Take a Tuk-Tuk Ride
Tuk-tuks are an essential Bangkok experience and the same is true of Vientiane. Although none of the Lao cities are as crowded as Bangkok, tuk-tuks are still the most authentic way to get around for short distances. There is no local train and a one km tuk-tuk ride can often cost as little as 20,000 kip (around $2.50 US).
Learn About Kaysone Phomvihane
Vietnam had Ho Chi Minh, Cuba had Fidel Castro and Laos had Kaysone Phomvihane. Born in 1920 to a Vietnamese father and Lao mother, he left university in Hanoi before completing his law degree in order to join the Pathet Lao. Kaysone was a founding member of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and served as Prime Minister from 1975 to 1991. His picture adorns most of the Lao banknotes and his house is open to the public. While Kaysone himself tended to shun the cult of personality, no other Lao revolutionary has a museum named in his honor and his bronze statue can be seen from Route 13. Since most of the signs are not in English it’s best to ask for an English-speaking guide.
SAMPLE THE STREET FOOD
While you don’t have to go to a market to enjoy the street food, markets are certainly the best option if you want variety. Either way, you can get quality food on the street for a fraction of what you would pay in a restaurant. Many street food peddlers have small seating areas as well. Most are cash only.
Walk to the Top of Patuxai (ປະຕູໄຊ) Monument
Patuxai (ປະຕູໄຊ) is a war monument in the center of Vientiane. It was built between 1957 and 1968 and means “Victory Gate” or “Gate of Triumph.” The monument is dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. It is also called Patuxai Arch or the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane since it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The main difference is the typically Laotian design. It is decorated with mythological creatures such as the kinnari (half-female, half-bird).
For just 5,000 kip (less than 1 USD) you can walk to the top. There are multiple floors and each is replete with souvenir shops. When you make it to the top, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the Lao capital.
Try the French Cuisine
The French may have left Laos more than 60 years ago, but their ovens are still there. The night markets and streets in general are replete with crepe vendors. French bakeries are easy to find as well. You can dine in a classy French restaurant for a fraction of what you would pay in Paris or Quebec. Although most people are not visiting Laos to eat French food, you owe it to yourself to try a baguette and dine at least one French restaurant.
Visit COPE Visitor Center
COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source for artificial limbs in Laos. To understand why so many artificial limbs and wheelchairs are needed in Laos, spend an hour at the COPE Visitor Center. Their multimedia exhibits are a sobering lesson on the effects of UXO (unexploded ordnance) throughout Laos and neighboring Cambodia. There’s no admission fee although donations are welcome.
Explore Buddha Park (ວັດຊຽງຄວນ)
Located 25 km southeast of Vientiane, Buddha Park was started in 1958 by priest-shaman Bunleua Sulilat. Xieng Khuan (the name in Lao) means “spirit city.” Beyond the more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues, you can see neighboring Thailand east of the Mekong River. The statues in Buddha Park are large enough to be seen from the Thai side of the river. The most challenging sculpture is the three leveled pumpkin. You can enter through the mouth and climb from hell to earth to heaven, where you’ll have the most panoramic view of the park.
Stroll the Vientiane Night Market
The main night market in Vientiane overlooks the Mekong River and is replete with vendors hawking everything from sports bras to coconut ice cream. While some night markets in Asia are more representative of youth culture, you can find mostly locals of all ages casually strolling the promenade along the Mekong well after dark. The more adventurous can parasail over the Mekong River under the Lao flag.