Without doubt, Vientiane is one of Southeast Asia’s quietest capital cities. Hugging a wide bend of the Mekong River, it looks more like a rambling collection of villages, dotted with a few grandiose monuments, than the engine room of a nation. However, in the mere two decades since Laos reopened its doors to foreign visitors, the city has changed with dizzying rapidity. At the beginning of the Nineties, Vientiane wallowed in an economic stupor brought about by a fifteen-year near-ban on free enterprise and a heavy reliance on Soviet aid. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, economic restrictions were relaxed; soon afterwards, Vientiane’s collection of billboards proclaiming the glories of socialism were outnumbered by advertisements for Pepsi, and the hammer and sickle that had been erected atop the abandoned French cultural center was removed. Shop houses that had long been padlocked and disused were opened up and transformed into mini marts and pizza parlous. Now, the city has a shopping mall, a thriving tourist economy, and some excellent places to stay. That said, Vientiane remains quaint and easy-going, and the people have managed to retain their hospitality and sense of humor.
High on the list of any visitor to Vientiane should be Wat Sisaket, the city’s oldest temple, and Wat Simuang, which is the most popular temple with worshippers. Another top attraction is That Luang, Laos’s most important religious building, best viewed at sundown when its golden surface glows like a lamp. Aside from temples and stupas, the museum of Lao art, housed in the former royal temple of Haw Pha Kaew, and the socialist-era Lao National Museum are also worth a visit.
Two days is enough to see Vientiane’s sights, and if the small-town atmosphere of the capital gets too claustrophobic, there’s plenty to see nearby. The most popular day-trip is to Xieng Khuan or the “Buddha Park”, a concrete-cluttered meadow that’s home to more than 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues, including a 40 m-long reclining Buddha. North of Vientiane, the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir attracts locals and foreign visitors alike for relaxing weekend retreats, offering hiking and camping and boat trips to small, half-sunk islands. Off the beaten track and a bit more of an effort to reach is the resort of Ban Pako, on the banks of the Nam Ngum River, which offers a rural Lao experience within relatively easy distance of the capital.
Slightly further afield but still within day-tripping range of Vientiane is Vang Vieng, the home of tubing and Laos’s most notorious backpacker hot spot. Set amid spectacular scenery on Route 13, Vang Vieng is a natural wonderland providing the perfect environment for hiking, kayaking, climbing and caving, and is also a convenient stopover en route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos’s second city. An alternative route to Luang Prabang involves road and river travel through Sayaboury, a remote left-bank province that’s famed for its wild elephants.