I’d heard it from so many, but didn’t want to believe it. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has the reputation of being “missable”. Having seen some stunning photos and reading about the delectable French bakeries, I didn’t want to believe it.
In the end, I had to agree with the masses. Vientiane is not a city I’d want to spend much time in.
However, due to certain circumstances, we ended up with four nights in Vientiane, two nights each side of our excursion north. The city is tiny and you can see most of it in a day, but here is how we made the most of it.
The Bizarre Buddha Park
The Buddha Park, or Wat Xieng Khuan as it’s known locally, was an oddity that I had to see in person. This collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues, all curated and built by one man with a passion, is at once breathtaking and bizarre. The giant pumpkin at the entrance is meant to represent hell (as you step into the mouth of a monster), earth and heaven. If you brave the steep staircases, you end up on top of the pumpkin, three stories high with not much of a railing for a safety net. The shaky legs were worth it for the view.
To get to the park you can take the local bus from the station next to the morning market. It’s bus #14 and you take it right to the end of the line. It should cost you 6,000 Kip ($1) per person each way. You’ll have some local guy tell you that the bus doesn’t go there, it no longer works or it’s out of service. Don’t believe them, they just want to charge you 250,000 kip for the pleasure of a mini-van ride instead. We were taught to use the Lao word pronounced key-too-ah, which apparently means “liar”. I was never brave enough to try it out. From the end of the bus line you then grab a tuk tuk to and from the park. We paid 100,000 kip which is a TOTAL rip off in retrospect, so bargain hard. Knowing the numbers in Lao is probably worthwhile if you’re visiting.
Laos has a ton of French influence as a result of the French occupation from 1893 to 1946. Baguettes aside, the capital city tried to emulate the Champs Elysees and the Arc to Triomphe. They didn’t quite hit the mark with the Avenue Lane Xang, as it lacks the cute boutiques and yummy restaurants of the Champs Elysees, but Patuxai (the arch) does carry a lot of charm. For 6,000 kip you can climb the stairs, stopping periodically to shop (seriously… there are stalls of souvenirs inside the arch…) or take pictures, so you can avoid getting winded. The view is great and the detailing is exquisite.
COPE – Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise
COPE was a truly moving experience. It is a small, free exhibition that tells the story of UXO (unexploded bombs) left in Laos since the American bombings during the Vietnam War. It’s a heartbreaking story as Laos stated itself as neutral in the war, not wanting to be involved, but regardless they received more bombs per capita than any other country in the world has ever experienced. Since the 1970s, over 20,000 people have been injured or died from UXO and over 100 people annually are injured or die.
The centre works tirelessly to provide those who have been injured by UXO with care, prosthesis and rehabilitation. There are five centres throughout Laos and families travel for hours to reach a centre, because for them a COPE site means hope. My favourite interview was with a man in his early twenties. He explained that before he found COPE, he was the only person in his village with an injury like his. It made him feel like an outcast and was obviously painful. The best thing about the prosthesis for him? He was now confident enough to flirt with girls because he was whole.
While the exhibit is free, they gladly accept donations to help continue the great work that they do.
What Would I or Did I Miss?
From my research it sounds like the National Museum lacks English translations for the exhibits, making it difficult to understand for Western tourists. You also have to check your bag and your camera, so we decided to skip the pleasure.
We walked past Wat That Dam, and said “That Dam” like “Hot Damn” a number of times, but it wasn’t super exciting. Take a quick gander past.
The morning market was not my thing. There’s an outdoor section next to the bus station which slightly horrified me when I saw the insane swarms of flies on the food. The indoor, covered section that is next to a shopping mall (wait, what?) was also off putting, being dark and covered. I get claustrophobic in big crowds and the dark.
The park on the riverfront is a bit of a non event.
In short, you can hit the high points of Vientiane itself in a day. Add another half day to do the Buddha Park.