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Vientiane is the capital of Laos.
Compared to the hectic, bustling capitals in other Southeast Asian countries, Vientiane's deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you've done the round of temples, the best thing to do here has always been to wander down to the riverside, relax with a cold Beerlao - the national beer - and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
Of course, the booming tourism industry is changing this by slowly but surely bringing the excesses of Thailand and China to this formerly sleepy city. Just like any other Southeast Asian capital/major city, Vientiane is experiencing a building boom. Even its Presidential Palace is having a major makeover-addition and a new convention centre has opened recently.
Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the main roads running parallel to the river are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chanthabuli, contains most of Vientiane's government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lane Xang, runs from the Presidential Palace (now used for government offices and for state receptions) to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos.
A visa on arrival is available for most nationalities at Wattay Airport, the Friendship Bridge and Tha Naleng train station. Some nationalities do require a pre-arranged Laos visa from a Lao diplomatic mission abroad. You can also get a visa in advance at the Lao Embassy in Bangkok; the only real advantages of doing this are that you need to spend less time queuing when you get to Laos and if you are travelling by through-bus from Udon Thani in Thailand to Vientiane the bus may not wait for visas on arrival to be processed.
Vientiane's Wattay Airport (VTE) is 4 km west of the city. International services are quite limited, but this is slowly changing.
From Bangkok many visitors choose to fly into Udon Thani in Thailand, and cross the border by bus, as this domestic flight is considerably cheaper than a direct international flight to Vientiane. There is a direct shuttle from Udon Thani airport to the Thai/Lao border at Nong Khai (about 50 km away) for 200 baht. Alternatively,Nok Air offers flight+minivan service from Bangkok to Vientiane v.v. by flying with Nok Air from Bangkok to Udon Thani and transferred on a minivan to Vientiane. This can be booked directly from their website.
Lao Airlines flies to five domestic destinations (three to five flights daily to Luang Prabang; once or twice daily to Pakse, four times per week to Huay Xai and Oudomxay, and six times per week to Xieng Khuang (Phonsavan).
Lao Air, the second Lao airline, operates two flights weekly each between Vientiane and Phongsali, Samneua and Sayaboury (Sainyabuli) (aircraft: Cessna).
Lao Central Airlines has daily flights between Vientiane and Luang Prabang (aircrafts: B737 and Sukhoil Superjet 100).
The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot or by bicycle (theoretically; however people have been seen strolling the bridge), but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. The price changes depending on the time of day and day of week. You will get a receipt. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.
A direct bus from Hanoi takes at least 20 hours (despite what the travel agents might say, avg 24 hrs) and should cost about US$15-20. There is a twice a week VIP bus (better seats) and a local bus that departs every day. For the local bus: apparently you're not always certain of a seat and Vietnamese people tend to sit and never get up again until you've arrived.
The bus trip from Phnom Penh to Vientiane costs about US$50 if you go 'VIP': this involves a bed for the night portion of your trip; however unless you have a partner you will share the rather small bed with a random passenger of the same sex. The bed is comfortable, though there have been reports of leaking windows and wet mattresses.
Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signage is, however, rather lacking though in the centre more and more signs are appearing. Where there are signs displaying street names these are bilingual Lao and French. The Lao word "thanon" on these signs is translated by "rue", "avenue" or "boulevard", in many cases without any apparent logic. Therefore the Lao word "thanon" is used throughout this article.
Your best bet when asking for directions is to ask for the wat (temple) closest to where you want to go, whether asking a pedestrian, a police officer or a tuktuk driver. When asking for directions or streets with "r" in them, be aware that Laotians often pronounce them as "l".
The map on the right, which is fully to scale, covers the centre only. Maps covering a larger area are available at bookshops and some mini-marts, but are not as detailed and not always to scale. Many shop fronts feature addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking. People navigate using landmarks, so get the nearest embassy, hotel or temple to where you want to go.
Since 2006 a major road upgrading project has been going on in the town centre and out of it up to way past the airport in the west and the Friendship Bridge in the east, financed by the Japanese government and planned and overseen by Japanese engineers. Largely gone are the hazards presented by missing drainage gully covers and sidewalks upturned by tree roots. Almost no trees have been cut - amazing! In the centre of Vientiane the through roads Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai and the side roads connecting them and down to the river now have sealed surfaces and sidewalks, and there is decent street lighting. A one-way traffic regime is in place, and parking regulations have also been introduced. Markings for pedestrian crossings have been painted on the new roads, but the local drivers regard them as decoration so don't rely on them!
Vientiane's rainwater drainage system, which also takes care of "grey water" from baths, sinks, laundry, etc. consists of gullies on the roadside, usually covered by concrete slabs. These slabs are sometimes damaged and very precariously balanced, or even missing altogether; people rapidly learn to take care before stepping on anything that looks like a slab! Waste from toilets is or should be collected in septic tanks at every house, but gullies can nevertheless smell abominably. In the centre things have improved markedly as a result of the road upgrading and the smell from the gullies is now no longer very noticeable.
Tuktuks in Vientiane do not work in the same way as Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Generally, tuktuks are considered public transport, and if you hop on one at That Luang, the driver will often consider it perfectly reasonable to pick other passengers up while on route, even if you have negotiated a price. So, if you hire a tuktuk by yourself, the quoted rate may well be astonishing; but if there's a group of you, then it may be 10,000 kip per person. All the tuk-tuk drivers carry a fare card for popular destinations but these fares are ridiculously inflated. You can always bargain with the driver.
What to see
Vientiane is best viewed as a comfortable transit point for other places in Laos, or as a recuperative stop on the way out. It's a pleasant enough place, but generally, there is little reason to spend more than a couple of days here.
Lao National Museum, Thanon Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are modest though very interesting in depicting some of the early history. They include one of the original Jars from the Plain of Jars and various stone and bronze age implements. The second floor provides us with a great insight into the 18th Century Laotian Kingdom and the customs of the day. It would appear that the Loatians didn't treat their guests quite as well in those days, often keeping them from leaving the country for several months. The floor builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese (Thai), French and American imperialists. Exhibits include items such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane's chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People's Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. The final rooms provide an insight into some of the modern advancements, though these are fairly dowdy and uninspiring. A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits are labelled in English, though some French labelling remains, occasionally to the exclusion of English.
Patuxai (Victory Gate), Avenue Lane Xang. A local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to trump the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a "monster of concrete" when seen up close - and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead: hence the nickname "the Vertical Runway". The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant though lacking of shade during the day time. You can climb up to the 7th story for a nice view of central Vientiane and three levels of souvenir shops with less than enthusiastic sales people sitting about. Features a musical fountain nearby that attracts visitors from around Laos and Asia, as well as a World Peace gong presented by Indonesia. Roving cameramen will be happy to charge you for photos near these attractions.
COPE Visitor Centre, Khou Vieng Road (1km from Talat Sao (Morning Market) Opposite Green Park Hotel). The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise, or COPE, is a local not for profit organisation that provides orthotic, prosthetic, rehabilitation and advocacy services for survivors of UXO accidents and other people with disabilities in Laos. During the Vietnam War (1964-1973), conflict spilled over into Laos in a secret war where more than 500,000 bombing missions dropped over two million tons of ordnance on the country. The COPE Visitor Centre provides visitors with the opportunity to understand the impact of UXO on Lao PDR, issues related to disability in developing countries and the work of the COPE project through a free permanent exhibition. The Visitor Centre is open from 9am to 6pm daily. Visitors are invited to watch documentaries on UXO, read survivor stories and interact with rehabilitative devices. The Visitor Centre also hosts a gift shop selling wares from local Lao organisations and the Karma Café where delicious homemade ice cream and Lao coffee are available. Exhibits are appropriate for all ages.
The Art of Silk, Manthatourath Road, Lao Women's unnion. A local magazine says "Phone before visiting as there is no permanent staff."
Kaysone Phomvihane Museum, km6 Dongdok Road. Museum about Kaysone Phomvihane.
Lao People's Army History Museum, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Nongsangthong.
Memorial of president Souphanouvong, Kaysone Phomvihane Road, Ban Phonsa-art.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a bizarre outdoor collection of huge concrete sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities, and real and imaginary beasts. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who left the country after the communist take-over, and in 1978 established a similar but more impressive park (Sala Keoku or Sala Kaew Ku) across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. Located 24 km from the city, it's about 6 km to the east of the Friendship Bridge - hence it's well worth visiting on the way into or out of Laos if you're crossing the Friendship Bridge, as this will save a 48 km round trip if you visit from and return to Vientiane.
Monk Chat. Once a month, local monks gather at the Sangha College (Wat Ong Teu) for chats with tourists.
Green Discovery Laos, on Setthathirat Road (next to Khop Chai Deu). Agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism. They have a 100% safety record. The trips are environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Green Discovery is committed to ensure that local people not only benefit financially from tourism but also are their true business partners by helping to develop our programs and activities. City tour Vientiane: See the landmarks and highlights of Tad Luang with its Buddha relics, of the Kaisone Phomvihane and Hor Pra Kheo museums, of Wat Sisakhet and Wat Simuang, or Patuxai, the ‘vertical landing strip’, all of which have to tell their own stories. Embark on day tours to Nam Ngum reservoir or the whimsical Buddha Park. In the outskirts of Vientiane, take a thrill with zip-line adventures inside the Nam Lik forest, watch wild elephants at Ban Na, or discover the beautiful world of orchids of Phou Khao Khouay. Start from here cross-country motorbike or cycling tours, enjoy kayaking trips to Vang Vieng or do cave expeditions.
Zip-Lining Adventure. Beginning of January 2010 Green Discovery opend up the first Zip-Lining park in Nam Lik just 2h away from Vientiane. Zip-lining gets you the feel of freedom while whooshing from tree to tree along steel wires in up to 37 meters height and 180 meters in length! Scaling the dizzying heights on ropes, giant nets, sling or U-bridges and getting back to earth through ‘abseiling’ adds to the extra-ordinary excitement.
Trekking through nature parks. The National Protected Area of Phou Khao Khouay is the nearest National Park to Vientiane, the nearest point just over an hour away. Besides some great scenery and beautiful waterfalls, the NPA offers trails through dry evergreen and mixed deciduous forests, numerous waterfalls and rivers. Wildlife is abundant but elusive.
Picnicking on the Shores of Nam Ngum Lake, 90 km from Vientiane. A local favourite. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake's islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).
Lao Massage. Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go. They won't say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant. The one next to The Drop Zone on Chao Anou Road is particularly delightful. The massage parlour does not really have a name, and the most prominent signboard merely says "now open". Don't go to the famous Wat Sok Pa Luang to a Lao Massage.
Centre Culturel et de Coopération Linguistique (French Cultural Centre), Lane Xang Road. Situated very close to Patuxai, it has a French library and a small theatre that shows plays and films. The cultural centre have often free photo exhibitions about the Laos culture and its people.