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Vientiane

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Asia : Southeast Asia : Laos : Vientiane
Pha That Luang, the national symbol of LaosPha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos
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Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos

Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ Wieng Chan) is the capital of Laos.

vientiane Travel Guide :

Vientiane

Understand

Compared to the other bustling capitals in Southeast Asia, Vientiane feels like the small town it is. After you're done the round of temples, the best thing to do here is wander down to one of the riverside beer gardens, kick back with a cold Beerlao and watch the sun set over the Mekong.

Incidentally, the name is a very French spelling and should be pronounced the way the Lao say it, ie. "Wieng Chan", not "Ween-tee-an" or some such.

Vientiane

History

Settled since at least 1000 AD, Vientiane became the capital of Lan Xang in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane sprung back in time to be again named the capital of the protectorate of Laos by the French, a position it kept under communist rule. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 200,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.

Vientiane

Orientation

Vientiane is stretched out on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. From shore inland, the main roads are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthatilat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chantabuli, contains most of Vientiane's government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lan Xang, leads from here to the northeast through Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the most important temple in Laos.

Vientiane

Get in

Vientiane

By plane

Vientiane's Wattay Airport is just to the west of the city. Most hotels offer a pickup service, or you can take a jumbo or taxi for US$6. (Rides to the airport should be cheaper.)

Easiest way to get to Lao from other continent via Bangkok (Thailand) or Hanoi (Vientnam) Lao Airlines (http://www.laoairlines.com/) and Thai Airways (http://www.thaiair.com/) operating on these routes.

Visas on arrival are available at the airport (US$30 for 14days). There is also a US$10 departure tax for international flights.

Many visitors choose to fly into Thailand's Udon Thani instead and cross the border by bus, which is considerably cheaper than direct flights. There is a direct shuttle from the airport to the Thai border at Nong Khai.

Vientiane

By train

Plans to connect Vientiane to the Thai railway network remain just plans, so the railhead remains on the Thai side at Nong Khai, just across the Friendship Bridge.

Vientiane

By road

Vientiane

From Thailand

The Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. You cannot cross the bridge on foot, but there are frequent 20B shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.

Visas on arrival are available, just bring US$30 (plus $1 outside working hours and on weekends) and a passport photo. An additional 10B "Entry Fee" is charged once through, though walking straight past this desk seems not to be difficult.

Once through immigration, you can take a jumbo (posted price 150B) or taxi (200B) to any destination in the city. Shared jumbos are cheaper and local buses to Talat Sao cheapest of all, but signage is nonexistent and you may be in for a wait. Going the opposite way, asking around the bus station for Friendship Bridge is effective.

Direct buses to/from Nong Khai (30B) and Udon Thani (80B) arrive and depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal four times a day each. These are cheap, comfortable, hassle-free and popular, so book ahead or arrive early. Exiting Laos via the Bridge is free, except on weekends when a token 2500K "Overtime Charge" applies.

Vientiane

From elsewhere in Laos

Buses to all provinces in Laos depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal, just east of the Morning Market. There is an informative schedule and schematic diagram of the bus piers painted on the central building, which is where you can also buy in tickets.

Vientiane

Get around

Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Saigon. Street signage is, however, rather lacking so a good map comes in handy. Many storefronts feature full mailing addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking.

Vientiane

By taxi

Vientiane has a small fleet of genuine taxis retired from Bangkok, usually found lurking at the Friendship Bridge, the airport or in front of large hotels. Fares are set by bargaining, so figure on around US$0.50 per km or US$20-40 to hire one for the day, depending on car type and distance.

Vientiane

By tuk-tuk or jumbo

Tuk-tuks and their bigger cousins jumbos are ubiquitous in Vientiane. To charter a tuk-tuk/jumbo, agree on the fare in advance; short hops within the city shouldn't cost more than 5000K, although as a tourist you may have difficulty bargaining to less than US$1 (10000K). Share jumbos running on set routes, eg. Th Lan Xang to Pha That Luang, charge a fixed 1000K.

Vientiane

By bus

Minibuses connect the center to the suburban districts, but are not particularly useful for tourists, with the possible exception of the bus to the Friendship Bridge. The main terminal is on the east side of Talat Sao.

Vientiane

By bike

Bicycles are perhaps the best way to get around the city. Most guesthouses and hotels can arrange bike rental for around US$2 per day. Although the city's flat terrain makes for good biking, one-way streets can be difficult to identify.

Vientiane

On foot

The city center can be quite comfortably covered on foot, at least in the cool season. Pha That Luang, however, is 4 km away from the center and thus a bit of a hike.

Vientiane

See

Vientiane

Temples

Unless otherwise noted, all temples below charge 2000/5000K for Lao/foreigners and are open from 8 AM to 4 PM, with a one-hour lunch break between 12 and 1 PM.

Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in VientianeWat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane
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Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane
  • Wat Si Saket. Corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Setthatilat. Probably the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style and hence left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid. Within the cloister walls are thousands of niches (6840, according to one count) housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the center of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha's past lives.
  • Haw Pha Kaew. Th Setthatilat (opp Wat Si Saket). King Setthatilat's former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 — the image is now housed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew — and came back in 1828 to raze the temple for good measure. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. Today, the temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, lithe, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down "calling for rain" pose.
  • Black Stupa (That Dam). Th Barthonomie (off Th Samsenthai). The mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. Renovated in 1995 but still has an attractive patina of age.
  • Pha That Luang. Th That Luang (2 km east from Patuxai). The national symbol and most important religious monument, That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa that bears more than little resemblance to a missile silo. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then. Closed Mondays.
    • Vientiane's most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.
    • There are two temples beside That Luang: Wat That Luang Neua to the north and Wat That Luang Tai to the south, both presently being renovated.
Vientiane

Other

Patuxai, the Victory GatePatuxai, the Victory Gate
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Patuxai, the Victory Gate
  • Patuxai (Victory Gate). A local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to spite the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a "monster of concrete" when seen up close — and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead. The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant, and you can climb up to the 7th story (stairs only) for a view of downtown Vientiane.
  • Lao National Museum. Th Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are fairly pathetic. The second floor, however, builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese, French and American imperialists, including exhibits such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane's chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People's Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits patchily labeled in English and/or French. Entry 5000K, open daily from 8 AM to 4 PM. Bags must be checked at the front desk.
Vientiane

Buy

Banks and exchange offices are located through the city center. You can find Vientiane's first ATMs opposite the Lao Plaza Hotel (Th Samsenthai) and just west of the Lane Xang Hotel (Th Pangkham).

  • Morning Market (Talat Sao). Corner of Th Lan Xang and Th Khu Vieng. A large collection of indoor stalls selling, well, pretty much anything. There are two floors: the first floor sells mostly textiles, electronics, watches, while the second floor has clothing, gold, and jewelry. Despite the name it's actually open until 4 PM or so.
  • Vientiane Department Store. Located on the center of the Lan Xang side of the Morning Market, this grandly named store resembles the rest of the market so much that you'll be hard put to spot it. It sells mostly imported goods from elsewhere in Asia.
Vientiane

Eat

Vientiane

Budget

  • PVO. 344 Th Samsenthai (opp Asian Pavilion Hotel). Advertises Vietnamese food and the pho isn't bad, but the best eats here are the stuffed baguettes (7000/14000K for half/full). English menu, open 8 AM to 8 PM.
  • Samsenthai Fried Noodle. Th Samsenthai (west end). Serves all sorts of noodles (fried or otherwise) and some basic rice dishes too. English menu, most dishes around US$1.
Vientiane

Mid-range

  • John Restaurant, Fa Ngum Road. Inexpensive Lao and Western food. Be sure to have your bill signed by the mysterious (and imaginary?) "John".
  • "Lotus Restaurant (http://www.somsavath.com/lotus/)" Located next to Cultural Hall. Open from 8:30 - 11:30. Serving traditional Lao and Western food. Price range: 20 - 40.000KIP = ~ 2 - 4 USD. Accept VISA and Master Card as well.
Vientiane

Drink

Sunset and Beerlao by the MekongSunset and Beerlao by the Mekong
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Sunset and Beerlao by the Mekong

Vientiane doesn't have much in the way of nightlife, but there's no shortage of places for a quiet Beerlao. In particular, the Mekong shoreline is packed with near-identical but pleasant bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens offering cold beer and spicy snacks.

Note that everything closes down before midnight before the start of the unofficial curfew. You are likely to be escorted back to your lodgings by police or military if spotted out after this.

Vientiane

Sleep

Accommodation options in the Lao capital are plentiful. At the very top end international operators have been slow to arrive though, the only branded name around being the Novotel by the airport.

Vientiane

Budget

  • Auberge du Temple, Luang Prabang Road (next to Wat Khunta). A bit far from the city center, but a very pleasant guest house owned by a French-Swiss gentleman.
  • Vayakorn Guesthouse, Nokeo Koummane Road, Tel (856-21) 241911-2, 1 (http://www.laohotelgroup.org/Vientiane/Vayakorn_Guesthouse/hotel_location.php). Centrally located, very clean, well-appointed rooms with wood floors, A/C and very helpful and friendly staff. $15 for double room.
Vientiane

Mid-range

  • Asian Pavilion Hotel, 379 Th Samsenthai, tel. 021-213430, 2 (http://www.asianpavilionhotel.com). A good if not quite their self-proclaimed "fascinating" mid-range choice formerly known as Hotel Constellation — as recorded in John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy — and Hotel Vieng Vilay. Rooms from US$26 with air-con, hot water, cable TV, breakfast and airport transfer.
Vientiane

Splurge

  • Lane Xang Hotel, Fa Ngum Road. A majestic old hotel from decades ago that remains the elegant place to stay. Hunter S. Thompson wrote dispatches from here after scrambling out of Saigon as it fell.
Vientiane

Contact

Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Vientiane, particularly along Th Samsenthai. The going rate as of January 2005 is 100K/min, usually charged in 10-min increments.

  • FastestNet. Th Samsenthai (between Lao Plaza and Asian Pavilion). Lives up to its name fairly well and charges the standard 100K/min. No firewalls or program install restrictions.
Vientiane

Stay healthy

Vientiane's hospitals are a far cry from those in Thailand. Mahasot and Setthithalat Hospitals can treat common conditions but for anything more serious you're better off heading to Udon Thani or Bangkok.

Vientiane

Stay safe

Vientiane is a fairly safe city in terms of crime, although there are occasional cases of snatch theft by men on bikes. But unlike Saigon's motorized muggings, there usually involve just grabbing stuff from a bike's front basket. Probably a bigger hazard is the missing sewer covers on sidewalks, so watch your step carefully, especially at night.

Vientiane

Get out

  • Buddha Park (Wat Xieng Khuan), 24km from the city, is a collection of huge outdoor sculptures of Buddhist deities and beasts real and imaginary. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Originally built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pa Bunleua Sulilat, he was more or less kicked out the country in 1978 and went on to establish a nearly identical park (Sala Kaew Ku) across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand.



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