We’ve been in Asia for almost a couple years now. And when we recently told our friends and family that we were planning to travel from Bangkok to Vientiane, there was a noticeable silence. “Vientiane – what is that?” they asked us. “It’s a capital city in southeast Asia” we told them. “Vientiane is the capital of what country?” they uttered. “Laos,” we replied. “Where is Laos?”
*sigh* We knew this was going to be a long conversation.
They were genuinely confused, as I’m sure many people might be. Most people know about Vietnam, Thailand and even Cambodia – but few have any idea about Laos. So we decided to put a little something together to sum up some of the things to do in Vientiane and why we were heading to Laos.
Most Travelers Skip by Vientiane — but It’s Definitely Worth a few Days
For those people who know about Laos and the natural beauty it offers visitors, they can understand why we have Laos on our travel list. But Vientiane?
While Vientiane is the capital of a truly beautiful country, the city is often skipped by travelers who are heading off to more scenic and adventurous areas, such as Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang.
However after spending a few days in Vientiane, we are convinced that travelers who have the time, should at least spend a couple days in this charming capital city. Especially if it is your first stop in Laos (as it was for us).
Where is Vientiane, Laos?
Vientiane, Laos is practically in the center of southeast Asia. The city is just over the border from Thailand and sits along the famous Mekong river. From Bangkok, you would need to travel east, then north – past Udon Thani toward the Mekong.
While you can fly into Vientiane, many travelers who are roaming around southeast Asia prefer to arrive by bus or train. We were coming from Bangkok, so we opted to take the overnight train from Bangkok to Vientiane. It actually goes to Nong Kai, at the border of Thailand just before the river. Then you hop on another train that goes just over the border.
However, the city of Vientiane is actually another 20 km away from the train station. So you need to get on a minibus or tuk-tuk into the heart of the city.
Vientiane Surprised Us – In a Good Way!
Having never been in Laos before, we weren’t sure what to expect. We’ve been to Thailand numerous times, and even lived there for some time. So we are familiar with Thailand, but we knew that Laos was much more rural and less developed. To be honest, we were looking forward to this change — experiencing Laos is almost like experiencing what Thailand was like many years ago…before all the mass tourism and development took over so many areas.
We knew little about Laos, only that it had some French influence and a bit of a tumultuous past. But upon our morning of arrival, we were already in love with this capital city that actually feels like a small town.
Before checking into our hostel, we stopped off for some breakfast — which included a tasty chicken baguette sandwich and some fantastic, thick and dark coffee!
And we were already in love.
Our Favorite Things to Do in Vientiane, Laos
We only planned to spend a few days in Vientiane, but we loved it so much that we ended up adding a couple days to our trip. Here are a few of our most favorite things to do in Vientiane.
Explore the Many Wats (or Vats) all Over Town
Laos is a country full of beautiful Wats (or temples). And the city of Vientiane is loaded with them, in fact, it felt like there was a Wat on every corner! Not all of them are worth a visit, and it’s easy to get “templed-out” if you were to check out all of them. But some of the most popular and worth seeing include: That Luang (covered in gold!), Wat Ong Teu, Ho Phra Keo, Vat Sisaket, and Wat Si Meuang.
Be sure to dress modestly or bring a cover up — your shoulders and knees should be covered. Also, be careful not to point your feet toward any Buddha statues, out of respect (the feet are the lowest and dirtiest part of the body). Lastly, if there are some monks around you may be able to get a blessing and a bracelet in exchange for a small donation. Wherever we go, we enjoy the experience of getting blessed by a monk.
Another interesting sight is That Dam (home of a Geocache). This Stupa is actually one of the oldest left in Vientiane. It was one covered in gold, but the gold was pillaged by Siam and taken to Thailand long ago. Legend has it that there was a seven-headed serpant, “Naga” who lived here to protect the city of Vientiane.
More Beautiful than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris!
The Patuxai (literally meaning “victory gate”) is a giant arch structure along the main road into town. It looks down the street toward the Presidential Palace and the Mekong River. The arch is actually a war monument, built between 1957 and 1968 to commemorate those who fought for independence from the French. It’s a beautiful example of Lao design and is decorated with many mythical like the Kinnari (a half bird half female creature).
Personally, I found it more beautiful than the Arc in Paris (sorry Paris).
During the day you can climb to the top for a bird’s eye view, but at night, the area comes alive with families hanging out in the park and the lights and sunset really make for some great views!
Oh, the Food in Vientiane!
So we already mentioned the amazing baguettes in Vientiane, and these sandwiches are everywhere! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can have a baguette alone, or make it into a sandwich – a very popular street food here. In fact, you will find tasty (and cheap) baguette sandwiches all over Laos!
The coffee is another thing that is great in Laos, so rich and dark – it’s almost like chocolate! People don’t realize that there are actually coffee plantations in Laos — so much of this coffee is actually local!
Being that Vientiane is the capital city, there is a wide array of food available. You can find some of the best Lao food around, including Laap (or Larp) – one of our favorites. Laap is a traditional Lao dish made with your choice of minced meat, combined with onions, chilies, lemon, herbs and spices, including mint — a popular ingredient in Lao food.
While we found many tasty Lao dishes, I think Lap was by far our favorite and we found ourselves craving it at times. Traditionally, it is served with sticky rice (the primary style of rice in Laos), but you can also get steamed rice too.
Another favorite dish of ours is papaya salad – similar to Thailand’s version, but usually without the shrimp (great for me since I don’t like shrimp). This slightly sweet, sour, spicy cold salad has a hint of peanut and is a great side dish to share.
While there are many restaurants around Vientiane serving local Lao dishes, we were surprised to discover just how many international cuisines are represented here. Many more than other places we have traveled! We found awesome pizzas and pasta, kebobs and Mediterranean food, hummus, and super tasty Mexican food. We also discovered the BEST Philly Cheesesteaks we remember ever having.
After living in Asia for 2 years, we were loving having such a variety of food — we were shocked to find it in such a small town like Vientiane. And honestly, we never ate anything bad, everything was really tasty.
Who would have thought we’d be eating so good in Laos.
But be prepared to spend some cash, because dining out isn’t cheap in Laos. While you can find baguette sandwiches for 15,000 – 25,000 kip, most restaurants were charging 30,000 – 60,000 kip for meals in Vientiane. Overall, it’s not as cheap as we thought to eat in Laos – especially when compared to other southeast Asia travel destinations. So build that into your budget if you are planning a trip to Laos.
Rent a Bike in Vientiane to Explore – or a Motorbike to go Further
Even though Vientiane is the capital city of Laos, it seems more like a small town. It is quite walkable, and riding a bike around town is very popular. Most all guesthouses offer bikes for rent, or included in your stay. But you will also find bike rental shops everywhere. Be aware though – it can get quite hot! Wear sunscreen and drink lots of water if you are going to be riding around town.
If you want to go further outside of town and into the countryside, then consider renting a motorbike.
Motorbikes are available at many guesthouses or shops around town. We rented ours from our hostel, the Orange Backpacker. Being so hot outside, it felt good to cruise around with breeze. But it was deceiving, and we both got a bit sunburned!
The Night Market in Vientiane
Every night along the riverfront promenade area, locals set up a night market. People start setting up in the early evening, around 4 or 5 pm – and it goes on well into the night. There is a lot of clothing and accessories, for locals, but tourists will also find some souvenirs – including clothes, bags, crafts, and artwork. We actually saw a number of beautiful paintings, with the shopkeepers painting right inside the tent. We have a weakness for art, so we had to hold ourselves back from buying everything!
The night market in Vientiane is large, and it takes quite a while to walk it. We found ourselves walking up and down it most every night, because the whole promenade area along the river really is the place to hang out at night. There are also a lot of street food vendors nearby too.
** Note: There is another Market – the Morning Market – which is actually inside some buildings, kinda like mall. We strolled around numerous floors, and nearby alleyways, but we found this market to be boring and a bit of a bust. Mostly local items, and not much character. Just kinda blah.
Nightly Promenade Along the River
Speaking of the river, at night this whole area really comes alive. Not only with the market, but there are many street vendors and people gathering all around. Just before sunset, the open areas are filled with group aerobics classes, and you can hear the pumping music and see the crowds getting their sweat on together. For a small fee, you can join in too.
But if you just want to be lazy, like us, then just have a seat and watch the sunset. This was actually one of our favorite activities in Vientiane. We would grab something to drink, or even a sandwich, and just sit for a good hour or two. We’d watch the sunset and even stick around after dark – just hanging out and talking while looking out over the river. We weren’t the only ones, the area is filled with people until late. A great cheap and relaxing activity in Vientiane.
Venture Upriver from the Night Market for Outdoor Restaurants on the River
If you are looking for a great night out relaxing on the river, then make your way upstream from the Night Market and promenade area. If you just keep following the walkways along the river, the sidewalk will widen and you will start to see outdoor restaurants along the riverbank. One after the other, these places are hopping at night – with music, drinks, and lots of food being cooked up and grilled out all around you.
— Josh & Liz (@PeanutsPretzels) May 16, 2016
It’s a nice evening to relax and watch the sunset over the river, and have dinner under the stars. With so many restaurants, it’s hard to choose – so walk up and down to scope out what they all have.
Trips Outside of Vientiane City
While Vientiane is great, it’s also nice to venture out of town to explore. There are a few places worth heading for the afternoon or just a day, or you may opt to take an overnight trip. Here are some notable places and our thoughts on them.
The Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
We heard a lot about this place before going to Vientiane. 25 km outside of Vientiane, this park is full of sculptures from a rogue monk some years back. It’s a combination of Buddhist and Hindu gods and creatures. It’s actually a bit creepy in some aspects, some “Frankenstienesque” looking things. We read all about the history online before we went, and learned that there actually isn’t much signage about what the things are inside the park. So reading about it gave us more insight — plus, we learned that the sculptures aren’t made from rock, but are actually concrete poured.
The very cool but also very underwhelming Buddha Park in #Vientiane #Laos. #simplybeautifullaos #POPLaos #peanutsorpretzels #travel #travelgram #travelstoke #explore #lppathfinders #yourshot #forgedforlife
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We weren’t sure what to expect, so we drove our motorbike out to the site – which was a really great day trip out of Vientiane. We enjoyed the ride and exploring some villages. However, when we arrived at the Buddha Park, we saw they were charging 5,000 kip to park our bike + another 5,000 admission + 3,000 kip if you brought a camera to take photos!
** Side note: This is the first of many times in Laos where we realized it’s all about nickel-and-diming tourists. It’s rampant, and can get extremely irritating (and costly). It’s the one complaint we have about visiting Laos.
We were kinda turned off by those prices, so we decided to park our bike across the street at a local restaurant for free, and eat lunch while we thought more about it. After looking around and talking about it, we noticed how small the Buddha park was, and that there was a walkway that went around the outside of it.
In the end, we just walked around the outside for free and looked inside, taking a few pics. We just didn’t feel like it was worth it to go inside. It was small, and not very exciting.
You can get out here to the Buddha Park by public bus, but the motorbike was definitely more fun. Overall, if you have time in Vientiane – then it’s a nice ride out here. But otherwise we wouldn’t really recommend the Buddha Park.
Phou Khao Khouay National Park
This national conservation area in Laos is a great day trip from the city, but best with an organized tour. There are some great waterfalls, forests, and trails for hiking. You can also do some kayaking on the rivers and wildlife watching. In fact, wild tigers and elephants (although elusive) are still roaming the park grounds! There are also some traditional and friendly local villages on the outskirts of the park that you can visit and get to know the Lao culture.
** Sleep Overnight in an Elephant Lookout! **
While you can take a day hike out to an elephant lookout near a popular salt lick that they like to visit, there’s no guarantee that you will see an elephant. But a cool option that will enhance the likelihood of you seeing one is to actually sleep overnight in the lookout. Some people are woken up at night to the sound of the elephants at the salt lick. A very cool experience, we’d like to do sometime, but just didn’t really have it on our itinerary this time around.
Boating or Jet Skiing at Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir
A couple hours out of town is Ang Nam Ngum, a large reservoir where many people go to enjoy a day cooling off and playing in the water. There are some resorts up here where you can stay overnight, or just for a day trip. Visitors can rent boats and even jet skis to play in the water – and there is also a casino nearby, if you like that sort of activity.
Vientiane Has a Special Place in our Hearts!
While we realize that people are limited on time and may opt to bypass Vientiane for more scenic places, we must admit that we really came to like Vientiane. Looking back, we probably liked Vientiane so much because it was our first stop in Laos, but we still think there is something special to it. It’s by far the smallest capital in all of southeast Asia, and it has a sort of small town charm to it. Plus, it’s easy to get around by foot, bike or motorbike – making it a lot easier to explore than other capitals in southeast Asia.
Besides being easy to get around Vientiane, we felt like there were some great things to see, and it was a nice introduction to Laos and the Lao people. By far, our favorite part was relaxing along the Mekong River in the evening – watching the sunset and just hanging out well into the night.
We loved gazing out at the river in the moonlight – this is one of our favorite memories!
Where is Laos? Well, it’s in our heart now. And we are really looking forward to exploring more of this amazing, and often overlooked, country in southeast Asia.