Jean-Francois Perigois finds out that the old adage, ‘When in Vientiane, do as the Laotians do and slow down’, still holds true.
Unlike Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok, Vientiane is the place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of city life while being in a city itself.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos and the commercial hub of the country but despite that, it is surprisingly laid back. As the saying goes, “When in Vientiane, do as the Laotians do and slow down.”
The city has a French air in it and the French architecture blends well with the old Buddhist temples dotted around the city.
Because Vientiane is small, you can never get lost in the city and it’s easy to do sightseeing either on foot, by bike or hiring a song-teow (similar to a small jeepney in the Philippines). The beauty about Vientiane is that it is so easy to leave the city for the countryside.
Vientiane is also home to That Luang, or the Great Stupa which is the symbol of Laos and an icon of Buddhism. A visit to Vientiane’s oldest temple Wat Sisaket, built in 1818, is a must. Wat Si Saket is noted for walls with thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows with hundreds of seated Buddhas. These images mainly date from the 16th and 19th centuries and come in all sizes and are made from wood, stone and bronze – there are more than 6,800 Buddhas in total.
The What Pha Kaew museum is an elegant and majestic structure and it was King Setthathirat’s former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 and the image is now housed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. The temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down “calling for rain” pose.
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 across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand.