14 awesome things to do in Vientiane, Laos' chilled capital
Looking for some awesome things to do in Vientiane, Laos' sleepy capital? Search no more! From wandering cultural museums to temple-hopping, munching on crisp local food and exploring the city's quirkier side, this guide has you well and truly sorted.
“Vientiane is one of the most beautiful cities in the world” - said pretty much no one ever.
Ok, maybe we’re being a little harsh here, but if you're headed to Vientiane - the pleasant, albeit slightly boring capital of Laos - expecting a bustling Southeast Asian city full of colour and chaos and 'vibe', prepare to be a little disappointed. It's got a reputation for being a bit of a 'meh' stop on the backpacker itinerary, and plenty of travellers simply use sleepy Vientiane as a brief transit point to their bigger and better adventures around the country.
If, on the other hand, you're keen to spend some time in a chilled out city nestled on a curve of the Mekong, where hassling tourists seems to basically be considered a hate crime (or so it appears!) - you've absolutely found your utopia. And here's the secret from two travellers who spent longer than the average here: there are actually plenty of awesome things to do in Vientiane too.
From beautiful French-inspired architecture, to the many beautiful Wats dotted through the central district, the delicious local (and cosmopolitan!) food and fascinating cultural stops; Vientiane actually has a lot going for it. The best part is, you'll have the majority of places all to yourself too, and without the stress of having to explore a city of millions of people.
So, if you're like us and you have a few days to spend in the city before you venture off again, use this guide to our favourite things to do in Vientiane, and enjoy Southeast Asia's most chilled out city.
the best things to do in Vientiane
discover lao culture at the MUSEUMS in vientiane
Most travellers are aware of the horrors of the Vietnam War - but very few know of the so-called ‘Secret War’ which took place right next door to it.
Though they denied it for many years, between 1964-1973 the United States of America dropped more than 2.5 million tonnes of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions. That’s a planeload of bombs - mostly cluster bombs that broke up mid-air and scattered thousands of ‘bombies’ across the countryside - every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years straight.
It’s more than all the bombs dropped on Europe during WWII, and makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Their target was the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a key supply route for communist forces in Vietnam.
Sadly, while the last bombs rained down 40 years ago, for many in Laos, the war still lingers. Around 30% (nearly 80 million) of the ordnances failed to detonate, and Laos is still littered with unexploded bombs that kill or maim locals to this day.
This secret war, and its ongoing impact on Laos today is exactly why any visit to Vientiane should also include a trip to COPE Vientiane. The centre is a rehab clinic, free museum, and NGO that focuses on supporting bomb victims, providing locals free access to prostheses, wheelchairs and physical therapy to improve the quality of life for bomb-affected citizens.
At COPE Vientiane, you can browse the centre’s exhibitions, participate in hands-on activities (like ‘land searches’ to find UXOs), watch documentaries about the war and efforts to clean up after it, and learn how you can help solve the issue of UXOs in Laos. The centre itself is free, although donations can be made to support COPE’s exceptional work.
Opening hours | 9:00am - 18:00 pm everyday
Location | Boulevard Khouvieng, Vientiane, Laos
COPE Vientiane entrance fee | Free, though donations are appreciated
LAO NATIONAL MUSEUM
It’s been described across many travel sites, and even Lonely Planet Laos, as being rundown and in need of ‘lowered expectations’ - but that’s being a little unfair to the Lao National Museum.
Set in a dilapidated but charming French colonial building, the museum might not have all the bells and whistles you’d expect to find in London or New York’s museums, but amongst the faded exhibits and slightly haphazard displays the story of Laos, it’s people and culture, struggles and triumphs can be found. In our view, it's one of the best places to visit in Vientiane to understand this little country better.
The museum is eye-opening and informative; the proud record-keeper of this small, landlocked nation’s long and complex history. There are dinosaur bones from prehistoric times, ancient pottery pieces and Khmer artefacts, Vietnam war-era weapons and drugs seized from raids (including a brick of uncut cocaine - where else in the world could you actually see that?!); traces of revolutionary zeal and communist belief, struggles for independence and immeasurable war-time suffering.
There’s a small entrance fee (around USD$1), and unfortunately you’ll have to lock up your bags and cameras once inside (hence our lack of photos!). Americans be aware, there is a strong anti-US sentiment in parts, though this is mostly related to propaganda during the Vietnam war era, and is nothing to get upset about.
**2018 UPDATE: The Lao National Museum has a new home! Building of a new museum was completed in late 2017, and the museum is currently in the process of moving into its new surroundings on Kaysone Phomvihane Road, in Saysettha District. We’re not sure if the museum has actually reopened yet, so if anyone reading this has an update be sure to let us know!
Opening hours | 8:00am - 12:00pm, 1:00pm - 16:00pm, every day
Location | New location - Kaysone Phomvihane Road (NOT Rue Samsenthai)
Lao National Museum entrance fee | Around 1,000kip
VISIT THE LAO TEXTILE MUSEUM
No matter where you wander in Laos, you’re sure to come across beautiful textiles just about everywhere. Bright silk scarves, elegant cushion covers, delicately embroidered pouches; these handwoven works of art are the result of centuries of renowned Lao weaving culture and expertise.
Since well before the Tang dynasty, the Lao people have woven the culture and history of their tribes into brightly coloured textiles, creating stunning visual records of their lands. The Lao Textile Museum celebrates this traditional craftsmanship, while working to preserve and protect the art from the issues of rapid development and mass tourism that threaten its very future.
Set in a beautiful traditional family property (with an absolutely lush garden!) just outside of Vientiane, the Lao Textile Museum contains a private collection of antique textiles, clackety old looms and spinners, and lots of displays about tribal variations, the meaning of designs, and the dyeing and weaving process. The textile museum also has a small studio where silk pieces are woven for purchase at the museum’s shop.
Generally your entry fee will get you a personal guided tour of the museum, along with some tea and refreshments. The museum is run, by a passionate textile-loving local family who enjoy sharing their love of the craft. It’s a must for those looking for an insight into authentic Laos!
Opening hours | 9:00am - 16:00pm every day
Lao textile museum entrance fee | 30,000 kip / USD $3.60
How to get to Lao Textile Museum | Cycle, ride, or tuk tuk
pay a visit to Vientiane's monuments
PATUXAI VICTORY MONUMENT
On any tuk tuk ride around town, you’ll no doubt pass the Patuxai Victory Monument.
If this impressive victory arch in the centre of town reminds you of another, eerily similar and equally impressive, Parisian landmark then you’d be right. The Patuxai Monument was built to commemorate the Lao people who fought and died in the battle for independence both against the French and in subsequent wars, and is modelled on France’s Arc de Triomphe with a Lao twist.
The story goes that the monument was actually built using concrete donated by the US government in the ‘60s; concrete that was designated for the building of a new airport. Whether it’s true or not, that same concrete obviously didn’t stretch the whole way as Patuxai actually stands incomplete today - though its ornate towers and grand presence are no less impressive for it.
Patuxai stands at the end of Thanon Lane Xang, which leads to the Presidential Palace, and along with a large fountain, is the centrepiece of a large ‘island’ in the traffic. Surprisingly, there are a number of offices and a gift shop located in the 4 arches of the monument, and you can climb to the top for great views over Vientiane from the viewing area.
Opening hours | 8:00am - 16:30pm Mon - Fri,
8:00am - 17:00 pm Sat - Sun
Location | Thanon Lane Xang
Patuxai entrance fee | 3,000kip / USD $.40
DESTINATION INSPIRATION: THE 10 THINGS YOU ABSOLUTELY CAN'T MISS IN LUANG PRABANG
If you're looking for something a little offbeat or quirky to do in Vientiane, a visit to Buddha Park (also called Xieng Khuan, or “Spirit City") will make your trip to the capital complete.
Despite looking like an ancient relic park, dotted with weathered - and slightly bizarre - concrete statues of humans, animals, and demons from Buddhist and Hindu mythology, Buddha Park was actually built in 1958 by the (obviously eccentric) shaman, artist, and mystic, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat.
Highlights of the park include a 120m long reclining buddha, some pretty weird and intricate carvings on over 200 Buddhas throughout the park, and a large bell-shaped sculpture with three stories you can walk up that cover earth, heaven, and hell. It's a slightly odd spot, but it definitely makes for an interesting day out! You can also book this full-day sightseeing tour of Buddha Park, key temples in Vientiane, and the Friendship Bridge with Thailand.
Opening hours | 8:00am - 17:00pm every day
Location | Thanon Tha Deua
Buddha Park entrance fee | 1500kip per person
Tripadvisor | See Tripadvisor reviews of Buddha Park here
visit the (many!) temples in Vientiane
PHA THAT LUANG
You’ll see Pha That Luang long before you actually visit Vientiane's mesmerising gold-covered Buddhist stupa. That Luang is Laos’ most important cultural monument, both for its Buddhist significance, and as a symbol of its powerful ancient royal kingdoms. It’s image can be found on government logos and all currency notes, and you’ll become very familiar with seeing its likeness on almost every poster and billboard in Laos.
While the current temple was built in the 1500s, a temple in some form has existed here since the 3rd century BC, when monks sent out by the Indian King Ashoka built a shrine in the Vientiane area to reportedly consecrate a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Remains of a 12th century Khmer temple have also been found at this spot, making it an important site in Laos’ cultural history.
Visitors can wander the grounds, check out the massive reclining golden Buddha, relax in the peaceful gardens, or chat with a monk about Buddhism and Buddhist life in Laos. In November, Laos’ most important Buddhist festival, Boun That Luang, is held here over three days, with thousands of devotees flocking to the stupa to celebrate and pay their respects. Be sure to check it out if you’re travelling over this time!
Opening hours |
Location | That Luang Stupa, Vientiane
How to get to Pha That Luang | The easiest way from central Vientiane is via tuk tuk
Phat That Luang entrance fee | 5,000kip for foreigners
Tips | This is a hugely sacred temple. Please dress modestly and be respectful.
Tripadvisor | Find out what other travellers thought of That Luang Stupa on Tripadvisor now
Chasing waterfalls: Your ultimate guide to Kuang Si Falls
WAT SI SAKET
Built in 1818, Wat Si Saket is one of Vientiane’s more unique temples having managed to stand the test of time and war, still standing as it was built 200 years ago. Wat Si Saket is also unique for it’s Siamese style, rather than Lao, which gives it the appearance of a Thai temple (so you’re forgiven if you feel as though you’ve been transported straight to Bangkok!).
The temple is most famous for more than 6,800 seated silver, stone, bronze, and ceramic Buddhas and Buddha images nestled into the walls of its cloisters. Most are between 100-400 years old, and cut a striking and beautiful display in the temple.
There is a daily morning alms ceremony that takes place here, where locals give their offerings to the temple’s monks. The ceremony is open to visitors to watch, but please be respectful and try not to intrude on this important facet of everyday Buddhist life (read our guide to attending the morning alms ceremony respectfully here).
Opening hours | 8:00am - 12:00pm, 13:00 - 16:00pm everyday
Location | Lan Xang Road (across from the Presidential Palace)
Wat Si Saket entrance fee | 5,000kip for foreigners
How to get to Wat Si Saket |
Tripadvisor | See Tripadvisor reviews of Wat Si Saket here
HAW PHRA KAEW
This temples shares a name with the one that sits in the Grand Palace in Bangkok for a very good reason; Haw Phra Kaew (also known as Ho Prakeo and Hor Pha Keo) was once the home of the sacred jade Emerald Buddha after it was snatched from the Siam Kingdom. Though it was reclaimed by the Siamese (Thai) in the late 1700s, Haw Phra Kaew is still revered for its history, sheer beauty (we found it to be one of the most beautiful temples in the area!), and rich cultural significance.
Haw Phra Kaew was also originally constructed in 1565 as a Lao royal family’s personal chapel and has now been transformed into a museum that houses important Lao cultural treasures; Buddhist art, a golden throne, Buddhist stone scriptures, and ancient relics. The temple is also just across the street from Wat Si Saket.
Opening hours | 8:00am - 12:00pm, 13:00pm - 16:00pm every day
Location | Rue Setthathirath, across from Wat Si Saket
Haw Phra Kaew entrance fee | free to enter the complex, 10,000kip to enter the museum
Tripadvisor | See what other travellers thought of Haw Phra Kaew on Tripadvisor
We've heard fellow travellers refer to this stupa as 'not much more than a pile of bricks', which isn't exactly the kind of glowing reference you'd want before visiting a tourist site. But for those interested in Laos' culture and history, legend has it that the That Dam stupa (Black Stupa) once shimmered under the weight of a pure gold exterior, and was guarded by a seven-headed serpent (a 'Naga') that tried to protect Laos from a Siamese invasion in the early 1800. Supposedly, the gold was pillaged from the temple during the Siamese-Laotian war (so presumably, the Naga failed in his mission), and the black stupa that we see today was left behind.
Sadly, the Black Stupa has been left unloved and unvisited. No devotees come to lay flowers, and no saffron-robed monks pace around its perimeter. It stands in the centre of a traffic island on a busy road, a crumbling historical relic. Yet many Lao still regard That Dam with fondness and consider it a protector of the city. It's probably not worth making a trip out just to see the Black Stupa, but it's worth keeping an eye out for when you're in a tuk tuk on your way to another attraction!
Location | Chantha Khoumane Road, Vientiane
WAT DANE SOUNG JUNGLE TEMPLE
Thought to have been built in the first millenia, Wat Dane Soung Jungle Temple was once a thriving monastery and spiritual centre in ancient Laos. Today, visitors can explore the stone shrines, a jungle temple believed to be inhabited by a sole monk, and ancient Buddha images that have been carved into the rock.
It’s a little way out of Vientiane, and definitely not often visited - but if you’re looking for a cool day trip that’s a little unusual, Wat Dane Soung jungle temple could just be your place.
How to get to Wat Dane Soung | You can find detailed instructions on Atlas Obscura here
TEMPLES AND CHILL - OUR FAVOURITE PHOTOS FROM LAOS
watch SUNSET OVER THE MEKONG
As the sun starts going down, head to Chao Anouvong Park with a Beerlao in hand and people watch.
You’ll see everything as you enjoy watching the skies change over Thailand in the distance; from young lovers canoodling through to fitness freaks performing aerobics to obnoxiously loud music. It seems as though the whole of Vientiane turns out to enjoy the twilight hours here, and it's a cool place to get a feel for the general vibe of Vientiane and chat with friendly locals.
stroll through THE Vientiane NIGHT MARKET
Every night, the Chao Anouvong Park nestled along the banks of Mother Mekong transforms into a bustling and vibrant night market, full of all the touristy stuff you’ve come to expect on Southeast Asian travels.
While it's mainly geared towards tourists, you'll be able to find everything here from Beerlao tshirts to traditional woven handicrafts (just make sure you're not buying cheap quality fakes!). It’s energetic, colourful and fun; and the perfect place to snap up a few bargains.
Opening hours | 18:00pm - 22:00pm every day
Location | Riverside promenade
Tripadvisor | Check Tripadvisor reviews of the Vientiane Night Market here
take a traditional lao cooking class
If there's one thing you need to know about Laos, it's that the food is delicious. Like most asian cuisines, it's all about fresh, flavourful food, with the added bonus of a French twist. What's better than eating all the food? Learning how to cook it for yourself!
Join this traditional cooking class and head to the local market to find the freshest ingredients and herbs for your meal, learn how to cook a bunch of dishes with a professional Lao chef in a little house overlooking the Mekong, and then sit down to enjoy the fruits of your labour. You'll be whipping up fancy Lao meals for your friends back home in now time! Book your cooking class here.
enjoy all the food and drink in vientiane
After a day spent wandering around Vientiane's temples and monuments, you've probably worked up an appetite, right? Luckily, tasty, cheap meals are never far away in Vientiane. Head into town via tuk-tuk and embrace the fresh and tasty local cuisine at our favourite haunts:
- Han Sam Euay Nong on Chao Anou Rd. Family run, cheerful, and clean - the perfect place to tuck into the Lao version of Pho for lunch. It's cheap, tasty and will fill you up for the afternoon's adventures.
- Kataenoy, also on Chao Anou Rd. We stumbled across Kataenoy after a long day of exploring, and it was the perfect place for dinner. Basically, they serve a ridiculously tasty Laos style broth in clay pots and you add the ingredients to it as you wish. Sure, it might require you to make some of your own meal, which on holidays is generally the last thing you want to do, but it’s well worth it.
- The Vientiane Night Food Market one of the highlights of any visit to Asia is definitely the delicious street food you can find on every corner. Strolling the night food market and sampling all the tasty cheap eats on offer was, without doubt, one of our favourite things to do in Vientiane.
- Delight House of Fruit Shakes on Samsenthai Rd. Did you even come to Laos if you didn't drink ALL the fruit shakes? Fresh fruit, lots of flavours, and soy milk is available too. Also, make sure you eat the Veggie Avocado baguette... we're drooling again just thinking about it.
- Bor Pen Nyang on Quai Fa Nyum. Finish off your busy day with a few icy cold Beerlao at the best bar in town - Bor Pen Nyang. This bar overlooks the Mekong and is busy with a mix of backpackers, expats and locals; perfect if you want to meet someone new and have a boogie.
looking for flights to vientiane? Check skyscanner for the best deals now!
hotels + hostels in vientiane
We stayed at the Dream Home hostel in Vientiane, which was comfortable, clean, and had a great vibe. We definitely recommend it!
If you're looking for a decent hotel for the night instead, check Booking.com for the best deals on Vientiane hotels
vientiane travel guide
We never travel without our trusty, dogeared second-hand copies of a Lonely Planet guide. They make for great bus reading, and while some information can change rapidly in this online world, ours really haven't let us down yet. Pick up your Laos Lonely Planet guide now
Have you been to Vientiane? Did we miss somewhere? Let us know in the comments below.