We had been warned MANY times that Vientiane was a capital city like no other, but some of my Western biases run deep, and I just can’t seem to shake my preconceived notions about what a capital city will be like. Immediately my imagination conjures up visions of shiny skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, honking horns, pavement as far as the eye can see, snarls of traffic and a frantic pace of life. Merely pondering the electrifying energy of big cities makes my pulse quicken in anticipation. I expect an urban carnival of light and sound, with monuments of modernity standing proud on every corner.
Vientiane, of course, lives up to its reputation and—following the pattern established by our two previous stops in Laos—has none of these things. To be perfectly honest with you, were it not for a modest uptick in the number of tuk tuk offers we received while walking around town (though rumors of the Laotian laissez-faire sales pitch, in which a single “no” will suffice to preclude additional offers, are indeed true!) and a similarly slight increase in grumpy locals encountered (apparently the one universal hallmark of all capital cities…), we would never in a million years have guessed this was Laos’ biggest, most bustling city.
Actually, I might not have believed we were in Laos anymore had the extreme mellow-verging-on-somnolent vibe that seems to pervade the entire country not still been evident in full-force. As much as Vientiane has garnered itself a reputation for being unremarkable (and that’s putting it kindly), as we walked from the bus station down to the riverfront in search of a guesthouse, I was struck by an odd sense of déja vu. Some cities immediately reveal themselves as unique with a distinct profile and personality, while others initially recall other destinations to mind. Between the expansive boulevards draped in bougainvillea and other cheery blooms, the stately old colonial buildings, the tangled skein of electrical wires jumbling in front of every shop and at each corner, the concave slopes of the hallmark peaked roofs of glittering wats, and then that eerie sense of stillness and quiet throughout, I felt myself in half a dozen different Asian cities all at once. With each step, I’d mention a different place on our travels that Vientiane reminded me of, from Hiroshima to Ho Chi Minh City, from Kampot and Phnom Penh in Cambodia, to Chiang Mai in Thailand.
It was this last one that really gave me pause. Chiang Mai is something of a landing pad for long-term travelers, a place to recharge their batteries and enjoy some of the comforts of home at bargain basement prices. It’s known for its laid-back atmosphere and the stunning old temples that are scattered liberally throughout the city. Walking the streets of Vientiane, I couldn’t help but feel I was gazing on the ghost of Chiang Mai’s past… and I, for one, didn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. Perhaps a bit surprising given that I didn’t especially like Chiang Mai when we visited it and also because, whether travelers love or hate Laos, the one thing everyone seems to be able to agree upon is that Vientiane is a snooze-fest not worth more than a day or two of your time. Even locals in other parts of Laos advised us that we could skip Vientiane (a suggestion that is fine in theory, but in practice is pretty much impossible given how long it takes to travel overland here. No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll wind up passing through Vientiane and will likely end up spending at least the night).
During our days in the city, the comparisons between the two cities only intensified; I still wonder why one gets so much love and the other so little. Sure Vientiane might not have malls (not entirely true—it has one right next to the central market, but it is SUPER sketchy, largely looking like the staging ground for a 1980s zombie film. The “top floor” is devoted entirely to gold shops and is only about halfway up the building, as everything above it is abandoned and shuttered. Go for the sweet, sweet air conditioning and to have your brains eaten, but nothing else!) or a major movie theater or laser tag or whatever it is that most people who love Chiang Mai love about that city, but if these are the things you require to enjoy a destination, then I would suggest you’d do well to skip Laos entirely.
And this is why I have to laugh when people dismiss Vientiane as not having much to do and for being boring, because I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is exactly like every other city in Laos, albeit with a slightly larger offering of Western restaurants and a bit more of a focus on business. Here, your daily selection of activities consists of: visiting temples, eating, napping, visiting some more temples (and then some more on top of that), venturing out into the countryside (to see temples!), and then wandering through the riverside night market where the souvenir-to-food ratio is not biased the way I would prefer. Pretty much the only thing Vientiane seems to be missing is a preponderance of trekking/minority village/waterfall diversions, but honestly, those don’t seem to be why most people are visiting Laos. At the very least, they are certainly not why we came to Laos (or at least, not the only reason we did), so perhaps this is why we did not find Vientiane all that lacking and actually liked it, if not a lot, then certainly more than we expected.
Also, even if it is boring, Vientiane is also really photogenic.
I am not what you would call a Buddhist temple connoisseur, but it’s kind of impossible to visit Vientiane without tripping over a wat of some kind every time you leave your hotel. If you’re not eating your way through the city (which, obviously, we were… but that is the topic of my next post), it’s kind of the only other thing to “do” in the city. Wanting to be proactive about it, I made a list of all the wats that are considered “notable” in some way, and we did our best to fit as many of them in as we could. In our pursuit to complete the list, we wound up inadvertently stumbling into a few extras, and ultimately ended up visiting:
- Wat Chan
- Wat Mixay
- Wat Sisiket
- Wat Haisok
- Wat Ong Teu
- Wat Ho Pra Keow
- Wat Inpeng
- Wat Xieng Khuan
That’s a lot of wats, especially if you subscribe (as I tend to) to the “once you’ve seen one wat, you’ve seen them all” philosophy. With that said, I’m not going to even pretend that I can differentiate between any of them, with the exception of the last one (you’ll understand why momentarily), or that I have any insights into them other than that they were all very beautiful and tranquil. Instead, I will share with you some of our favorite photos taken amongst them all, and suggest that unless you have as much time as we did or are a Buddhist architecture aficionado, then you can probably pick a few of these and feel satisfied.
The one notable wat, Wat Xieng Khuan, is sort of a cheat, getting in on a technicality as it’s not really a wat at all. Instead, Wat Xieng Khuan is probably best known by its English name, “Crazy Statue Park”*. Featuring over 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues (some of them quite macabre, I might add), this park is undoubtedly the weirdest and most memorable attraction in Vientiane. Although many of the statues look centuries old, the park was only founded in 1958 by a priest-shaman named Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. Most of the statues are completely insane, like something escaped from a surrealist nightmare. It is the perfect antidote to anyone who feels the phrase “Same, Same” was first used in reference to Thai/Lao/Khmer temples and needs something supremely different. Given our love of the unusual, this was one of our favorite attractions in Vientiane. I even braved the gaping maw of the head statue and climbed my way up to the top, passing through rooms depicting “hell”, “earth” and “heaven” (all being terrifying, I must admit). Wat Xieng Khuan is one of the few attractions located outside of the city that requires hired transport to reach (we rented a motorbike, obviously…), but I would say it is well worth the extra effort to reach it.
There are two other non-wat attractions worth checking out while in Vientiane, Pha That Luang and Patuxai. Pha That Luang is a 45-meter golden stupa that is considered the symbol of Laos. Believed to date back to 300 CE and to contain a segment of the Buddha’s breastbone, the temple was badly damaged during the Thai invasion during the 1800s and was restored/reconstructed by the French in the 1930s. We had read that the complex is really best appreciated from afar around sunset, and I would tend to agree. Oddly, the closer we got to the stupa, the less impressive it seemed, and it also proved devilishly tricky to photograph well.
The same can be said for Patuxai, a massive gate that is more than a little reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe (save for its decorative mythological adornments). Nicknamed the “vertical runway”, Patuxai was actually built with U.S. funds meant for a new airport, but I guess the Lao government felt the money was better spent on this. (No comment.) I actually think that Patuxai is quite striking and elegant from far away—my first glimpse of it caused my heart to flutter just a bit—but as Cher said infamously in the movie Clueless, “It’s a bit of a Monet. From far away it’s ok, but up close, it’s a big old mess.” I can’t say much more than that except:
1) Even Laotians seem to agree with that assessment as the official sign explaining the history of Patuxai refers to it as a “monster of concrete” when viewed in close quarters.
2) Up close you can also see that there are huge, terrifying hornets’ nests around the top.
[As an aside: Some might argue that you should also check out That Dam, a stupa that quite honestly, we enjoyed mostly for its name (we took great pleasure in referencing “That Dam Wat”) but not much else. It is located in the middle of roundabout surrounded by shops and restaurants and is, honestly, not really much to look at.]
With So! Many! Temples! and all the good food on offer, we found it really easy to spend 6 days in Vientiane. I absolutely agree that if time were an issue, you could certainly slam your way through all of the standard tourist attractions (such as they are) on offer within a single day, but for me, one of the biggest charms of Vientiane was the atmosphere of the place. It’s not something you can really appreciate if you’re tearing about madly from one attraction to the next, but we took great pleasure in slowly ambling from one shady patch to the next, the light scent of frangipani flitting on the breeze, as we made our way from one gilded wat to another, enjoying the old school colonial vibe as we wandered the streets. And after all these months in Asia, I go from awestruck to temple burnout fairly quickly, so we appreciated not feeling like we had to cram the seemingly endless number of them on offer in Vientiane into a single day.
As it would turn out, Vientiane unexpectedly wound up being the place we spent the most time in Laos. It doesn’t have the manufactured loveliness of Luang Prabang or the stunning scenery of Vang Vieng, but we kind of got caught up in this city that largely seems concerned with the business of everyday life rather than wooing tourists. It was an easy place to be, and not entirely without its own charms, and by the end of our time there, I found myself wondering if being the most unremarkable capital city we have ever visited was enough to, in fact, make the place remarkable… Perhaps something of a back-handed compliment, but the more time we spent there, the more Vientiane mesmerized me with how much it was the antithetical “big city”; it was like being in the Twilight Zone. For all these reasons, this is why I believe that when it comes to capital cities, Vientiane truly is one of a kind and out of this world.
*Footnote: Not really its actual English name. Wat Xieng Khuan actually means “Spirit City”.
Tell Us: Have you ever been to Vientiane? If so, what did you think of it? If not, what’s the weirdest capital city you’ve ever been to?