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.
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
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
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.
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.
Patuxai (Victory Gate) at Sunset
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.
The Over-the-Top Grandeur of Pha That Luang
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.
So Many Temples without the Crowds
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.
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.