Say “sabaidee” to the skyscraper-free city of Vientiane, the most relaxed capital city in Indochina, if not in all of Asia. With its French street signs, tree-lined avenues, whitewashed colonial architecture and Buddhist temples at every corner, the city is where east and west meet – cultured but not overwhelming, quietly chic yet down-to-earth, the place where your Lao exploration begins.
Best of Vientiane
1. Pha That Luang
If there is one spot that every traveller to Laos must visit, this gilded stupa—the country’s national symbol and most sacred Buddhist monument –is it. Such is That Luang’s importance that locals say no building in Vientiane is allowed to be higher than it.
The Arc de Triomphe’s bulky Laotian cousin was built in remembrance of Lao soldiers who fought for the country’s independence. It features a musical fountain and some of the best views of the city from the observation deck.
3. Ban Anou Night Market
The perfect place to pick up a scrumptious takeaway dinner or evening snack is just a few minutes’ walk from the riverside. This short stretch of red and blue tents will tickle your taste buds with Lao favourites. Stalls set up shop before sunset and stay open till evening.
4. Wat Sisaket
The lone temple in Vientiane to survive the Siamese-Lao War, Wat Sisaket is a Siamese-style Buddhist temple built in 1818. It has a museum, monastery and a cloister lined with thousands of Buddha images.
5. Wat Hor Phra Kaew
Sacked by the Siamese and rebuilt by the French in the 1930s, the sometime refuge of the legendary Emerald Buddha is now a museum that boasts the finest collection of Lao Buddhist art and antiques.
6. COPE Visitor Centre
Despite its complex name, the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) is open to everyone with an interest in the history of Laos. Through film and displays of landmines and bombs, COPE shows a seldom-seen side of war, giving hope through the rehabilitation and therapy of victims of unexploded ordnance.
7. Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
Strange and mystifying, this brainchild of the famous spiritual leader Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat features over 200 concrete statues built in the 1950s, showing the incredible mind and world view of the mystic.
8. Mekong River
The mighty Mekong River, one of the longest in Asia, flows from the Tibetan plateau all the way south to Vietnam, passing by six countries. A cruise down the river, passing through lush mountainous regions, villages and varied landscapes, is ideal in Laos, which gets the lion’s share of the Mekong.
This tangy salad of minced meat mixed with herbs, glutinous rice powder and lime juice is the star of Lao cuisine. Whether cooked or raw, laap is always fragrant, mildly spicy and flavourful and memorable.
Crispy fried Mekong river weed, dried and pressed into thin sheets with garlic, tomatoes and sesame seeds, makes a tasty and highly addictive snack.
Cheap, simple and widely available, the local rice whisky is high in alcohol content but mild on the taste buds. Whether in fancy bottles or plastic bags, clear or amber-hued, infused with scorpions or mixed in a cocktail, this Lao traditional drink will have you raising your glass time and time again.
A UNESCO World Heritage City and former royal capital, Luang Prabang has temples, colonial buildings, and delightful natural attractions. Its delightfully quaint ambiance makes for fascinating days on foot, riding on a bike or cruising on a boat.
A roadtrip away from either Vientiane or Luang Prabang is Vang Vieng, a scenic town surrounded by karst cliffs. It’s a popular playground for hippies but regular travellers will still find Vang Vieng a peaceful small town with so much to offer especially for those who like to trek, bike or raft their way to adventure. It is also a popular tubing destination where many gather here for blissfully idyllic floats down the river bends.