It may be Laos’s most fast-paced city, but Vientiane is still the smallest and most laid-back capital in Southeast Asia. Expect leafy boulevards, French-colonial architecture and plenty of chilled-out riverside spots to enjoy a Beerlao by the Mekong.
The origins of Laos’s capital are shrouded in mystery. Some say it was founded at the demand of a seven-headed naga snake, while others claim it started life as a Khmer settlement centered on a Hindu temple. What we do know for sure is that Vientiane’s recorded history begins in the 14th century, and it was beset by attacks, invasions and occupations from the start.
After being made the capital of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang in 1563, it was taken over by the Burmese, looted and razed to the ground by the Siamese, and finally abandoned to rack and ruin in by the 19th century. In 1899, the French made it the capital of their newly established protectorate of Laos, and today their legacy is a city of broad, leafy boulevards, bougainvillea-draped mansions, and Beaux-Artes palaces.
Long considered the sleepiest of the Southeast Asian capitals, Vientiane today is a city changing gears, as Laos scrambles to catch up with its more developed neighbors. You’ll still find a chilled-out, riverside café culture and plenty of quiet streets lined with coconut palms and tamarind trees, but alongside are modern shopping malls, Thai chain restaurants, and the tell-tale signs of Chinese investment (not to mention an ever-increasing amount of traffic). Nevertheless, Vientiane preserves a certain low-key charm, and its relative lack of things to do is the key to its appeal. So, take the chance to grab a Beerlao on the banks of the Mekong and watch the world go by.