Vientiane, Laos - the city of charm
Laos is not one of the new, bright young things to take the international travel scene by storm: It has made its move by stealthily edging its way into a few traveller’s itineraries and, more so, into their hearts.
Flying in from Vietnam via Cambodia, we landed in the capital city of Laos, Vientiane, a modest and charming little city that resembles a sprawling collection of villages. Vientiane (translated as ‘sandalwood city’) dates from the 10th century. Vientiane is a small city that oozes charm; it’s a laid-back capital that is clean, inviting and a little bit fancy.
It’s not what you expect of a capital city; it is quiet, with ordered lanes and tree-lined boulevards, majestic Buddhist temples, loved but shabby monasteries, unhurried traffic and smiling, shy people.
The Laotian temples have their own characteristics and even though some appear ‘shabby chic’ on the outside, it’s an inside job with a wealth of spiritual atmosphere. One of the oldest sights of the capital is Wat Sisaket with 10,136 miniature Buddha statues in the walls of the city’s oldest surviving monastery. The temple complex was built in 1818 and when the Thais sacked the city in the 1820s they left it alone.
After Wat Sisaket, wander around town for a coffee – Laotian coffee is brilliant – enjoyed with a delicate pastry, a legacy of French colonialism. Then off to absorb the beauty of Luang Stupa, the gold-tipped national monument representing both the Buddhist religion in Cambodia and the Laos sovereignty.
It was while I was mooching around the sweeping entrance that I noticed an odd, local phenomenon. There were lots of men walking around asking foreign visitors if they wanted their pictures taken. In this digital age, it surprised me and I thought the guys wouldn’t get any business at all. But they were one ( with well-shod with cowboy boots) step ahead of me. Strapped to their waists were portable printers.
So, click for the picture, and click for an image and voila, nice picture, good background and ‘only one US dollar please’. Bargain! The urban cowboys were out in force wearing faux foreign correspondent vests and cowboy hats as they strutted around the gorgeous Patuxay Monument known as Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe. It’s so decorative, a sight to behold with its Lao friezes from Buddhist mythology.
The structure is at the end of the grand Lang Xang Avenue. Stroll around the laid-back city and pass crumbling colonial mansions, immaculate shopfronts, hidden gardens and bamboo thatched beer gardens on the riverbank. Explore the hidden lanes running off the main streets and discover French-style bakeries and noodle and sticky rice vendors.
Most of the main attractions of town are concentrated in the tightknit commercial district where you’ll find the museums and squares with a variety of fine restaurants.
Fountain Square has the charm of an old-fashioned village green and is surrounded by compact eateries including Italian and Thai restaurants and a Scandinavian bakery.
Vientiane is a lovely little city that invites you to turn up and stay for a few days. There’s much to uncover and enjoy here, and who knows, those urban cowboys could win your heart – for ‘only one US dollar’.
- The writer flew to Laos with Vietnam Airlines.
- This story first appeared in Get Up & Go Magazine and has been edited.