Vientiane is the capital of Laos. Located across the border from Thailand, the only thing separating the two is the meandering Mekong River, although culturally they are quite different. A laid back city full of life and devoid of skyscrapers, we absolutely loved Vientiane. It is a perfect combination of exciting and relaxing, with a vibe that manages to be both authentic and welcoming to outsiders at once.
Getting There: Sleeping Bus #2
Another city means another bus adventure, and our second sleeping bus experience. This time two people to a bunk, offering those unlucky enough to be traveling alone an opportunity to mingle with a stranger in a tiny bunk (spoiler alert: this would be me a week later). My sister and I shared a top bed, stashed our shoes in the metal shelving and determined to avoid the disease-ridden blankets. We shivered through the first several hours, until I succumbed to the blanket. At 1am we stopped for food and toilet, and our bus transformed into a disco party bus.
Wandering to Wats, Seeing the Sights
We spent time wandering and seeing wats. I mean, what (wat) else would we do? At this point in our journey payment to enter is reserved for very special occasions. In most cases you can see as much peering in the entryway, from a hill from afar, or by quickly running into the gate behind a tour group. Vientiane’s standout building is it’s National Palace. Gated off, we peered through the gates at the massive white-grey structure and fountain. We walked under Patuxi, the famous unfinished archway modeled off Paris’ Arc de Triomphe built in a strange nod to Laos’ independence. We walked to the Great Stupa, also called Pha That Luang, very early morning and paid to enter as it’s the iconic temple of Laos. Our walk back was unpleasent, as we were starving and feverish but the tuk tuk was not in budget.
Meandering Along the Mekong
By far our best times in Vientiane were spent along the Mekong River. I went for morning runs on the riverfront walkway and joined in group aerobic classes in the riverside park at 6am. At night, it’s full of life. We glimpsed a small market set up on the cracked muddy banks below the walkway; a more formal clothing market in small stalls; and a very cool Night Street full of bars, string lights and millennials. Also along the Mekong a weird carnival with large, noisy dinosaur replicas and seizure-inducing strobe lights. There are tons of cute bars and restaurants by the water, too, serving up Beer Lao and food cooked right there on giant stoves on the deck.
There is a large night market that stretches on for miles (literally) and feels even longer. Every tenant’s red tent is lit with a harsh fluorescent light, advertising clothing for $10,000! ($1.17) or maybe $35,000 if the goods are slightly less shoddy or counterfeit. We had quite a good time browsing for weird translated shirts, our favorite [free] pastime.
Xieng Khuan aka Buddha Park
We took a “day trip” to the Buddha Park, officially named Xieng Khuan, located about 20 km outside the city. We got cheap bread to snack on and boarded the bus. It was a cool ride past the massive Beer Lao brewery (which we were quite disappointed was closed) a stop at the Thailand/Laos friendship bridge. The Buddha statues were quite massive and imposing, although the park was smaller than expected.
After this, we decided it was a good idea to trek on the side of the highway to some local villages we saw out the bus window en route. It was 95+ degrees, cars whizzing by, people yelling, our faces shining in the sun. At one point some people said hello to us. At this same moment I happened to lose my footing and trip into the gravel ditch off the side of the road next to them. They looked highly alarmed. I looked like an idiot. Eventually we arrived at the small village, covered in sweat, and found a crowded local spot where we ordered a beer to cool down. It was atmospheric and mostly worth the walk. To return, we stood in the road and flagged the bus when it whizzed by.
💲Budget Tip | Take the bus #14 from the Talat Sao station. It’s 8,000kip each way. A tuk tuk is at least $200,000kip.
Eating & Drinking [Coffee]
Vientiane has quite a coffee culture, with shops on every – and I mean every – corner. From Parisian-esque spots with umbrellas to hipster joints to traditional places serving Lao coffee (black coffee with thick condensed milk at bottom), the options are extensive. I especially liked Comma Coffee.
A city also means lots of food options, some better than others. We had a good meal (or 2) at Thong Lor by the night market entrance. By far our best meal was at Kung’s Cage, nestled down an alley off the main drag and away from the tourists, where we enjoyed mango coconut sticky rice pancakes and coconut coffee. In reality, anything was better than the sick cold, congealed eggs served by our hostel. Well, anything but the gross meal we had at Smile Dee on the waterfront. “Chicken or pork,” our waitress asked regarding the meat in our pineapple rice. When it arrived, it included shrimp and octopus.