Must-Visit Attractions in Vientiane

Wat Si Saket is one temple you can't miss on a trip to Vientiane
Wat Si Saket is one temple you can't miss on a trip to Vientiane | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Regina Beach
26 July 2021

Vientiane is the biggest city in Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic), but this capital operates at a liveable, relaxed pace – and is easily navigable compared to many other Southeast Asian cities. Stroll past the markets and restaurants lining the Mekong River, drink a Beerlao beer at Tad Moun Waterfall and hop between the Buddhist shrines.

Take in the view from Patuxai

Park
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T87E3H Laos, Vientiane, Patuxai, Victory Monument
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

This massive monument is Laos’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Featuring traditional Laotian carvings, it is a war memorial dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It was built in 1968 from funds meant for an airport expansion, donated by the United States. Located along Lane Xang Avenue, it’s within walking distance from downtown, and you can climb its seven flights of steps for a panoramic view from the top.

Shop at the Night Market

Market, Street Food
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J2M4G9 the nightmarket at the Mekong River at a evening in the city of vientiane in Laos in the southeastasia.
© amnat99 / Alamy Stock Photo

The Night Market, also known as the Chinese Market, bursts into action along the Mekong riverfront as the sun goes down, and stays open until 9:30pm. From their red-roofed tents, merchants sell backpackers’ clothing and inexpensive electronics, as well as souvenirs such as Buddhist paintings and handicrafts. Feel free to haggle before handing your cash over – you can normally get 10 to 30 percent off the price.

See the Pha That Luang (Golden Stupa)

Buddhist Temple
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2AWNTJ5 Head of Reclining Gold Covered Buddha Statue or The Great Stupa, a sacred Buddhist Monument in Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos capital
© Autumn Sky Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
The great golden stupa is a national symbol of Laos. Legend has it that part of Buddha’s breast bone is buried here, having been brought to Laos by an Indian missionary. Although it dates back to 300CE, the current structure was built in 1566, when the 44-metre, gold-plated statue of King Setthathirath was installed. In November, this is a good place to witness the city’s three-day Boun That Luang Festival, which includes candlelight processions and fireworks.

Walk among the statues of Buddha Park

Park
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2C14734 Buddist sculpture in Buddha Park
© Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
More than 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues are scattered across this meadow, known locally as Xieng Khuan, a site located 16 miles (26 km) southeast of Vientiane. The concrete figures were built between the 1950s and 70s by a Lao guru, Luang Phu Bounleua Soulilat, who fled the country to Thailand when the Communist party took over. A monument shaped like a squashed ball provides an excellent viewing platform over the park – just step through the entrance carved into a demon’s mouth.

Learn Lao Civil War history at the COPE Visitor Centre

Museum
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T87E3G Laos, Vientiane, COPE Visitor Centre, organization providing artificial limbs to war wounded, display of artificial limbs
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
The COPE Visitor Centre is a necessary stop in order to understand the country’s hardships and recovery efforts following the Lao Civil War. Two million tons of explosives were dropped onto Laos by the United States between 1964 and 1973 – and unexploded devices continue to kill and maim people in rural areas to this day. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) provides artificial limbs and rehabilitation services – this is the place to learn all about its vital work.

Eat dinner on the Mekong Riverfront 'beach'

Restaurant, Asian
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EX1003 Open-air eateries by the Mekong River, Quai Fa Ngum, Vientiane, Laos P.D.R.
© Matthew Wakem / Alamy Stock Photo

Vientiane, like the Lao cities of Thakhek, Savannakhet and Pakse, lies on the banks of the Mekong River. From November to March, the dry season reveals a sand bank at the river’s edge – perhaps the closest this landlocked country ever gets to a ‘beach’. Bars and restaurants make the most of this: swing by the Beach Garden, which lays out seating on the sand and puts on live music most nights. The Laos menu includes delicious sun-dried beef, fish soup and dumplings.

Take a tour of Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre

Building
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Around 10% of people in Laos have a disability, and disabled women are among the most marginalised group of society. This non-profit organisation empowers them through practical training and life skills. Book a tour to meet trainers and trainees, take part in a Lao blessing ceremony and eat lunch in the garden. You can also book an hour-long handicrafts workshop, where you’ll learn how to turn newspaper into accessories, picture frames, coasters and placemats.

Step inside Ho Phra Keo Museum

Museum
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PT1BNN Wat Haw Phra Kaew (Haw Pha Kaew, Hor Pha Keo, Ho Prakeo) is a former temple in Vientiane, Laos, first built in 1565.
© Tuomas Lehtinen / Alamy Stock Photo

Also known as Haw Phra Kaew, this temple-turned-museum is full of Buddhist relics. The ornate gold-and-white shrine was built in the 1560s to house the Emerald Buddha, which has since been sent to Bangkok – having been moved to Vientiane from Chafing Mai by King Setthathirath. However, there’s still plenty to see, with carved Buddhas and Khmer deities, along with the temple’s original 16th-century lacquered doors, adorned with Hindu carvings.

Pay a visit to That Dam (Black Stupa)

Memorial
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MDG2X7 That Dam, or black stupa, in downtown Vientiane, Laos. 2015.
© Sarah Clune / Alamy Stock Photo

That Dam, which translates as black stupa, is an incongruous black spike protruding from a quiet roundabout on Chantha Khoumane road. However, people know this monument for miles around, thanks to the legend of the seven-headed Naga serpent – the spirit who protects the citizens of Vientiane and is said to reside here. The brick stupa was once covered in gold, but this was pillaged by the Siamese when they invaded in the late 1820s.

Grab dinner on Walking Street

Market, Street Food
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EDC24Y Street food in Vientiane Laos
© Alexander Scheible / Alamy Stock Photo

This lively outdoor market is lit up by festoon lights, marking the way through a maze of streets around Vientiane New World shopping centre. You’ll find clothes and accessories for sale, but the main draw is the range of Asian food, from Japanese sushi to Vietnamese noodles and good old barbecue meat-on-a-stick. Join the young locals by hiring a pair of rollerblades and scooting around the rink, while speakers pump out American and Thai pop music.

See inside Wat Si Muang

Building
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E77EDK Wat Si Muang, Vientiane, Laos
© Oscar Espinosa / Alamy Stock Photo

The colourful temple of Wat Si Muang is the site of the Khmer-era lák méuang (city pillar), believed to be the home of another guardian spirit of Vientiane. As the legend goes, a woman sacrificed herself to calm angry spirits by jumping into the hole where the pillar was to be placed. Shrouded in cloth and behind a seated Buddha, the ancient artefact contrasts to the century-old temple, which was rebuilt by the French – the original was destroyed by Thai invaders in 1828.

Paddle or kayak at Tad Moun Waterfall

Natural Feature
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BG2W0P Kayaking in Laos
© Yan Liao / Alamy Stock Photo

Tad Moun Waterfall, 25 miles from Vientiane city, is accessible by bike ride or tuk tuk. The falls themselves are more akin to mild rapids – and they only exist in the rainy season – but the whole area is geared up for enjoyment, with thatched huts to hire and vendors selling ice cream and Beerlao beer. As well as a swimming area, you can use inflatables to ride the rapids, or kayak down the river and back again.

Take a tour of Nam Ngum Reservoir

Natural Feature
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2AJT895 Photograph of floating restaurants on the shore Nam Ngum reservoir, in central Laos.
© Timothy Mulholland / Alamy Stock Photo

Nam Ngum translates as beautiful water, and with its 300 lush mini islands, this reservoir matches its namesake. Hydropower is one of the top exports of Laos, and the country’s largest lake has the bonus of providing an ideal setting for boat rides, swimming and fishing. It’s 80km to the north of Vientiane, but package tours will take you there – many of which include a cruise to nearby fishing villages and lunch aboard a floating restaurant.

See the Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Museum

Museum
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DCDTCF Communist memorial, laotians fighting for freedom in front of a red flag, Kaysone Phomvihane Memorial Museum, Vientiane, Laos
© Olga Kolos / Alamy Stock Photo
Kaysone Phomvihane, the first leader of an independent Laos, lived in this building until his death in 1992. It’s inside the former USAID/CIA compound – a place that was a luxurious bubble of restaurants, swimming pools and tennis courts, before the Americans were ejected in 1975. Two floors contain information and artefacts about Lao revolutionary history and Kaysone’s life. Outside the museum are two statues, one of the president and the other of socialist workers surrounding the Lao flag.

Explore Wat Si Saket

Buddhist Temple
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2B4ECG0 Laos, Vientiane, Wat Si Saket, Vientiane's oldest temple, exterior Buddha statues
© mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Wat Si Saket, built in 1818, is the only temple in Laos to have completely survived the Siamese occupation, which came a decade later. More than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha sculptures are displayed in the temple’s cloisters – and inside is an opulent scene of pillars and gold plating. It is still an active monastery, where you can see monks roaming among the garden’s fruit trees and pavilion.

These recommendations were updated on July 26, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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