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From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane beguiles with tree-lined boulevards crowded with frangipani and tamarind, glittering temples, wandering Buddhist monks and lunging naga (dragon) statues.
For the well-heeled traveller and backpacker the city acquits itself equally well, be it low cost digs and street markets, or upscale, jaw-droppingly pretty boutique hotels and French restaurants with reputable Parisian chefs. There are even more cafes and bakeries here than Luang Prabang and such a global spectrum of cuisine, it may add another notch to your belt!
In tune with the ruling elite's new self-consciousness and desire to impress, the riverfront has recently been revamped, with jogging a popular pastime, and Chinese residents who use the alfresco exercise park by the river (as well as for dawn Mao-style exercise classes). Indeed, look around and you'll see many shop signs in mandarin, for China, Laos' big brother, has really established itself over the last two years. That's progress, and just another chapter in this remarkably tolerant city where malls may be springing up like glass Lego sets and traffic thickening, but where genuine friendliness is still the norm.
Meanwhile with most of its old French villas now stylishly reincarnated into restaurants and small hotels, Vientiane is achieving an unprecedented level of panache with a distinctly Gallic flavor. Whether it's lounging over a novel in an old fashioned bakery, shopping in silk shops or swigging Beer Lao and drinking up the fiery sunset over the Mekong, you’ll miss this place more than you initially realize.
Sights in Vientiane
Pha That Luang
Svelte and golden Pha That Luang is the most important national monument in Laos; a symbol of Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty. Legend has it that Ashokan missionaries from India erected a tâht (stupa) here to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone as early as the 3rd century BC.
A high-walled cloister with tiny windows surrounds the 45m-high stupa. The cloister measures 85m on each side and contains various buddha images. Pha That Luang is about 4km northeast of the city centre at the end of Th That Luang.
Wat Si Muang
The most frequently used grounds in Vientiane are those of Wat Si Muang, the site of the lák meuang (city pillar), which is considered the home of the guardian spirit of Vientiane.
The large sǐm (destroyed in 1828 and rebuilt in 1915) was constructed around the lák meuang, and consists of two halls. The large entry hall features a copy of the Pha Kaeo (Emerald Buddha), and a much smaller, rather melted-looking seated stone Buddha that allegedly survived the 1828 inferno.
Locals believe it has the power to grant wishes or answer troubling questions, and the practice is to lift it off the pillow three times while mentally phrasing a question or request. If your request is granted, then you are supposed to return later with an offering of bananas, green coconuts, flowers, incense and candles (usually two of each).
The pillar itself is located in the rear hall, and is believed to date from the Khmer period, indicating the site has been used for religious purposes for more than 1000 years. Today it is wrapped in sacred cloth, and in front of it is a carved wooden stele with a seated Buddha in relief.
Behind the sǐm is a crumbling laterite jęhdii (stupa), almost certainly of Khmer origin. Devotees deposit broken deity images and pottery around the stupa's base so the spirits of the stupa will 'heal' the bad luck created by the breaking of these items. In front of the sǐm is a little public park with a statue of King Sisavang Vong (1904–59).
Vientiane's Arc de Triomphe replica is a slightly incongruous sight, dominating the commercial district around Th Lan Xang. Officially called 'Victory Monument' and commemorating the Lao who died in prerevolutionary wars, it was built in 1969 with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport; expats refer to it as 'the vertical runway'. Climb to the summit for panoramic views over Vientiane.
Wat Si Saket
Built between 1819 and 1824 by Chao Anou, Wat Si Saket is believed to be Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple. And it shows: this beautiful temple turned national museum is in dire need of a facelift.