Vientiane was the final stop on our trip through Loas and from my research I wasn’t really expecting much. As many bloggers/backpackers/travellers have noted before, Vientiane is not a very interesting city and there isn’t really a lot going on there. On the whole I do agree with this sentiment, but was both surprised and pleasantly surprised by what we found there.
Where we STAYED
Mixok Guesthouse – slightly above average but not by much
This was unfortunately one of the worst guesthouses/B&Bs that I have come across on our travels. I know that booking within the 2/3 star range that I shouldn’t be expecting much, and for the most part, the places we have stayed in surpass our needs and have been clean, convenient and friendly. This place was none of these things.
Not to waste space on this page, I won’t go into any further details, but I will point out that they have a sister guesthouse – Mixok Inn, 4 doors down on the other corner of the block (which is where breakfast is served) which at the time of our visit charged the same rack rate per night but was newer, cleaner, nicer, friendly – a significant step up than the guesthouse.
WHERE WE ATE
We ate at various cafes and small restaurants around the area of the guesthouse, all of which were pleasant, but nothing to rave about. Prices are fairly consistent – getting dearer the closer you get to the water you get and cheaper inland.
WHAT WE DID
Buddha Park – There and Back inc entry for less than 20,000 kip per person
After reading about unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers wanting to charge 200,000 kip for the round trip, and being quoted the same on arrival in Vientaine, we thought it was more than a little bit steep (our bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng did not cost that for two of us and that was a 7 hour+ trip on mountainous roads!) so we set about looking online for alternatives.
Unlike other places we have visited there are no agencies offering ‘join in’ tours, but as there isn’t really much to do in and around Vientiane I suppose there isn’t really a market for it. That just left us with the bus.
It was surprisingly easy and straight forwards. We walked to the bus station behind Talat Sao Market armed with the knowledge we were looking for the number 14 bus. As we approached the bus station there were several people asking us where we were going and knowing they were tuk tuk/mini van drivers we just said no thanks and carried on. One gent asked if we were going to Buddha Park and gestured across the yard to the bus, he walked with us and said the bus didn’t leave for another 45 mins and it would take an hour and a half to get there because of the many people and multiple stops and offered to take us in his mini-van. As we had decided we were going to do it the local way we declined, and he accepted that gracefully and pointed us to the number 14 bus. As we checked the number on the front – which was in English – the driver encouraged us to get on. So we did. It was in fact a very nice bus, with air con and leather seats and although it was quite busy we were still able to find seats together.
Sitting down we thought we had a long wait before we set off, but we left less than five minutes later. (the first lie from the mini-van guy). Setting off we wondered how we paid and how we would know how much or where to get off. There was absolutely nothing to worry about. The bus made a couple of stops on the way out of town (not many as the mini can driver promised), where we noticed people paid as they got off and within half an hour we were at the friendship bridge. As the bus started to empty the driver beckoned us forward and pointed to a rather rickety looking minibus saying to us ‘Buddha Park’ which we presumed we had to transfer to. When we asked how much for the journey to there he said in English, 5,000 kip (per person). A bargain.
As we got off the main bus, the driver from the smaller bus kept saying Buddha Park this way and guided us onto the bus. To be honest, the small bus was much more like what I was expecting for Lao public transport: a very old bus, covered outside with dust and inside, seats that had had a good life, large sliding windows with curtains tied to strings above that looked like they had seen better days. Setting off again we quickly realised that the big bus would never had made it down the dirt track which the little bus took us down and a bumpy, rickety 7 mins later the driver stopped outside the entrance to Buddha Park and told it was 2,000 kip per person.
All in all it had taken us 45 mins to get from the bus station to the park and it had been easy with very helpful bus drivers. They may not have had much English but they had the essential words and could not only tell where we wanted to go (there aren’t many day trip places that leave from Talat Sao bus station) but they also wanted to make sure we got there.
The park itself: 5,000 entry per person with an additional fee of 3,000 per camera. There was no one checking if you had the ticket for the camera once inside so it’s up to you if you tell the person at the front desk.
You will need a camera though. Once inside it is more than a little surreal. Multiple headed statues of various Buddhist and Hindu deities. A huge reclining Buddha who’s feet alone were over 6 feet tall. A large circular structure which you can climb into the mouth of and up to the top to view the whole park and multiple traditional statues with a twist.
I can see how you may not be as impressed if you had paid 200,000 kip to get there, but for 20,000 it was well worth the trip and we were suitably impressed.
We spent about an hour or so there and took lots of pictures. It was also strange to watch monks taking pictures of each other in front of statues, forgetting that it’s a place that locals and monks visit also.
Deciding to head back to the city we were concerned about how we were going to flag down the bus but we had nothing to worry about. As we stepped out of the gates there was another of the small buses waiting (different driver & bus to who had dropped us off) with the driver gesturing us to get on and shouting ‘Vientiane’. Walking round the front of the bus we checked it said 14 on the front and got in. We were driven back to the friendship bridge where we swapped back to the normal bus and headed back to Vientaine. Both journeys cost the same in reverse, 2,000 for the small bus, 5,000 for the normal bus and we were back in less time than it took to get there.
If you’re going to go to Buddha Park, take the bus. It quick, straightforward and you’ll feel like you accomplished something, saved money and visited a pretty weird and wacky park in the process. A good way to spend a few hours in Vientaine.
COPE visitor centre – Interesting & Worthwile
We walked from the city centre and found it to be easily accessible. We found on some maps it is also referred to as the cripple centre (as the COPE centre is located in a bigger prosthetics and rehabilitation centre) which we had not realised until we arrived.
It’s free to enter and houses a permanent exhibit about the continuing problem of unexploded ordinance (cluster bombs), the secret war the befell Lao PDR and the steps the centre have taken and continue to take to help those who have been affected.
There are pictures, texts, films and first hand accounts which provide for an interesting and educational visit, cementing their organisation as one of the few providing full care at no cost to the patient (if they cannot afford it) who require prosthetics and rehabilitation therapy.
The exhibition is very hands on and you are encouraged to try wheelchairs and limbs built and developed by the COPE team to try and put yourselves in the patients/victims position.
The centre is free and open from 9am-6pm; donations are appreciated and all monies go to the continued work being done by the centre, as do monies generated in their souvenir shop and coffee/ice cream shop. They even offer the free use of push bikes should you want to take a quick spin round the city.
Great Sacred Stupa/Pha That Luang – worth the walk for the temples around
We walked to the great Golden Stupa from the victory monument and it took us about 25 mins, it’s really easy, just one straight road going diagonally right from the monument to the stupa, which you can see in the distance.
We didn’t pay to go inside, but at 5,000 kip it’s not the end of the world.
We took some great shots with a clear blue sky in the background and sat in the shade of a tree to soak it up.
The best bit about the walk for me were the surrounding buildings and temples that were very pretty. The temple on the right is free to enter and houses some great murals and statues as well as a huge golden reclining buddha statue behind the temple itself. That in itself made the walk out of town and back worth it.
We walked to the Asian Arc De Triomphe from the fountain on our way to That Luang/Golden Stupa.
The victory gate looked impressive from afar, and albeit a ‘monster of concrete’ was interesting and picturesque to see close up.
I’m glad the Lao people used the concrete the US donated to build an airport, to build a monument – even if the locals refer to it as the vertical runway, it is both unique and quite impressive in its own way.
Would recommend arriving before midday when it is quieter and before the coach loads of Asian tourists arrive, there are plenty of people selling their photography skills for that perfect photo and printing it using the equipment in the back of their van, but they left us alone the entire time, and seemed to focus on the coach loads as we were walking back to the city centre.
The 5,000 kip entrance to walk to the top (it is free to walk through and around the monument) is more than reasonable and worth the climb on a clear day for 360o views.
Besides, as others have already said, there isn’t much to do in Vientaine so it really is worth a look.
Wat Si Saket – worth the time
At only 5000 kip to enter this is one of the cheapest pay-to-enter temples in Laos and worth it for the two hundred years of history housed there.
The gardens are peaceful and quiet with plenty of statues, the inner temple wears its history with pride and surrounded by buddha statues in various poses.
A nice temple and not to be rushed.
Black Stupa (That Dam) – Quick Pic and move on
Situated on a roundabout surrounded by shops, its nothing special. But worth a quick pic as its one of the things on the visitors map.
Include as part of a walking/cycling tour around the city.
Wat Si Muang
An unremarkable temple for the most part, relatively plain building in comparison to other temples and the usual lavish adornments inside. This Wat is popular with locals and Buddhist tourists alike, as they believe it is a place that has ‘good luck’ powers – as a result of which, a bus of tourists are never far away. (There were so many people there when we went it wasn’t worth attempting to take a picture!)
Originally built in 1563 and named after a young pregnant lady who sacrificed herself to appease the angry spirts. (She threw herself into the pit where the centre post was to go and was squashed when the post was placed in the ground). There is a statue of her with some bricks from that period at the back of the temple. The original was destroyed in 1828 and the current structure has stood since 1915.
King Sisavang Vong’s MOnument
Statute of King Anouvong
This is a large statue of the last King of Vientaine on the banks of the Mekong. The river front dominated by a concrete walkway and so it is both easy to see and get to the statue via this route. There is a park type area behind the statue leading back to the road, but is quite isolated with regards to other ‘attractions’.
Worth a wander around although stalls limited and lacking the atmosphere you normally find at SE Asian night markets.
WHAT TO AVOID
Morning Market – One of the worst in Asia
The traders in the old part are uninterested and quote extortionate prices – when they start so high I don’t think they’re looking for friendly negotiation or are even interested in selling.
There were a couple of souvenir/handicraft stalls but the product range was limited and nothing special.