Things to Do in Vientiane
With a history that likely dates back to the third century AD, the 148-foot-high (45-meter-high) golden stupa of Pha That Luang is Laos’ most important religious monument. Locals believe it contains a hair and bone from Buddha, and it’s the site of the country’s most important festival, Boun That Luang.
Set about 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of Vientiane, Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a quirky giant sculpture garden devoted to Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Enormous cement statues, from reclining Buddhas to a giant pumpkin with a demon’s-head entrance, pay tribute to the outsider aesthetic of its creator, a Thai mystic.
Vientiane’s answer to Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, Patuxai (Victory Gate) towers above this low-rise city in a spectacular mixture of architectural styles: part brutalist, part Napoleonic, part Lao. Besides the elaborate artworks in the monument itself and the views from the top of the structure, it’s home to a wealth of souvenir stalls.
Built in 1818, Wat Sisaket (Wat Si Saket), a Buddhist temple in Vientiane, is a surprising nod to Siamese-style architecture in a city where traditional Laotian design reigns supreme. The ancient wat’s cloister walls, which hold thousands of tiny wood, stone and bronze Buddahs from the 16th and 19th centuries, is one of the most unique spots on the temple grounds.
Early morning visitors will find locals gathering to pray and offer alms at the feet of a hand-carved wooden naga—the serpent deity—as well as amid the more than 6,000 statues of Buddha.
Vientiane’s Presidential Palace would do the president of any country proud: a grand building with a colonial-era Beaux-Arts feel that belies its relatively recent 1986 construction. While the president’s official working residence is elsewhere, the palace still remains closed to the public.
COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) works with victims of unexploded ordnance (UXO) from American bombing during the Vietnam War, as well as other disabled people. The COPE Visitor Centre introduces the charity’s work and educates visitors about the war. Besides documentaries and an exhibition, there’s a gift shop and café.
The spiritual center of Vientiane, thanks to its sacred pillar, Wat Si Muang is the city’s busiest temple. Laos come from far and wide to pray for good luck and eliminate bad luck. Around November Wat Si Muang is also the starting point for the candle-lit procession that begins the nation’s biggest religious event, the That Luang Festival.
At Lao Textiles, American designer Carol Cassidy oversees 40 Lao artisans working to translate the nation’s rich weaving heritage into contemporary designs. Handcrafted using brocade, ikat, and tapestry techniques, products include wall hangings, scarves, shawls, pouches, and cushion covers. It’s also possible to tour the studio.
Once a traditional market, Vientiane Morning Market (Talat Sao) now comprises two malls and a market. It remains a good place to shop for fabrics and traditional Lao skirts, as well as souvenirs such as snake whiskey and wooden boxes. Imported goods here are expensive due to Laos’ high duty charges, while fakes are common.
A former temple, Haw Phra Kaew (Ho Phra Keo) is Laos’ leading museum of religious art. It takes its name from the Phra Keo (Emerald Buddha), a statue carved from a single piece of jade that is now preserved in Bangkok. The grounds of the former temple, originally built in 1565, are also beautiful.
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