulatory Authority for UXO/Mine Action Sector in Laos PDR

Patuxai (Victory Gate) at Sunset

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A happy sunset scene at Patuxai—C. Helbig

From a distance, and minus the palm trees, you’d think you might have landed in Paris, but this Arc de Triomphe look-alike dominates Vientiane’s commercial district. Patuxai, literally meaning Victory Gate, was completed in 1969 and is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Locals congregate around the manicured gardens and fountains that form a broad pedestrian zone between the major thoroughfare. Like the riverfront, Patuxai is liveliest and most beautiful at sunset.

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Grand approach to Vientiane’s Victory Gate—C.Helbig

The Over-the-Top Grandeur of Pha That Luang

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Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos—C.Helbig

We could see the colossal golden structure in the distance—a perfect landmark as we pedalled our way toward Pha That Luang (Great Stupa), the most important national monument in Laos. A symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty, the temple is an impressive sight, especially plonked in the middle of a very ordinary, low rise neighbourhood. And that’s not gold paint; it’s gold leaf, some 500 kilos of it. The original structure was built by King Setthathirat in the 16th century and restored in 1953. The gated grounds are enormous with multiple temples, statues, gardens, and living quarters for the monks.

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Reclining Buddha in the Pha That Luang grounds—C.Helbig

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Statue of  King Setthathirat—C.Helbig

So Many Temples without the Crowds

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Wat Inpeng in Vientiane—C.Helbig

It’s so easy to “temple-hop” in Vientiane, and you can enjoy most of them in peace. Within the central part of town there are at least five temples all within a short walk of each other, and as I recall, none charge an entrance fee. I particularly liked the gardens and serenity of Wat Inpeng, and the wonderful Buddha displays around the gnarled trees of Wat Hai Sok. My favourite, just a short bike ride away, next to the Presidential Palace, was Wat Hor Phakeo. The red and gold decor is stunning, as are the exquisite Buddha statues that line both sides of the temple’s verandah.

 

Bottom line: Keep an open mind about the diminutive capital of Laos. It’s a comfortable stop with hidden charms, and you won’t be battling the crowds of neighbouring SE Asia capital cities like Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

For more on Laos, read my posts on Luang Prabang, Nong Khiaw, and Muang Ngoi.

Next Posts: I’ll be moving on to Cambodia, and also recalling my recent adventures at the Osoyoos Half Corked Marathon and backpacking Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail.

 

 

Categories: Laos, Places | Tags: , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “Keep an Open Mind About Vientiane, Laos

  1. Thanks for info about the monks! We will go find it today as it’s a Saturday! Please feel free to read my blog 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s ironic how many places are written off as not suitable for tourists when they turn out to be wonderful places full of local culture and unique stories. Thank you for showing off the beauty of one such “languid” town.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your lovely comments. Sometimes circumstances align that make an experience in a new place particularly memorable or enjoyable. In some ways that may have happened in Vientiane—being there on a holiday weekend, stumbling upon the meditation session, easily navigating the sights via bike, and simply being among a majority of locals rather than tourists. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Laos seems stunning! I really should go there and your post motivated me to do so soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The temples are beautiful, Caroline. Leaves of gold to make a temple. Sigh. People from the yesteryears certainly had a ‘golden’ imagination. The reclining Buddhas in every Buddhist place manage to make me go ‘Whoa’ quite consistently. They are so peaceful and beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Louise, Bike riding had a few hairy moments during our time in SE Asia, but I don’t recall it being particularly scary in Vientiane. I had to take a few detours around the traffic near Patuxai but it was OK and the drivers were generally courteous. I love that green temple too, and there are so many other gems to discover. I wandered around for several hours visiting temples while Mike was taking a nap. If you go, try to make it a weekend. The meditation is special, particularly in that environment…even Mike enjoyed it and he’s not one for sitting still on the floor for any length of time. Cheers, Caroline

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  6. I love it Caroline when someone takes the time to reveal the hidden gems of cities which might have a bad rap for whatever reason. Your post is an invitation indeed to revisit Ventiane with a different eye. We were there for just two days after a month in Luang Prabang and took the train from there to Bangkok Thailand… We obviously did not give Vientiane it’s proper due, but looking at your beautiful photos makes us both nostalgic for Laos. So perhaps we will return one day.

    Thanks for also pointing out the importance of COPE ` which does important work It is clear that the threat to rural communities is far from over and that the American bombing campaigns in a secret war, cast their shadow still today.

    Peta & Ben

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Peta and Ben—I think Vientiane could be a bit anti-climactic after the month you had in Luang Prabang, especially as you took the time to discover the “real” LP in an unhurried way and outside of high season. But, as I’m glad I conveyed in this post, Vientiane is a very pleasant place and definitely a worthwhile stop. I think our experience was heightened because of the holiday weekend. It gave the city a nice vibrance.
      Our visit to COPE made a huge impression on me. My grasp of history around the Vietnam War is rather poor, and the displays at COPE were excellent “teachers”. I was/am astounded that Laos is still dealing with the aftermath of the bombings.
      Laos in general got to me. It’s a fascinating and beautiful country. Cheers, Caroline

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  7. This is a fascinating post Caroline. And wonderful photos. We spent a week in Vientiane, and apart from the evening market by the river and Pha That Luang I guess we just discovered different things. I don’t know how we could have missed the victory gate and the reclining buddha!!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. Haha…yes, the Victory Gate is pretty hard to miss, but I guess you took a different route to Pha That Luang. The reclining Buddha was tucked away near the back of the grounds and we almost missed that. It’s great that we both discovered different things in Vientiane.We really enjoyed our evenings along the riverfront. I’d love to see it during rainy season when the Mekong is much “mightier”. Cheers,
      Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Well Caroline you’ve sold me. I’m not sure why lots of people don’t like smaller quieter places, it sounds perfect. And you would be able ride your bike around without thinking you could be knocked off i imagination? The meditation experience sounds special, the night market great and oh the sweet little green and gold temple, how gorgeous. Louise

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