I caught a cold while in Vietnam so I was out of commission for about two days. I managed to squeeze in some last minute souvenir shopping in Hanoi before the fever hit me full on and from that point on, I was subjected to all the classics: watery eyes, sore throat, runny nose, cough, fever, and so forth. I used this opportunity to travel to Vientiane, Laos, because if you’re going to waste a day, it might as well be to move between two countries (also, possibly the least pleasant experience is to travel from one country to the other, waiting in line to get your visa, with a cold).
Vientiane is a charming little city in Laos (even with the hazy pollution) set on a bend of the Mekong River. The names of Vientiane’s neighbourhoods or villages are associated with local wats. It is an extremely walkable city – I did not take a single cab (other than to/from the airport) or public transport. It was easy to walk from one end of the city to the other.
And with all those footsteps, I visited no less than 15 wats and temples while in Vientiane, each with their own character. When you exit one wat, you can cross the street and enter another. Over and over. So, I’ll stick to the highlights in this post as there’s just too much to cover and not every wat is worth seeing.
Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket is believed to be Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple (built between 1819 and 1824). The interior walls of the cloister have small niches that contain over 2,000 silver and ceramic Buddha images. There are also over 300 seated and standing Buddhas in various conditions of preservation (from a hair shy of utter perfection to a crumbled piece of stone that may cause you to ask “Was this even a Buddha?”).
Haw Pha Kaeo
Across the street from Wat Si Saket, lies Haw Pha Kaeo. Unfortunately, it was closed while I was there due to construction but the grounds were still open to the public, full of lovely trees, flowers, and the occasional artefact.
From a distance, you may suddenly believe you’ve walked through a portal and popped out in Paris, France. A large avenue leads straight to Patuxai Monument and its namesake park located in a roundabout. Inspired by the Arc de Triomphe, it is not until you get closer that you can see the intricate detailed work on the arches and ceilings of the monument that most certainly confirm its origin to be Laotian. Fun fact: It is sometimes referred to as the “vertical runway” as it was built with US-purchased cement that was supposed to be used for the construction of a new airport. I’m on the Laotian’s side on this one: this monument is much prettier than an airport.
There is a sign on the wall of the monument that I absolutely adore. It states, with total honesty (and absolutely zero focus on marketing), that “From closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete”.
You can climb a few flights of stairs to the top of the monument for “grand views”. To be honest, you can feel comfortable skipping this – The only view you have is of Lan Xang boulevard leading up to the monument. You’re better off to use that precious time to enjoy a cold beverage on one of the many benches or shady trees, and watch family life unfold in the Patuxai park or watch the fountain show. In the searing heat, it is worth walking very close to the fountain so that you can enjoy a gentle but cold misting of water to help cool you down. No one will be the wiser.
Pha That Luang
Stunning. As you veer right out of the roundabout where Patuxai monument is located and walk down 23 Singa Street, you can see Pha That Luang’s golden stupa rising in the distance. You can also abandon Google Maps directions on walking to Pha That Luang, as it will bright you on a 2 km detour around the Pha That Luang….when you can clearly see that you can just walk straight for another 4 minutes and be right in front of it.
Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India built a reliquary stupa here to enclose a piece of the Budha’s breastbone as early as third century BC. Excavations have found no trace of this to date. Four wats were originally built around the stupa, but only two remain today.
Next door to this stupa, you can also see a sleeping Buddha. Although not as immense as the sleeping Buddha in Bangkok, it is still fairly big.
Setthathirath Road and Samsenethai Road
These are two main streets in Vientiane and play host to a hub of restaurants, cafes, tour agencies, artisan shops, fruit shake stands (oh passion fruit shake, how I love you), and everything else under the sun. These are the ideal streets to end your day where you can kick back with a cold drink, good food and a general laid-back atmosphere. Be forewarned though – just about everything closes by 10:00 p.m. If you enter a restaurant around 9:00 or 9:30 p.m., you may be approached by the staff who will inform you that they are closing soon and that you need to leave.
Side note: Can someone let me know how Sweden/Scandinavia came to play such a big role in Laos? Everywhere I go there are dozens of Swedish or Scandinavian bakeries, cafes, massage offerings, etc.
While you’re in this area, it’s also worth the time to check out some of the smaller wats that pop up along the streets and alleyways. You don’t need more than half a day to cover them at a leisurely pace. They usually only contain one or two small buildings and they are so close together that travel time between sites really isn’t an issue.
So. Many. Wats.
Wat In Paeng, Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan, Wat Hai Sok, Wat Mixai….
Talat Seo Market
Markets are my thing. This bustling morning market (which is actually open all day) has a little bit of everything. I picked up some fresh fruit – I have fallen in love with the jackfruit and some kind of variety of Laotian orange. (Sidebar: When you order a freshly pressed orange juice from this particular variety, you honestly think you’ve been served orange tang or some kind of fake powder-based juice. But it’s not. It’s full of pulp, neon orange and that delicious, fresh tart/sweet flavour). I stayed mostly by the honeycombs, fruits and veggies section – there’s only so many animal carcasses I can take in three months weeks.
Right next to the market is the Talat Seo Shopping Mall. It reminds me a lot of the MBK Centre in Bangkok. Nothing really to write home about and you can find more unique items or souvenirs of better quality around Setthathirath Road and Samsenethai Road.
Traffic is pretty relaxed in Vientiane. I might even suggest that it doesn’t really have traffic. And miraculously, only a few motorbikes are on the roads, but lots and lots of cars. The only brands of cars I have seen on the roads in Vientiane are: Toyota, Lexus and BMW. So it’s official – every Laotian in this city has a better car than my almost 9 year old KIA Rio. This isn’t shocking when you learn that the payment plans for cars in Laos are for 20 years and that a minimal down payment is required.