There is no denying that 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. Shophouses that had long been padlocked and disused were opened up and transformed into minimarts and pizza parlors. 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 humour.
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.
A two-day stay is enough to see Vientiane’s sights, and if the small-town atmosphere of the capital gets too claustrophobic, there’s plenty of things to see nearby: Xieng Khuan or the “Buddha Park”, the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir, Ban Pako…