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Best things to see and do in Vientiane

Or at least our favourite things to see and do in the laid-back, Mekong-side, Lao capital of Vientiane

The relatively small capital of relatively small Laos slips under the radar in comparison to larger and more high-profile Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and even Phnom Penh but, while it is very much a low-key and laid-back kind of city, (so much the better), there are certainly enough things to see and do in Vientiane to keep most visitors interested and occupied for at least a couple of days.

With popular Vang Vieng, World Heritage Luang Prabang and the enigmatic Plain of Jars beckoning to the north and Wat Phu, The Boloven Plateau and the picturesque 4,000 Islands tempting visitors to the south, a one-day tour or at best two, is all that most visitors would allow for the sleepy Lao capital anyway so here’s a selection of our personal, favourite ‘best things to see and do in Vientiane’.

Laos, Vientiane, That Luang
That Luang, Vientiane
Pha That Luang

We’d better begin with what is probably the city’s most iconic sight, Pha That Luang – or That Luang for short. This centrally located, large, gold-coloured stupa or chedi and surrounding Buddhist temple complex is certainly hard to miss. The monument is considered to originally date to the 3rd century BCE so, while this may be unconfirmed, it’s certainly been around for a lot longer than Lao people have inhabited the area. (This would have made it an early Mon-Dvaravati sanctuary, as Lao groups likely didn’t migrate into the region until the 12th and 13th centuries CE.) (By the way, for Lao versus Laos check out our recent post.)

The temple also saw a makeover by the Khmers during the 12th century after which it was abandoned, reconstructed, sacked by the Siamese, Burmese and Chinese and reconstructed again several times so what you see today reflects over 2,000 years of history. A must-see!

Just a few of the 2,000 Buddha images at Vientiane's Wat Si Saket
Just a few of the 2,000 Buddha images at Vientiane’s Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket

If you only visit one other wat in Vientiane then it should be picturesque, historic Si Saket. Although it comes with a relatively recent, early 19th-century date, it is considered the oldest standing wat in the city – in so far as it’s the only one that wasn’t knocked down and rebuilt on several occasions. Renovated by the French in the early years of the 20th century, the site features a courtyard and surrounding collonade which famously houses over 2000 ancient Buddha statues. Convenient central location and we’d say another shoo-in on your Vientiane itinerary.

Haw Phra Kaew

This former Buddhist monastery was constructed in the 16th century to house the famous Emerald (jade) Buddha image, Phra Kaew. The statue now sits in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew and its original home now functions as a museum. Exhibits at Haw Phra Kaew include venerable old Buddha images dating as back as the 6th century while the garden houses a 2,000-year-old jar from the Plain of Jars. Situated close to Wat Si Saket so definitely worth a stop.

Things to see and do in Vientiane
The Mekong River at Vientiane
The Riverfront

To the south and southwest, Vientiane abuts the wide Mekong River, on the opposite bank of which lies Thailand. The riverfront area features the Quai Fa Ngum with its numerous cafe, and restaurant terraces overlooking the river while food stalls are set up late afternoon on wider stretches of pavement. We’re not suggesting it as part of a Vientiane day tour as such, but this makes an ideal spot to stretch your legs and grab a sundowner once you’ve completed your visits to the museums, temples and various sites. Terrace with a river view and a chilled Beer Lao – tick!

Buddha Park

Buddha Park, or Xieng Khouane, lies some 25kms southeast of the city centre, (close to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge), but as the city’s most curious and photogenic site, is well worth the detour. The park was constructed in the late 50s by a certain Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat; an eccentric, sculptor-cult leader-mystic figure. He was forced to flee the country after the communist takeover of 1975 whereupon he decamped over the river and created a similar park in Thailand’s Nongkhai City. The Vientiane park and garden consists of a large collection of concrete sculptures including figures and scenes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology as well as numerous imaginary creations. Not to be missed.

COPE Visitor Centre

The COPE Centre is situated southeast of the centre of Vientiane so makes for a convenient stop on the way back from Buddha Park. COPE was an organisation established some 25 years ago to provide help for the country’s, unfortunately plentiful, victims of landmines and UXOs. (Unexploded bombs from the Indochina War of the ’60s and ’70s.) The informative, albeit sobering, exhibition is certainly a contrast to the frivolity of Buddha Park but in our opinion, this project deserves all the assistance and support it can get.

Laos, Vientiane Buddha Park
Vientiane’s highly unsual ‘Buddha Park’

The above see and do in Vientiane suggestions make for an excellent and reasonably comprehensive city day tour – with the addition, of course, of a late afternoon-evening stroll along the riverbank – but here are a few honorary mentions for additional sites if you have more time to spare in Vientiane.

The Lao National Museum doesn’t regularly figure on standard one day tours of Vientiane but is close to the town centre and certainly worth the time if you have an hour or so to spare. Covers everything from dinosaurs up to the Colonial period and the Indochina War. If you can handle another wat then Wat Si Muang, a short walk from Haw Phra Kaew, is an attractive site and has the added bonus of a ruined 12th-century Jayavarman VII temple in its grounds. (Thought to be the most northerly confirmed Angkorian temple.)

The Victory Monument, Patuxai, (Patuxay) is worth a quick stop if you’re passing while the Morning Market, Talat Sao, has a lost a bit of its traditional charm with a recent rebuild but is still a good spot for a wander and some souvenir shopping.

The essential sites on our what to see and do in Vientiane list are included in our Vientiane day tours on any of our regular Laos itineraries but if you have an extra day to spare before or after your tour – or flight connections make it more convenient – then a day just chilling out and wandering the low key town or taking in some of the lesser-known sites is a day well spent.