Vientiane is a good place to chill out for travelers weary of the hectic pace of other Asian cities. The Laotian capital offers amazing Buddhist art, graceful temples and lovely gardens. Situated on the Mekong River in southern Laos, the city still has remnants of its French heritage, a time when it was part of French Indochina. An overview of the most popular attractions in Vientiane:
Haw Phra Kaew is considered one of the most beautiful and impressive temples in Vientiane. Built in 1565 as the chapel for the royal family, Haw Phra Kaew was home for a while to the Emerald Buddha that was stolen from Thailand. The name of this gracious building translates to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, though the Thais stole the statue back in the 18th century. It is now a museum, no longer used for religious services. The temple is famous for its wood and stone carvings, and collection of Buddhas. With a dragon guarding the temple, visitors can sit in peace in the garden to rest or meditate.
The Lao National Museum is a good place to learn about the Lao people from prehistoric times on as well as spend a few hours out of the sun. It’s located in an old French colonial building that is falling apart and some of the exhibits are faded, but this doesn’t detract from the contents. The bottom floor concentrates on the country’s early history, with dinosaur bones and pottery shards. The upper floor deals with a more modern Laos, including French colonization and fight for independence, and United States’ presence during the Vietnam War.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history, with about 30 percent of the ordinance failing to explode properly. Even though Laos is at peace now, these devices are still going off, killing and maiming people. COPE, short for Cooperative Orthotics and Prosthetics Enterprise, works to rehabilitate people whose lives have been destroyed by these devices, which include bombs and grenades. Visitors to the center can learn more about the problem of unexploded devices in Laos as well as the treatment provided to victims. An excellent gift shop offers fun, offbeat souvenirs that support a good cause.
Wat Si Saket is a Vientiane temple that is famous for a wall that contains hundreds of seated Buddhists sitting before thousands of tiny images in soft triangular shaped openings in the wall. The 6,800 images are made from wood, stone and bronze. This amazing collection of Buddhist art dates from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Savvy travelers will visit the temple early in the morning for the colorful Buddhist services. The oldest Buddhist monastery in Laos, Wat Si Sake sports a graceful architectural style that is enhanced with verandas and a five-tiered roof.
Buddha Park, with its amazing collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues, is adjacent to the Mekong River about 24 km (15 miles) from Vientiane. It contains more than 200 statues, including a 40-meter (131-foot) high statue of a sleeping Buddha. Travelers who want the best pictures of this famous sculpture park will need to deal with the demon. Shutterbugs need to climb a stone ladder three stories to the top of a pumpkin structure; the entrance is shaped like a demon’s mouth. The park’s best known statues include a Hindu god riding a three-headed elephant and another god with 12 faces and lots of hands.
Patuxai is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but with Laotian characteristics, including four arches and five ornate towers at the top. The arch or gateway, as it translates, was built to commemorate Laos gaining its independence from France. This Vientiane attraction is dedicated to the Laotian soldiers who died in World War II and in the battles for independence from France. Patuxai is sometimes known as the “vertical runway” because it was built with American money and materials intended for a new airport. Visitors can climb up to the 7th story for a nice view of Vientiane.
When the workday is over in Vientiane, locals head to the riverfront, which teems with a smorgasbord of activities. Located on the Mekong River that separates Vientiane from Thailand, visitors will find a colorful night market, lined with stalls selling daily necessities and food to snack on while walking the promenade. Travelers also may want to relax at a bar with a Beerlao while watching the sun set or fishermen at work. They’ll also find kids playing soccer and elders doing their nightly exercises. It’s the happening’est place in Vientiane.
Located in the center of Vientiane, Pha That Luang (“Great Stupa in Lao”) is one of the most significant monument in Laos. The stupa has several terraces with each level representing a different stage of Buddhist enlightenment. The lowest level represents the material world; the highest level represents the world of nothingness. Pha That Luang was built in the 16th century on the ruins of an earlier Khmer temple. Pha That Luang was smashed by a Siamese invasion in 1828, then later reconstructed by the French in 1931.