Settled since at least 1000 CE, Vientiane became an important administrative city of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (“million elephants”) in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane experienced a resurgence when it became the capital of the French protectorate, a position it kept after independence 1953, and was unchanged after the communist revolution in 1975. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 210,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.
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.
Vientiane features a tropical wet and dry climate (Köppen Aw) with a distinct monsoon season and a dry season. Vientiane’s dry season spans from November through March. April marks the onset of the monsoon which in Vientiane lasts about seven months.
Vientiane tends to be hot and humid throughout the course of the year, though temperatures in the city tend to be somewhat cooler during the dry season than the wet season.
Known as “Khao Phansa“, the Buddhist Lent is a time devoted to study and meditation. Buddhist monks remain within the temple grounds and do not venture out for a period of three months starting from the first day of the waning moon of the eighth lunar month (in July) to the fifteenth day of the waxing moon of the eleventh lunar month (in October). In former times, this is done to prevent monks from trampling upon rice paddies when they venture out to receive offerings from the villagers.
Vang Vieng (also Vang Viang) is a tiny riverside town located in Laos. Once no more than a bus changing station on the long haul between Vientiane at the Thai border and the World Heritage Site city of Luang Prabang, it has managed to become a destination of its own. There still isn’t more to the town than three streets and a bus station, but the nearby river, laidback countryside and cave-filled rock formations mean it’s worth a day or two of chillout time. Vang Vieng is at the halfway point on the bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang– about 6-8 hours (road and bus conditions permitting) from either city. There really is no other way to Vang Viang.
A visa on arrival is available at Wattay Airport, the Friendship Bridge and Tha Naleng train station. Bring US$25-42 plus a US$1 in cash (depending on your nationality). A passport photo may be required but recently have not been asked for (update: was asked for at Wattay Airport, September 2014); see Laos#Get in for details. 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 (IATA: VTE, ICAO: VLVT) is 4 km west of the city. International services are quite limited, but this is slowly changing.
There are direct flights to/from:
- Bangkok Suvarnabhumi: Thai Airways, two flights daily (code share with Lao Airlines) and Lao Airlines, one. Bangkok Airways also operates one flight daily
- Hanoi (Viet Nam): Lao Airlines, three times weekly and Vietnam Airlines daily.
- Ho Chi Minh City (Viet Nam): Vietnam Airlines daily via Phnom Penh; Lao Airlines three times/week via Pakse
- Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia): AirAsia daily.
- Phnom Penh (Cambodia): Vietnam Airlines daily.
- Siem Reap (Cambodia): Lao Airlines three flights weekly via Pakse.
- Chiang Mai (Thailand): Lao Airlines six times weekly via Luang Prabang.
- Kunming (Yunnan, West China): China Eastern Airlines operate four and Lao Airlines three flights weekly. Lao Airlines and the Lao Consulate both have offices in the Camellia Hotel, Kunming.
- Singapore: Lao Airlines flies four times a week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday.
- Seoul: Lao Airlines flies Daily.
There is a US$10 departure tax for international flights, but this is being incorporated into the ticket cost so is not now payable in cash for most flights.
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).
Transfer to the city
Many hotels offer a pickup service from the airport, or you can take a jumbo or taxi for US$7 (57,000 kip).You can buy a taxi coupon before you leave the airport building for US$7. The journey to the airport should be cheaper, around US$3 by tuk-tuk. From city to airport, tuk-tuk is 30,000 kip(October 2014).
Do not agree with 55,000 kip, shown on a price list by some tuk-tuk drivers. You can bargain down to 30,000 kip, or simply walk away to find another tuk-tuk. Always agree with the price before boarding the tuk-tuk. If you don’t mind walking the distance between the airport and the main road (less than 500 m), you can take a local bus for 4000 kip. The bus to the airport departs at the central bus station (Bus No. 30, the number is written on the front shield) almost every half an hour.
Although still a small city, the capital experiences a major influx of tourists. The city contains many temples and Buddhist monuments with Pha That Luang, a Buddhist stupa, one of the most famous in Laos. It is the most important national cultural monument and very popular amongst foreign tourists. The original was built in 1566 by King Setthathirath, and was restored in 1953. The golden stupa is 45 metres tall and is believed to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha.
Another site that is also popular amongst tourists is Wat Si Muang. The temple was built on the ruins of a Khmer Hindu shrine, the remains of which can be seen behind the ordination hall. It was built in 1563 and is believed to be guarded by the spirit of a local girl called “Si”. Legend says that Nang Si, who was pregnant at the time, leapt to her death as a sacrifice, just as the pillar was being lowered into the hole. In front of the temple stands a statue of King Sisavang Vong.
The memorial monument, Patuxai, began construction in 1957 and completed in 1968, is perhaps the most prominent landmark in the city. While the Arc de Triomphe in Paris inspired the architecture, the design incorporates typical Lao motifs including “Kinnari”, a mythical bird woman. Energetic visitors can climb to the top of the monument, which reveals a panoramic view of the city.
Buddha Park was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat and contains a collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, scattered amongst gardens and trees. The park was built about 28 kilometres south of Vientiane at the edge of the Mekong River.
Vientiane is home to one of the three bowling alleys in Laos (the other two are in Luang Phrabang and Pakse). There are many upper-class hotels in Vientiane.
Other sites include:
- Haw Phra Kaew, former temple, now museum and small shops
- Lao National Museum
- Talat Sao Morning market
- That Dam, large stupa
- Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan, Buddhist monastery
- Wat Si Saket, Buddhist wat
- Wat Sok Pa Luang, Buddhist temple
- Settha Palace Hotel, Established 1932
- The Sanjiang market
All pictures by the author