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What To See in Vientiane

Where French Colonialism Meets Buddhism

Don’t be deceived by Vientiane’s laid-back vibe; the capital city of Laos has a lot to offer for travellers. Here’s a list of what to do in Vientiane.

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Once a sleepy city, Vientiane today may still have a slower pace of life than its neighbouring counterparts but it is gently stirring. Stretching along the banks of the magnificent Mekong river, the Laotian capital boasts a striking mix of French-colonial architecture and grand Buddhist stupas, and a wide range of activities that even the most discerning traveller would enjoy. If you’re looking for a guide to what to see in Vientiene during your stay, here are some highlights of the main points of interest in the Laos capital.

What To See in Vientiane: Temples

The grandest stupa of all is the iconic Pha That Luang (also known as the Great Stupa), a monument of national pride in Laos, and paying a visit to this gold-covered majestic monument is one of the top things to do in Vientiane. Reconstructed after World War II, the three-storey stupa was built to symbolise the Buddhist ascent from the ground to the skies.

Closer to the riverbanks sits Wat Si Saket, believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Laos. Steeped in history, the temple was first built between 1818 and 1824 by Chao Anouvong, the last king of the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang, and its well-preserved walls bear the images of thousands of Buddhas. To truly experience the local life, visit the temple early in the morning to pray and offer food to the monks. As both Wat Si Saket and Pha That Luang are sacred religious grounds, do dress modestly and remove your footwear before entering the temple.

From Wat Si Saket, take a short 20-minute stroll along Khouvieng Road and you will arrive at COPE Visitor Centre. COPE is short for the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, a non-profit organisation that aims to provide prosthetic and orthotic devices to people living with disabilities in Laos, many of who have lost limbs due to unexploded ordnance (UXO) — remnants of the US’s secret war from the 1960s to 1970s, which left an estimated 80 million UXOs scattered across the country.

This visitor centre is not just a somber reminder of the horrific atrocities of a war waged more than four decades ago; to this date, these UXOs are still claiming victims in Laos. Admission is free and all donations made support the rehabilitation of survivors from the war.

What To Do in Vientiane: Shopping

Holidaymakers hoping to bring back a piece of Laos with them should check out T'Shop Lai Gallery, home to contemporary art pieces and locally crafted goods and furniture. If you are looking for gifts for wellness gurus and nature lovers, you will be pleased to find a wide range of fair-trade, ethically made cosmetic products including soap, lotions, body oils and more here.
Well-heeled travellers can then head over to Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles, a workshop, studio and gallery that specialises in traditional Lao textiles and design motifs, housing a selection of some of the finest silk products in Laos.
If excellent bargains are what you have in mind instead, then Talat Sao Morning Market and Shopping Mall is the right location for you. From colourful textiles and jewellery to wooden crafts and antiques, you can find it all at the bustling Morning Market — often at a good price if you know how to haggle! Next to the Morning Market is the air-conditioned shopping mall, which offers a totally different shopping experience and less of a crowd. Here, you can find electronics, jewellery and sports equipment at a decent price.

Things To Do in Vientiane: Eating and Drinking

When wondering where to go in Vientiane, it’s always a good idea to feed your appetite. Perhaps one of the most popular Laotian dishes is laap (or larb, among other variations), a minced meat salad often seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce and spices. You can find laap in most local restaurants and street food stalls, but if you are looking for a premium take on this unofficial national dish, check out Kualao, an institution in Vientiane dining.

Located in a European-style villa, the restaurant was once a dining spot for the city’s French elite and now hosts traditional cultural performances every evening. They even have a Pa Kao (Set Menu) for guests, featuring a mixed platter of Laotian dishes including laap made with duck, considered to be a premium meat in Laos.

For an authentic taste of Europe in Vientiane, consider Scandavian Bakery, a charming café nestled in the city centre. With fresh coffee and pastries churned out every day, this bakery has been serving both locals and tourists since the 1990s and is the perfect place to enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and a semla, a classic Swedish delight.

As day turns to dusk, head over to The Spirit House Bar and Restaurant to soak in mesmerising sunset views over the Mekong river while enjoying an ice-cold pint of Beerlao, a local beer.

With a seemingly endless list of things to do and places to eat in the city, Vientiane is proving that its slower pace of life does not hold it back from being the charming destination it is.

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