Vientiane, nestled along the Mekong River, is a backpacker’s dream. Free of the bustle of other Asian capitals, the Laotian capital has a laidback small town feel. It’s the place to go when you’re ready to slow down a bit – things here tend to move at an unhurried pace that can be frustrating if you don’t bring the mindset for it. If you’ve had enough rush for awhile, however, this easygoing city is sure to bring a smile to your face. While the experience of being in a country classified as one of the world’s “least developed” can be eye-opening in heartbreaking ways, the friendliness of this city will make you feel right at home. Accommodation and food here are incredibly inexpensive, making it a perfect destination for backpackers on a budget.
Vientiane is home to Laos’s most important religious monument, the golden Pha That Luang. The stunning three-tiered gilded stupa is a national symbol, and well worth a visit. Probably the oldest temple in Vientiane is Wat Si Saket, and it’s the place to go if you’re seeking a more contemplative atmosphere. It’s home to an astonishing number of Buddha images and statues – 2,000 in silver and 300 in wood, stone and bronze. For a completely different temple-going experience, head to Wat Si Muang. A bit gaudy but surprisingly lively, the temple is an interesting visit. Bring your prayers and questions – it’s believed that lifting the small Buddha housed here from its cushion three times will bring answers.
Fantastic Fare of All Kinds
For a small city in Southeast Asia, Vientiane boasts an astonishing (and astonishingly affordable) variety of international foods, from Turkish kebabs to Scandinavian baked goods. Perhaps most notable, however, is its excellent French cuisine, a remnant of French Indochina. Croissants, baguettes, pates, refined salads and expertly cooked steaks await – all at backpacker friendly prices. If, on the other hand, something peculiarly Laotian is what you seek, take a trip to the Riverside Night Market. Here you can hand select your own catch-of-the-day, which will then be cooked to order and served on a bed of rice and greens. Finish it all off with a Beerlao overlooking the river. Bon appetit!
After eating your fill of French flavors, perhaps head to Vientiane’s own Arc de Triomphe, Patuxai, the Victory Gate. Built in 1969 with concrete donated by the United States and intended for an airport, the gate stands in commemoration of those Laotians who died in prerevolutionary wars. The seventh story holds views of Vientiane, and the gate itself is surrounded by a pleasant park.
About 24 km from Vientiane itself, Buddha Park (or Xieng Khuan, the Spirit City) is a quirky must-see for any visitor. The creation of the mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, this park has housed over 200 statues – including Buddhist and Hindu deities and creatures both real and mythical – since 1958. Amongst its most notable pieces is a 120 meter long Buddha reclining along a green, leafy backdrop. Many of the other pieces are perhaps more interesting, however, if only for their oddity. The statues of Buddha Park are often bizarre representations of mythology, and their mesmerizing strangeness is well worth a visit. While you’re there, be sure to enter the mouth of the demon gating a large cylindrical piece – once inside, you’ll climb through three levels representing Hell, Earth, and Heaven, before arriving to a view of the entire park at the top.