Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Vientiane – Gateway for your Laos Adventure

that_louang_dec_31_2007_009Hugging a bend along the Mekong River as it winds south between Thailand and Laos, Vientiane first appears a rather non-assuming town with a mixture of French, Chinese and Vietnamese-style buildings interspersed among Buddhist temples and modern structures.

Busy and hectic compared to the rest of the country, with a population just a little over 200,000 Vientiane is quieter and more laidback than other capital cities in Southeast Asia. Don’t let that fool you, though. As quiet and unassuming Vientiane might first appear, it is an exciting and vibrant city filled with antique shops, quaint open-air cafés, and a trove of restaurants and guesthouses, amidst cultural landmarks steeped in Laos’s historical heritage.

The origin of the name Vientiane is rather interesting: it either means “the King’s grove of sandalwood” in Pali or “City of the Moon” in native Lao Language and today’s spelling is of French origin. Depending on whatever name origin you choose, Vientiane is a city that has retained much of its exotic Indochina charm amidst dizzying modernization.

The gateway for exploring Laos for some travelers might begin at Wattay International Airport—which is just a short taxi or tuk-tuk ride downtown to many of the hotels and guesthouses (which are the best bet for budget-minded travelers). The town always seems busy with travelers and tourists coming and going.

Most travelers spend two or three days here before heading north to Louang Prabang or south to Chiang Mai and Bangkok or perhaps even further to Siem Reap or Hanoi. That’s pretty much all the time you would need to take in most of the sights here unless you are like me and just want to have a week to chill out, enjoy some delicious Lao food, and enjoy sitting outside some café.Patouxai

Most of Vientiane’s landmarks can seen in two or three days. For starters there’s Patouxai, Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe and That Louang, the country’s symbol of national unity and Buddhism. There’s also the mysterious-looking chedi, That Dam—what really is inside?

If Buddhism is your thing, Vientiane has two very important temples Wat Phra Kaew (yes, like the one in Bangkok, and there is a reason for the same-sounding name—the Emerald Buddha, now in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok, used to be here in Vientiane) and Wat Si Saket, located right across the street.

There is also a museum that might be a little short on artifacts, but not on historical scope. All of these landmarks can easily be walked to from most of the guesthouses along the Mekong River and side streets.

However, the best way to get around Vientiane is by renting some bicycles and riding around the city. You can rent one for the day from most guesthouses.

Of course, there are always tuk-tuks to get around, but they can be a little expensive and in many cases a rip-off for unsuspecting tourists. You might not think twice about spending 2,000-3,000 Kip for a tuk-tuk to get from say Wat Si Saket to That Louang (you could walk there in under an hour if you wanted at a nice leisurely stroll) but it’s still a little pricey. Most of the rates are already fixed so there’s no negotiation.

Streets of VientianeThat’s why one is better off walking or renting bicycles. You are really not that far from most places—the farthest place being That Louang if you are walking from Fa Ngum Road or Setthathilat Road (which runs parallel to Fa Ngum Road).

And no trip or stay in Vientiane would be complete without having at least one or two baguette sandwiches, which are sold throughout the city—from sidewalk vendors and cafés. Without question, it’s some of the finest bread you’ll ever taste in your travels in Southeast Asia.

If shopping is you thing, there are plenty of antique shops to satisfy one’s hunger for souvenirs, bric-a-brac and antiques as well as the city’s morning market (near Patouxai).Morning_market_in_Vientiane

After you have had your fill of Vientiane—whether it is visiting it’s stunning landmarks, enjoying its tasty baguettes, or strolling along the Mekong at night—and it’s time to move on to your next destination, you just might find yourself missing this quaint, historical and charming city along the banks of the Mekong.

9 Comments

  1. My nephew went there with his school to help with an orphanage in June. He said it was a life-changing experience. So it is nice to get an insiders report of this city. He came back wearing a very smart tailor-made white silk suit!

    • It is a beautiful city and I am looking forward to much to spending time there in December with Aon, Jeremy Aaron and Bia. Thanks so much for your kind comments and for stopping by.

  2. Is Vientiane pronounced VEE-EN-TEE-AHN? Is that correct?

    Just think, I was last in Vientiane in 1969–40 years ago. Made 3 trips across the Mekong from Bangkok to have my passport stamped for another 3 month tourist visa.

    Anyway, I was surprised to see your photos. There is so much grass and asphalt pavement now! When I was there, I saw only dirt. Rather primitive back then. Of course, it was at the height of the Vietnam War so that can explain the poverty.

    There was an open market where marijuana was sold freely. My roommate bought some and smuggled it into Thailand, where it was illegal. No, I did not smoke pot!

    Thanks for the memories, Jeffrey.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments again Gigi!

      I have heard a couple ways of pronouncing Vientiane. Most English speakers pronounce it the way you wrote it out phonetically, but Aon pronounces it more like Vee-en-chang.

      That must have been something to see it when you did back in the 60s. Have you written anything about those years that you spent in Thailand?

  3. Yes, I discussed my life in Thailand and Laos in my first memoir, “Like a Joyful Bird.”

    I have also taken excerpts from the book and inserted them into my blog. Use the search bar in the upper right corner of my blog to call up the topics.

  4. Hi Jeffrey,

    Thanks for the preview. I’ll be heading to Laos in 3 weeks with a view to spending a couple of nights in Vientiane and then four nights in Luang Prabang.

    As well as buying some books for the children, I’d really like to buy a nice tailor made suit when I’m there.

    Do you know whether there are any tailors in Vientiane or Luang Prabang?

    Cheers
    Steven

  5. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comments. I hope you have a great time in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

    I am sorry I don’t know the names of any tailors in Vientiane, but they will be easy to find–most shops are located on three main streets in the city–Fa Ngum which runs parallel to the Mekong, Rue Setthathilath (the next one over) and Rue Samsenthai (the one after). I am sure you will find something.

    Take care and have a safe trip.

    Jeffrey

  6. Hi Jeffrey,

    Many thanks for the information..

    kind regards
    Steven

  7. Francine Rizza

    March 6, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    Hi, we are going to Vientiane next week. I have a suitcase filled with babies and childrens clothing, which I would like to donate to an orphanage. Can someone assist me in doing that please?
    Thanks, Francine – Australia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: