Vientiane: A Capital City Like No Other

Patuxay, Vientiane

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.

Tuk Tuk, Vientiane

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.

Presidential Palace, Vientiane
VIentiane, Laos

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).

P1320669

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.

Wat Haisok, Vientiane

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.

Vientiane's riverfront night-market

Vientiane’s riverfront night-market

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.

Pha That Luang

Pha That Luang
Pha That Luang

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.

Patuxay, Vientiane

[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.]

That Dam, Vientiane

That Dam Wat!

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.

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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?

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About Stephenie Harrison

In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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20 Responses to “Vientiane: A Capital City Like No Other”

  1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling April 14, 2014 at 3:40 am # Reply

    Thanks so much for this post! When I’ve done my research into what to see in Laos, I knew I wanted to see Vientiane but I could not have told you off the top of my head what there was to see. Even in the brochures from expensive travel agencies there didn’t seem to be much that was worth checking out. But this has given me a few pointers. :D
    Karyn @ Not Done Travelling recently posted..The Chain Of Introductions

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 8:18 pm # Reply

      I only knew about Patuxai going in and pretty much my research turned up… wats. There are a few museums you can check out too, but we were happy to just wander and enjoy the city’s vibe (heaven forefend we actually learn something! ;) ). And to eat all the things…but more about that in my next post!

  2. Colleen Brynn April 14, 2014 at 11:13 am # Reply

    This is an interesting take on things! I like how you did that and chose to see the city through your own lenses. I wonder if maybe this would be a good first stop in someone’s SE Asia trip? It may not make sense geographically, but if most people don’t really take to it, perhaps it would be a good warm up city. I agree with you – it’s definitely photogenic!
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..India Awakens Me

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 8:28 pm # Reply

      Hmmm… an interesting question about whether to start an SEA trip here. There are certainly pros to doing so, especially because it is so laid back and you don’t really need to worry about scams/haggling. I think there would still be a fair amount of Culture Shock to contend with because it’s so unlike anywhere on the planet, but Laos in general is not a very trying destination. I might still be tempted to pick somewhere in Thailand, however, because Thailand really is as user-friendly (and far more used to tourists than Laos) as you can get. Bangkok is insane, that is for sure, but it’s also one of the most “western” places in Asia, while still feeling very much Thai. It also has mass transit which makes getting around a lot easier, whereas here you’d have to deal with a tuk tuk unless you don’t mind walking (most of the sights are pretty close to one another) or feel comfortable renting and riding a motorbike.

  3. Amy April 15, 2014 at 1:15 am # Reply

    I totally agree that Vientiane doesn’t feel like a capital city but at the same time it’s exactly the kind of capital you’d expect for Laos; laid-back, peaceful and sparsely populated. It’s interesting that you compare the city to Chiang Mai, I didn’t really see that when I visited but thinking about it now I suppose they are quite similar on paper. Being one of those Chiang Mai Lovers though I definitely feel that Vientiane doesn’t quite match up to CM; there’s just something about the atmosphere in CM that I love. Saying that I did like Vientiane, despite the slightly higher accommodation costs :)
    Amy recently posted..The Craziest Place I’ve ever Been: Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 8:42 pm # Reply

      CM is definitely far more developed than Laos and has more “creature comforts” and a few more tourist-type activities to do, but I really think that if you visited 30 years ago, it would be more similar to Vientiane than not (and still kind of is). I think its popularity with western tourists has definitely shaped it so that it appeals more to foreigners, whereas Vientiane is generally overlooked so it doesn’t cater in quite the same way. But I think there is a similar (if far mellower!) vibe to Vientiane. Also, since many people come to Vientiane pretty close on the heels of a visit to Chiang Mai, I could see how the former wouldn’t necessarily come out as favorably, but as we haven’t been to Chiang Mai in nearly a year, I think we were better able to take Vientiane as it is and just enjoy.

      I do wish it were easier to find cheap lodging, however! If Luang Prabang can do it, surely Vientiane can (then again, it doesn’t get the same tourist numbers, so perhaps it can’t…).

  4. Rhonda April 15, 2014 at 11:56 am # Reply

    I am SO glad that you enjoyed your time there much more than you had expected to. As you know, we spent a bit over a week there and really enjoyed it. We enjoyed the slow pace and used it as a downtime to refresh our souls and spirits after an extended time on the road. I often feel that people as a whole, backpackers and RTW travelers are not exempt, from feeling the need to constantly be awed and occasionally it’s nice to just relax and slow life down to the elemental.
    Rhonda recently posted..Countdown to Overland Expo 2014!

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 8:51 pm # Reply

      We definitely felt like we wanted/needed to slow down when we hit Vientiane since travel in Laos is generally long & hot and we really felt like it had just enough to keep us busy… but not too busy! :) We didn’t actually intend to spend as long as we did, it just kind of happened, but I guess that just goes to show what a good time we were having!

  5. Heather April 15, 2014 at 8:38 pm # Reply

    We skipped Vientiane in favor of more time in Siem Reap and Luang Prabang, and it’s one of my Asia regrets (though I loved both of those towns). It looks like my kind of place! I think after the craziness of Shanghai, I’m attracted to its polar opposite. Quiet, uncrowded and not much to do? Sign me up!
    Heather recently posted..Touring the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 8:53 pm # Reply

      If you went to Luang Prabang, I’m not sure that you should regret missing out on Vientiane too much. They aren’t carbon copies of each other and LP is certainly more tourist oriented and busier, but they are very similar and for a short trip, I’d say LP probably offers more bang for your buck. If you’ve been to Siem Reap, Vientiane is a lot like that too… but even quieter! :)

  6. NZ Muse April 15, 2014 at 9:30 pm # Reply

    I think this may be the first time I’ve ever seen ‘somnolent’ used in a blog post! High five.

    Yeah, temples are temples for me too.

    Probably the most underwhelming capital I’ve been to is Brussels.
    NZ Muse recently posted..Travel snobbery I’m so over

    • Stephenie Harrison April 15, 2014 at 9:33 pm # Reply

      DUDE! Brussels! Yes! EXACTLY! I know some people love that place, but I Do. Not. Get. It. Underwhelming is one word for it… (Boring is another!)

  7. Tim | UrbanDuniya April 16, 2014 at 6:30 am # Reply

    Vientiane looks lovely! As for the weirdest capital I’ve been to, I can think of several; Asghabat in Turkmenistan, with all of its authoritarian monuments and weird buildings, and people walking aimlessly around wide boulevards. Male’ in the Maldives, for its tiny size and condensed population (and airport on another island). Thimphu in Bhutan, for being a village yet a capital!
    Tim | UrbanDuniya recently posted..Chennai welcomes Tamil New Year

    • Stephenie Harrison April 17, 2014 at 7:17 am # Reply

      From your account, it sounds like Vientiane is a mishmash of Asghabat (it has very big boulevards! Though people are more likely to be napping than wandering…) and Thimpu, because it feels like a village even if it is a capital! We’ve not been to any of those places, however, so I guess we’ll have to see for ourselves and report back!

  8. Lauren April 16, 2014 at 5:15 pm # Reply

    I have never heard of this city before so I have no pre-conceived notions…I think it is a remarkable place! I would love to visit all of the temples, and especially that statue place! So interesting and I love the unusual, too! The most unusual place I’ve visited is Centralia, PA – while it isn’t a capital city, it is a ghost town in the USA that is a very interesting place….or non-place as it isn’t really considered a town anymore!

    • Stephenie Harrison April 17, 2014 at 7:20 am # Reply

      Oooh, I’ve never visited a ghost town, though I suppose the statue park outside of Vientiane did kind of feel like a horror movie at times, which I feel is essentially the same thing… ;)

  9. Marisol@TravelingSolemates April 20, 2014 at 6:58 pm # Reply

    Hi Steph, what a lovely read. Viantiane sounds like one of those shy, boring person that will endear you once you spend time to get to know it more. I’d like to get to know it one day. Love your photos!

    • Stephenie Harrison April 21, 2014 at 11:35 am # Reply

      I think your description is exactly right, Marisol! I think it’s definitely the kind of place that you can’t fully appreciate if you just race through in one day… you would see all the major sites, but you’d miss out on the more elusive spirit and charm of the place.

  10. Corinne April 21, 2014 at 5:06 am # Reply

    Steph, I’m pretty sure you like just about everywhere…and your positivity rubs off on others. I haven’t done Laos, so thanks to you, I’ll be a little more ready when I do!
    Corinne recently posted..Emerald Waterways European River Cruises

    • Stephenie Harrison April 21, 2014 at 11:37 am # Reply

      Ha! Clearly you have not read our posts on China, because they were much less positive and we definitely did not like everywhere we visited. ;) I try to be honest about the places we visit, so if I do really dislike a place, I’ll be sure to say so… I guess we’ve just been lucky of late since we’ve been pretty happy wherever we’ve ended up, which is certainly nice for us.