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Although not as popular as the old capital Luang Prabang, there are a huge variety of things to do in the Laotian city Vientiane. It is the capital, and while in many countries, that may mean that you are going to encounter a bustling, overpopulated city stuffed with tourists, in Vientiane it simply means a culture-rich experience. There is a lot to do and see, but you don't have to fear being overrun by other visitors.
You can definitely sense the French influence on the country in this city, but there is no shortage of Laotian culture. Whether you have only one day to spend in Vientiane or whether you want to plan your entire trip around it, let's look at what to do in Vientiane.
Temples in Vientiane
Every country in the area is going to have beautiful Buddhist and Hindu temples that attract a lot of attention from visitors. But there is something special about the temples in Vientiane. This city has a high density of temples, and there are many beautiful ones to choose from.
Of course most of them are not as impressive as the ancient cities and temples you can visit such as Khmer buildings in Cambodia and parts of Laos or Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand.
Still many of the temples are still worth your time if you have an interest in the culture and Buddhism. There are definitely a few that stand out from the crowd. Some of the best temples to visit in Vientiane are:
Wat Pha That Luang Temple
Pha That Luang in one of the most culturally and religiously significant buildings in the country. It is so highly regarded, in fact, that it part of the government logo and is used on currency. It dates back to the third century, but has since been built and rebuilt many times over, as it has been destroyed by invading armies. The most recent restoration was in 1953. What makes this site so sacred?
The stupa at the top of That Luang temple is said to contain hair and bone of the Buddha, and the stupa is shaped like a lotus bud. While you can simply walk around the site and admire the exterior of the temple, you can also pay a little bit of money to explore the temple itself, where you are likely to meet at least one monk who speaks your language and is eager to chat with visitors. Most people visit this temple near sunset, but it is beautiful at any time of day.
Wat Ong Theu
Wat Ong Theu is another temple in Vientiane that is well worth a visit. It was destroyed during an attack by the Siamese in 1827, but has since been rebuilt and is currently one of the most important temples among those who come to Laos to study Buddhism. It is also one of the most colorful temples in the area, with bright yellow, green, and red features, including two green dragons at its entrance.
When you arrive at Wat Ong Theu, you will see the Phra Onteu, the bronze Buddha that lends its name to the temple (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). If you are already in downtown Vientiane, you’ll have easy access to this temple, so definitely stop by.
Wat Ho Phra Kaew
Wat Ho Phra Kaew is another very sacred site in Vientiane. It was once home to the Phra Kaew, an emerald Buddha made from a single piece of jade. Though the Phra Kaew is no longer in this temple, it is still very beautiful, with intricate carvings and statues. It is still home to a wide variety of artifacts, collected and stored here over centuries.
Wat Sokpaluang is one of the most relaxing temples near Vientiane. Set off in the forest, instead of in the middle of the bustling city, it is a perfect place to retreat from the noise and boisterousness. Whether you just want to have a breather from the city atmosphere or you want a quiet place to meditate, this is the place. There was once a sauna and massage here, but it has not been rebuilt since a recent fire destroyed it.
Museums in Vientiane
Visiting the temples in the city is a great way to get in touch with the Laotian culture, but if you really want to learn about the history of Vientiane and the people of Laos, you will want to visit the museums. There are two museums of note in Vientiane, including the Lao Textile Museum and the Lao National Museum.
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Lao Textile Museum
While it might not look impressive from the exterior, the Lao Textile Museum has one of the most incredible collections of textiles in the world. These are not just textiles, they are ancient textiles, carefully preserved and displayed for visitors to see.
In addition to the textiles themselves, there are antique weaving instruments. There are pieces stored here from just about every ethnic group in the region, as well as a shop where new textiles are being created and sold.
Lao National Museum
Next is the Lao National Museum. It is now more than thirty years old and contains a collection of artifacts and treasures from Laos’ long history. Most guests are actually surprised by the wide variety of things in this museum. At first glance, it might seem like there is no rhyme or reason to what is displayed and what is not displayed, but in reality, there is just too much history to cover and not enough space.
From dinosaur bones that were discovered in Laos, to Neolithic and Paleolithic tools and pottery, even to pieces of rock paintings.
If you only have a little bit of time to spend in this country, the Lao National Museum is a great place to start. You’ll get a good sense for the country and its history in a very short amount of time.
While there are only a few monuments in Vientiane, those that there are will be worth your time. The Patuxai is definitely one of our favorite places to visit. It is essentially a Laotian version of the Arc de Triomphe, and is a tribute to the soldiers who helped to liberate Laos, ironically, from the French.
Instead of the neo-classical adornment, however, its icons are from the Lao Buddhist tradition. It is a large, imposing monument, and one that can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. When you venture inside, you’ll find spiraling staircases and shops. You can even climb to the very top of the monument and look out on the city.
Other Activities in Vientiane Laos
Besides just seeing things, there are plenty of things to do in Vientiane. Don’t neglect to carve out a little bit of time in your schedule to visit or do one of the following locations or activities.
The COPE Visitor Center is probably one of the most unique places in the whole of the city, if not in all of Laos. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, earning it the title of the most bombed country per capita in the entire world. About a third of the bombs dropped never exploded. This continues to be an issue in Laos, as people come across these bombs and are injured by them.
The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), is a non-profit that essentially works with survivors to provide them with the prosthetics and therapy that they need. They have a visitor’s center which details the history of the bombing and the long-term effects of war on Laos and its people.
The Mekong riverfront is another great place to visit while in Vientiane. If you want to feel like a local, make sure you go at sunset. Most Lao people do not exercise during the day, especially during the summer, when it is too dry and too hot to be in the sun for long.
Instead, they wait for the sun to go down and then head out into their city. The Mekong riverfront won’t be bustling, but there will be plenty of shops to browse through, street carts to buy dinner from, and things to see.
Swimming is a very popular activity in the city, especially between March and June. The heat can be brutal during these months, which makes swimming an excellent daytime activity. You can get up in the morning, do a little bit of sight-seeing before it becomes simply too hot to do anything, and then take a refreshing dip until the sun starts to go down and the temperatures become more comfortable. If you are staying at a hotel, you are very likely to have access to a pool. There are also community pools for those staying in hostels or with a local family.
Vientiane Buddha Park
The Vientiane Buddha Park (Wat Xieng Khuan) is not exactly in Vientiane, but it is within an hour’s drive of the city, making it perfect for a day trip. It is also an incredible site that should not be missed. It has more than 200 sculptures, from both Buddhist and Hindu traditions.
Some of them are huge, while some of them are very small. All are amazing. There are even some sculptures that you can interact with. For example, there is a big ball in the park that you can actually climb. From the top, you can survey the entire park.
Markets in Vientiane Laos
It would not be a trip to Vientiane without visiting one of the markets. Most of the markets are actually only open at night. The most famous is the Night Market, near the Mekong riverfront. If you’re visiting the riverfront after dark, you simply will not be able to miss it. There will be plenty of different things to do and see, and there will be a wide variety of products to buy.
This is the perfect time to pick up a souvenir or to grab something else to remember your trip by, like a t-shirt or a pair of shoes. You will find there are a wide variety of snacks being sold, too, so come hungry.
One of the most popular ways to get around the city is by bicycle. You can take a bicycle tour through the entire city. Unlike a bus tour, where you might feel disconnected from what you are actually seeing, on a bike, you still have the opportunity to get up close and personal with Vientiane. No matter what you want to see or where you want to go, you can probably get there on a bicycle. They are very cheap to rent and if you do not want to be stuck on public transportation, but also want to leave the city center, this is the best way to do it.
Don’t forget to do some shopping while you are in Vientiane. While there are the night markets to consider, there are also plenty of other shops to check out. You can duck in and out of them on hot days and find lots of little gems.
Fair-Trade and French Food
Laos has recently been flooded with fair-trade organizations, who are looking to help local tradesmen make the most of their work and find a larger customer base. This means that new stores are springing up, selling everything from stuffed animals that support vocational training for Laotian youth, to textiles that support local tribes. From food to alcohol to clothing, you can always find something great and because the proceeds go directly to the people who make the products, you’ll feel good buying them, too.
The biggest thing you need to do is Vientiane? Eat. You are not going to have to struggle to find something delicious to eat while you are here. There are both Laotian and French restaurants everywhere. Be sure to work some time into your schedule to both try the street food and to actually go in and sit down and eat at one of the nicer places.
© 2019 Sam Shepards