4 Cultural Destinations You Shouldn’t Miss in the Quiet Capital of Laos
While it’s tempting to rush through Vientiane and head straight into the Laos mountains, where rugged adventures await—or dash back to “society” in Thailand—don’t be so quick to dismiss what is quite likely one of the quietest country capitals in all of the world. While Vientiane may not have much in common with a lot of your more fantastical ideas about Laos, it is certainly an integral part of the country.
Stop for a minute and get your bearings, do a little sightseeing, and enjoy some of the best culinary treasures of Southeast Asia. Here are some cultural sights you might want to check out while you’re relaxing.
The Lao National Museum is not the most exciting museum I’ve ever been to, and I was a little rushed for time when I came in, but it was worth checking out to get a quick glimpse of Lao history. The most fascinating part, in my opinion, was the exhibits on prehistoric findings in the area, which are quite extensive.
I really wanted to know more about the Vietnam War era and the Secret War America played out on Laos, but the exhibit from this era continually lamented about the “American Imperialists” and the politicians who sold them out without providing actual information about what happened—two or three photos were enlightening, but I definitely wanted more.
If anything, though, the tone of the exhibit certainly gave me some insights into Laos perspective and left me hungry to learn more about the culture.
2. UXO Museum
This exhibit housed in the COPE Rehabilitation Center is one of the sights I think every visitor to Vientiane should see. Meant to bring attention to the plight of people who have been injured by the unexploded “bombies” left buried all over the place in the Laos countryside, it gives a lot of insight into the atrocities that occurred here.
They do a great job of drawing attention to the challenge today’s people have of clearing out unexploded ordnance that still takes lives every year.
The exhibit features a documentary about an Australian bombs expert who lives and works here, training Laos people to become bomb experts so they can go back to their villages and defuse the problem as best as they can.
Particularly horrifying were crude drawings sketched by villagers who were bombed out of their placid lifestyles and a horribly revealing video featuring an interview with a village couple talking about their young boy who was killed by a bomb found near his home.
Words can’t describe what these people go through. My only advice is to go to the exhibit alone and take an hour or two to really soak everything in rather than flying through in the typical 15 minutes most tourists afford it.
This giant Golden Stupa is the most famous monument in all of Laos and a real sense of pride for the city—you should definitely take a minute to go check it out while you’re in town. Prepare for some amazing photo ops as you approach the building with beautiful flowers and vegetation and a majestic stupa rising into the air behind the statue of King Setthathirat, a famous hero who saved Laos from falling to Burmese rule.
You’ll feel awed walking within the high walls that crowd around the stupa, creating a peaceful park-like setting. Stop and talk with some of the local monks, who like to come practice their English with foreigners walking by.
They looked a little abashed when I told them I had to rush off to do some work, so it’d be great if you could actually give them some time—not to mention it’s probably a fantastic opportunity for getting a little more insight into Laos culture.
Over to the right hand side of the stupa are some temples that are definitely worth a look. I spent hours in one, walking around reading the hundreds of Buddhist pictographs painted on the ceilings, trying to get a sense of Buddhist culture. Some of the images are really strange and others, like a man seemingly spontaneously combusting in a crowd of people, are downright shocking.
I saw some monks here really dragging hard on cigarettes, but I guess there are no qualms with Buddhist monks smoking—strange.
The last thing you’d expect me to recommend cultural-wise is the modern boardwalk, still under construction, but when we visit these faraway places we mustn’t forget that the things unraveling today are just as much a part of history as the ancient monuments and temples we visit. The huge boardwalk project along the Mekong River is an interesting sign of Vientiane’s future and the direction they want to take their tourism.
Many of the locals come here in the evening to jog, walk their dogs, play around, or just mill about. It’s a nice place for a short walk, and the ugly sight of the Mekong somehow captures my imagination, though beautiful it is not.
You can still sit down in the street stalls and eat barbecued chicken and papaya salad, just like the old days—but expect to get ripped off. I’ve had the same merchant charge me about four different prices and after too much haggling with his employees, I just stopped going.
A shame for him, I say.
There’s plenty more to see in Vientiane if you’re up for being a tourist. Go check out the Buddha Park or grab a motorbike and head out towards Ban Na to see the magnificent Phou Khao Khouay National Park. It’s funny how the places so many people dismiss hold so much for the traveler who moves at a slower pace.