Laos capital city Vientiane is known for its chilled out pace and cafe culture, sitting itself next to the Mekong river. The size of it makes it feel more like a town rather than a city, and can be explored in a couple of days by foot or bike.
A Grey Start
After a wonderful month spent in China’s scenic Yunnan Province with only a handful of tourists in sight, arriving in Vientiane was a huge culture shock for us. We were unfortunate to visit when the weather was dull, the sky was grey and the mood felt a bit flat. The city feels unloved in places; litter scatters the banks of the Mekong River and even though it's not very busy there is a constant stream of cars. What surprised us most was the sheer number of tourists! For the first ten minutes we didn’t see a single local, only foreigners strolling the streets. We couldn’t believe it! We know that Laos has been on the tourist trail for quite some time, but it was honestly like visiting a holiday destination in Europe. As a result, the streets are full of western-style restaurants, French bakeries and English signs everywhere. We would have to search a bit harder to see the Laotian culture we were hoping for.
Below is a list of things we did enjoy during our time in Vientiane. If you are into temples then there are plenty to visit for free, and of course the plethora of cafes and restaurants to dine in. If you have a bit of extra time and cash then there are lots of places to explore in the surrounding area such as caves, treks, river trips and more. Here are our top picks:
Get A Bike
As far as capital cities go, Vientiane isn’t actually that big but if you want easy access to exploring what the city has to offer then cycling is the way to go. With a bike you can visit all of the temples in one day: Wat Sisaket, Way Ho Phra Kaew and Wat Sokpaluang, and then onto the famous That Luang golden stupe. You can cycle to some of the many markets: Talat Sao in the morning, followed by the Mekong riverside Night Market or the Ban Anou Night Food Market. We would recommend stopping off in one or two of the many French-style cafes as you go, munching on a croissant or some freshly baked goods, and then continuing onto the Mekong River for a quick snap. With a bike, it is also possible to cycle out of town to the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre For Women where you can learn to weave and dye silks, or if you are feeling fit then head out 25km to the unique Buddha Park Xieng Khuan. Bike rental is really cheap and hire for the day starts from 7000 kip (63p).
Visit The COPE Museum
Unknown to us any many others, we discovered that Laos is the most bombed country in the entire world. A shocking 270 million bombies were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam war between 1964 and 1973, and 30% of those bombs are still unexploded today. That means that the people of Laos are still living under these horrific conditions of having unexploded bombs on their doorsteps. The bombs were dropped by the American army to stop the Vietcong's supply route through Laos. Although much international aid has been given to Laos it has not been enough to remove all the unexploded bombs.
COPE is a charity which helps those who have suffered injury relating to a UXO/landmine, by providing those in need of prosthetics and rehabilitation. They have set up a museum in Vientiane which explains what happened during the Vietnam war, how people have been affected, and what their role is of supporting victims in need. We would strongly recommend a trip to this museum, it's pretty tough going but it's important to raise awareness of the terrible situation Laos has suffered and is still suffering. Entry is free, but after seeing the horrors for yourself you will be hard pressed to leave without putting a few notes in the donations box.
Taste Lao Coffee
Walk down any street in Vientiane and you will see tiny stalls stacked high with cans of condensed milk. Why you might ask? Well this is the sign of local Laos coffee, served with this intensely thick and sweetened milk. A cup of this stuff is almost like having a pudding, or a hot chocolate... rich and moorish. Laos coffee is of an incredibly high quality and is one of the countries main exports. Local farmers can make a far more sustainable living selling coffee beans than grains and vegetables which are of lower retail value. Laos produces two main types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, and the one that is featured in this punch packing cup is the latter. So grab a coffee, take a seat and watch the tourists go past. Expect to pay around 5000-7000 kip (45p-63p) for a cup. This coffee is sold anywhere in Laos and not just Vientiane.
Haggle At The Talat Sao Morning Market
This cavernous mall goes back for miles and here you can find anything from a fridge freezer to a tailored Laotian pencil skirt. This is a proper locals market, shabby round the edges and packed to the ceiling with goods for sale. Here you can pick up clothes, antiques, jewellery, electricals, souvenirs, silk scarfs and much more. Most things are reasonably priced although expect to haggle as much as you can. A good starting point is dropping to a third of the original price and then going up from there. Don’t expect to pay more than two thirds of the original price. The Laotian people are very friendly so remember to haggle with a smile on your face. The market is open from 7am - 4pm daily and is based at Lane Xang Avenue at Khu Vieng Street.
Marvel At The That Luang Golden Stupe
The gleaming golden roof of Vientiane’s biggest stupe stands at 48 meters high and is Laos most important sacred monument. It is also the countries national symbol, being featured on the official seal. This is one very important Buddhist stupe you might say, so visiting is a must! Entry for a closer view is a mere 5000 kip (45p), and once inside you get to see the handiwork up close: hand carved stone dragons on the bannisters, ancient stone buddhas, and bucket loads of gold paint. Buddhist tradition says to walk clockwise around the stupe three times, so you had better get walking! Next to the stupe is also a number of other temples you can go inside for free, just remember to take your shoes off outside and dress appropriately (that means long skirts and cover exposed shoulders for women). To get there you can cycle or jump in a tuk tuk. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 08.00-12.00 and 13.00-16.00.
Eat Your Body Weight In Croissants
Who doesn’t love a buttery warm croissant; crunchy on the outside with a deliciously soft centre.... mmm yum! Well you will be very happy to hear that Vientiane has a plethora of bakeries and French-style cafes, all stocked with fresh bread, cakes and more drinks than you could choose from. Lao was part of the French colony until the 1940s which might explain why the quality of the baked goods is so high. Croissants are a particular highlight and are as good as the ones you will find in any European store. For those of you who have been on the road for a long time, this is a little taste of home. So grab a drink, take a seat and munch on a croissant or two. We would recommend eating at Le Banneton.
Watch The Sunset Over The Mekong
By day the Mekong River is unassuming, a wide expanse of flowing water where locals fish, long boats pass and not very much happens. It is a bit shabby round the edges, lined with crumbling paths and sadly there is a fair bit of rubbish kicking around the banks. At around dusk the light begins to change, more colour comes into the hazy sky and the gleaming sun lowers over the glistening waters below. A Mekong sunset is a special one, slow, magical and full of life. The reeds gently sway in front of the reddening sun, the long boats silhouette against the moving waters. Thankfully as it gets dark, you can’t see all the rubbish only the beautiful sunset that appears before you. So grab a Lao beer, take a seat on the grubby steps and watch the sun dissolve into the landscape.
Visit The Bustling Evening Market
Every day at around 5pm, sellers prepare for a busy evening ahead of selling, selling and you guessed it, more selling. Red roofed stalls pop up, lining the pathways of the Mekong River, and the locals stock their tables with all manor of goods. The market is aimed at tourists, and there are definitely enough of them to fill the enormous strip. Here you can pick yourself up anything from cheap chinese socks to hand woven Laotian textiles. There are loads of trinkets and small items perfect for sending home as gifts. Same rules apply with haggling, start at a third of the price and work up. If you are in the market for a tasty snack then why not pick up a donner kebab bap for a bargain 10,000 kip (90p), it was actually really good!
Learn To Weave And Hand-Dye Silks
Cycle 7km northeast of Vientiane centre and you will find The Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre For Women where you can see locals busy at work creating traditional Laotian textiles. The school teaches women of all ages and backgrounds how to weave, make designs for weaving, ikat (a resistance dying method) and dip dying techniques for silk. So far they have trained up 650 women with the intention of giving them the skills to command a higher living wage. They also run short classes for tourists where you can either learn to weave on one of their looms, or you can dye up a silk scarf using natural dyes such as marigold and onion peel. We spent a happy 2 hours weaving, alternating lines of colour and Ali learnt how to weave a pattern by hand. Once having a go for yourself, you will really appreciate the time and skill that goes into crafting textiles. The centre also has a wonderful shop where they sell high quality hand-made goods that are produced on site. The centre is open Monday to Saturday and is closed for an hour over lunch time. Weaving for a couple of hours with lunch included cost us 130,000 kip (£11.50) each, which is really reasonable considering you learn a new skill and get to keep your textiles.
For us the highlight of Vientiane was the weaving workshop. Ali gets really excited going to new countries and looking at all of their textiles, and it’s such a big part of the Lao culture that it’s worth understanding how it’s made. Many women still wear Sinh, a traditional wrapped pencil skirt made from patterned woven textiles, which is why weaving plays such a big role in their handicrafts.
Did We Dig It?
After spending almost 3 full days there, we sadly decided it wasn’t for us. We were searching for something more authentic of the Lao way of life. We wanted to learn about local culture, to see how people live their lives, what they cook and how they spend their days. For us, sitting in a nice cafe full of tourists is fine for a short while, but it wasn't going to show us the real Lao. You can clearly enjoy yourself here if you are happy to hang out in cafes, nice bars and restaurants, but if you want something more then we would say there are better places to visit. Luang Prabang is a similar city set on the Mekong River and is a lot more scenic, although again don't expect it to be free of tourists. Perhaps we would have to head to the countryside to get a glimpse of real-life Lao we were searching for.
What Do You Say?
3 days in Vientiane was enough for us, we would be really interested to hear your thoughts too. Did we miss something? Was there anything you enjoyed doing there? Next stop for us is Luang Namtha to do some jungle trekking in the Nam Ha National Park, and then onto Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi for the mountain scenery. Fingers crossed we can find some beautiful landscapes and meet more locals!
Why not watch our travel video from Vientiane?
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