Vientiane - Abbey Travel, Ireland


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Welcome to Vientiane


Life in Vientiane, the modest capital of Laos, flows along as languidly as the Mekong River on the banks of which the city is situated. Resembling more a sprawling series of villages than an inter-connected urban metropolis, Vientiane is a sleepy place dotted with a mix of Laotian temples and French colonial buildings, most of them crumbling into decay. Paddy fields still dot the outlying suburbs and even intrude into the city centre in places. Downtown is characterised by narrow lanes that run off the main streets, where bakeries sell croissants alongside vendors touting noodle soup and sticky rice.

Most of the city's places of interest are concentrated in a small area in the commercial district, easy to explore on foot, between the bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens on the riverbank and Talaat Sao, the morning market. Tourists to Vientiane will find that there are some fine Wats (temples) to visit, like Wat Si Saket, one of the city's oldest, surrounded by a lush tranquil garden. Other grand buildings are the unfinished Patuxai Monument, resembling the Arc de Triomphe, and the new Chinese-financed Cultural Centre. The Lao Revolutionary Museum is worth a visit simply because it is a surviving example of a communist propaganda collection, while the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum is dedicated to Laos' famous post-war leader.

Information & Facts


There are two obvious seasons in Vientiane - the wet season from May to October, and the dry season from November to April. Temperatures in Vientiane are lower during the wet season, averaging 73°F (23°C), with August being the wettest month. The towns south of Vientiane along the Mekong River get the least rain. The dry season has two distinct sub-sections: the cool dry period from November to February, and the hot dry season from March to April. Dry season temperatures in Vientiane average at 82°F (28°C), and the hottest month is April.

Eating Out

Vientiane has a number of great places to eat. Many of the more popular restaurants in Vientiane are centered around the Mekong riverfront area, where tourists can sample local cuisine as well as international favourites.

The local expat café culture tends to revolve around JoMa, a local Scandinavian Bakery on Thanon Setthathirat. JoMa has a selection of coffees, cakes and light lunches, as well as free Wi-Fi internet access and a great vibe.

Lane Xang Hotel situated on Thanon Fa Ngum serves up a delectable range of Laos cuisine while also staging traditional Laos music and dance performances. Meals are cheap and the waiting staff are enthusiastic and always ready to help you decide (or explain) which Laos speciality you would like to order.

Laos Paris Hotel's L'Adresse de Tinay on Samensenthai road, a short walk from the Nam Phu, is considered to be one of Vientiane's best French restaurants. L'Adresse de Tinay has a small menu complemented by a great wine list. Chef Tinay's tenderloin with foie gras sauce is superb. Bookings are recommended.

Lao is the official language, but some English and French are spoken.

The Lao Kip (LAK) is the legal currency unit, currently available in denominations of 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 kip. US Dollars, Euros and Thai Baht are also accepted in many places and are more convenient to carry than large stacks of the local currency. Banks, hotels, and jewellery shops all offer currency exchange services. For everyday expenses, carry a mix of US dollars and kip. For larger items, or when the exchange rate works in your favour, use US dollars. For local transport, street food stalls and minor purchases, it is best to use kip. When in rural areas, ensure you carry a supply of small notes as change can be hard to come by. Major credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted at most international hotels, many shops and restaurants, and a few tourist-orientated establishments in Luang Prabang and Vientiane - but in other parts of the country assume that only cash is accepted. Travellers cheques can be cashed at most banks in Vientiane and other major towns. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12pm, and then again from 2pm to 3pm. In Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse and other major towns, ATMs are available from which money can be withdrawn. Note that ATMs distribute only Lao kip, with a maximum of around 1,000,000 kip per transaction.


Vientiane has a number of great shopping areas; however, the city's shopping prospects tend to be dwarfed by those available at Luang Prabang's Night Market. Shopping in Laos generally revolves around silk and textile products.

The main shopping area in Laos' capital is the Morning Market on Thanon Lane Xang and Xang Khu Vieng. This indoor market is best seen early, before the day gets too hot. The stalls sell a variety of products ranging from Laos textiles and Laos silks through to electronics, jewellery and curios. The market generally operates from 9am until 3pm.

The touristy area near the Mekong River has a number of small boutiques and tourist shops selling silk, fabrics, weaves, handicrafts and jewellery. Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles offers hand-woven Laos motifs of the highest standard. The shop can be found on Thanon Nokeo Kumman. Nearby, on the same street, you will find Mulberries Laos Sericulture Company, which is a non-profit organisation operating throughout Laos and providing income for many unemployed locals. Mulberries sells naturally-dyed silk products while teaching locals about sericulture.

Around the corner, the Lao Women's Union runs a shop called The Art of Silk on Thanon Manthatulat. This shop stocks a great selection of cotton and silk weaves in a variety of designs. Another great shop is Tshop Lai, which runs apprenticeship programmes for socially marginalised and uneducated people in Laos, teaching them to make soaps, shampoos and oil extracts which are available for sale at the shop.

The Stay Another Day Laos booklet is an initiative by the International Finance Corporation's Mekong sector, and aims to promote sustainable tourism and development. The booklet is available in Vientiane and lists tour agencies, local businesses and shops that help to further sustainable tourism. Many of the boutiques and shops listed in the book are not-for-profit organisations helping to uplift communities.

The COPE Visitors centre can be a sobering reality-check for many visitors to Laos, but nonetheless, it is definitely worth a visit. Statistically, Laos is the most bombed country in the world from the many American planes offloading their unused ordnance onto Laos during the Vietnam War. As such, the country has a significant amount of UXOs, or unexploded ordnance, particularly in rural areas along the border with Vietnam. The COPE Visitors Centre educates tourists and locals about the dangers of UXOs as well as prosthetic services in Laos. The Visitors Centre includes a gift shop and a selection of short films on the Laos and UXOs.

One of Vientiane's oldest and most grandiose temples, Ho Phra Kaew has an extremely interesting history that sheds lights on Laos' past relations with Thailand. The temple was built in 1565 by King Setthathirat for the express purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha, which he had pilfered from Chang Mai in Thailand. The statue, made of green jadeite enrobed in gold, was then recaptured by the Siamese army in 1778 and returned to Bangkok (where it remains to this day). Even without the Emerald Buddha, Ho Phra Kaew - which was restored in 1936 and declared a national monument - is a wonderful tourist attraction, offering visitors to Vientiane a great opportunity to get to grips with Laos' varied cultural heritage. Among the items on display in the museum is a heavily-lacquered 16th-century door carved with Hindu images, and a collection of stone-cut figures representing Khmer deities.

One of Laos' most popular activities in recent years for female tourists, is a trip to the wonderful Houey Hong Vocational Training Center for Women. The centre's mission is to provide education and training to Lao women from disadvantaged backgrounds, to help assimilate them into the contemporary economy by teaching them the skills of natural dyeing, traditional Lao weaving, tailoring and small business administration. The centre is thus an important contributor to the Laos government's initiative of sustainable development in the local craft and tourism sectors of the economy. Visitors to the Houey Hong Centre are not just casual observers: rather, they partake in half- or full-day courses, in which they too are taught skills ranging from tie-dyeing silks to traditional Lao weaving using a loom. The Houey Hong Centre is a short (20-minute) tuk-tuk ride from downtown Vientiane and provides tourists to Laos with an unforgettable experience of traditional textile manufacturing, not to mention the chance to contribute sustainably to the upliftment of the local population. The best part? You get to keep whatever you make during your time at the Centre to show off to your friends back home.

The famous 4,000 Islands region of Laos unfolds at the tail of the Mekong River in the far south of the country, lapping over into Cambodia. The area is renowned for its spectacular waterfalls, tranquil village life and unspoiled natural beauty. It is also home to the rare but only occasionally sighted pink Irrawaddy dolphin. The two most popular islands are Don Khong, the largest and most developed, and backpacker-magnet Don Det. Prices for accommodation and food are some of the the cheapest in Asia. The area is also used as an entrance point to Cambodia, and buses frequently make the one-hour journey to the border. An unmissable place to visit in Laos for young travellers, or those travelling on a tight budget.

Sometimes when you're travelling, it's nice to take a break from visiting the usual tourist fare and to experience the country as the locals do it. Vientiane's Talat Sao (Morning Market) offers visitors the chance to do just this - with a bustling market-place that, despite its name, is open from 7am to 6pm every day. A wonderful place to do most of your holiday shopping in Laos, the Morning Market is housed over four floors in two Lao-style buildings, whose construction was largely paid for by the market vendors themselves. Although the market mainly caters for the local population (you can buy electric rice cookers and have your shoes re-soled here), there are still plenty of authentic Lao products for tourists to snap up for a bargain. Be on the lookout for hand-woven fabrics, silver jewellery and local handicrafts. There are also food stalls located right outside the buildings, allowing you to refuel between shopping expeditions.

The Royal Stupa is a symbol of Buddhism and Lao rule, and is Laos' most important religious building. A wonderful sight for tourists to Vientiane to behold, the dazzling golden temple and its spire are visible from afar - and locals claim that if you have not visited That Luang, you have not visited Laos. The base of the stupa has walkways and stairs connecting the different levels, designed for the faithful to climb. Each level has different architectural features pertaining to Buddhist doctrine. Worshippers stick balls of sticky rice to the walls as a mark of respect to the spirit of King Setthathirat, who built the shrine in 1566 and whose statue stands in front of the temple. The effects of the setting sun on its golden surface are stunning.

Modeled to mirror the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Laos' Victory Gate is definitely a sight to behold. Although it is said to be a replica of Paris' Arc de Triomphe, the Laotians decided to one-up their colonial masters by building theirs slightly higher and with four gates (instead of the two that the European version has). Patuxai also has a number of decorative Buddhist ornamentations added to the original design. The monument is open to those wishing to brave the heat and climb the seven flights of stairs, which, once surmounted, offer great views of downtown Vientiane. In the same area visitors can see the World Peace Gong presented to Laos by Indonesia, as well as a musical fountain.

The site known as Buddha Park is a bizarre collection of Buddhist and Hindu statues scattered around a riverside meadow, dominated by a gigantic reclining Buddha. Hundreds of huge concrete structures that combine Buddhist and Hindu philosophies are spread around representing a variety of deity forms. Fashioned by a purported holy man, the sculpture park was created to spread his beliefs and to reveal to mankind his ideas about the universe.

Looking for something a bit different?  Check out our selection of cultural & adventure holidays or if you're looking to go it alone then see our selection of solo holidays.

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