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Despite being the capital of Laos, Vientiane is repeatedly sidestepped in favour of its famous cousin, Luang Prabang. But as a major transit point in and out of the country, it would be amiss not to set aside at least one day to explore.
Abandon your expectations of a capital city – all heaving streets and air that rings with the competing sounds of daily life – Vientiane is so relaxed it might as well be horizontal. Here are seven of our favourite things to see and do in this quiet capital.
1. French influences
Having left Laos in 1953 after ruling for more than fifty years, there are remnants of the French presence throughout the city. Many signs are in French and some streets are still prefixed with ‘Rue’; walk down one of the wide tree-lined boulevards, bite into a crunchy baguette, sip a strong coffee, or drop into a Vientiane brasserie and you may well fool yourself that you’re in Paris. Sort of.
The city also has its very own Arc de Triomphe: Patuxay. This monument was actually finished in 1968, long after the French had left, to honour the Laotian army who fought for independence. Take the steps up to the stop for striking panoramic views over the city and manicured lawns below.
2. Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan)
With both Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, Buddha Park is somewhat of a misnomer. This park, 25km out of the city centre, is a refreshingly bizarre alternative to Laos’ traditional temples. Don’t let the weathered nature of the sculptures fool you, compared to most religious monuments in Southeast Asia they are embryonic – the oldest was constructed in 1958.
3. Phou Khao Kway National Park
This National Park is 40km away from the centre, so it does feel like a cheat addition to the list. It’s worth visiting as a day trip with a guide, accommodation options in and around the park are basic, and it is possible to get lost. Trek through sprawling dense vegetation to discover flora and fauna (including beautiful orchids) and local wildlife. Cool off with a dip at the base of the waterfalls at Tad Leuk and Tad Xay/Pha Xay.
4. COPE Centre
During the US-Vietnam War eight bombs were dropped on Laos every minute, making it the world’s most bombed country. In fact, more bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than the total amount of bombs used in WWII.
Devastatingly, 30% of the bombs didn’t detonate and are still being discovered in rural areas. The COPE centre (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is a charitable organisation that supports the victims of unexploded ordnance and educates visitors about the ongoing issues. Visiting is a sober experience, but one that helps visitors to understand and appreciate Laos’ history.
5. Traditional temples
The city isn’t short of traditional temples; Wat Sisaket, housing more than 2,000 Buddha statues, is a good place to start. Continue to Wat Phra Keo to wander around the displays; this former temple now operates as a museum of Laos religious art.
Last but by no means least, conclude your temple-hopping with a wander around the magnificent That Luang. With a large stupa, 30 smaller stupas, and a huge reclining Buddha all bathed in gold leaf, more is certainly more here. It is the most important religious monument in Laos – eat your heart out Luang Prabang.
6. Lao textiles
For culture of a different kind, take a tour around Carol Cassidy’s Lao Textiles workshop. Carol left the US in 1989 to work as a textile expert in the United Nations Development Programme. She now specialises in 100 percent hand-woven silk and works in a French colonial mansion with 40 local weavers.
7. Massage and relaxation
The steady pace of this city will see your shoulders relax, but to get rid of any sightseeing-induced aches and pains, have a massage – there are lots of parlours (or hotels with spas) throughout the city. It’s a great way to end the day if you’re heading home from Vientiane – get nice and relaxed ahead of that long-haul flight.
So Vientiane isn’t Luang Prabang, and it doesn’t try to be; this capital has a sleepy heart all of its own.
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