Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos
Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ Wieng Chan) is the capital of Laos.
Compared to the hectic, bustling capitals in other Southeast Asia countries, Vientiane's deliciously relaxing atmosphere makes it feel like the small town it is. After you're done the round of temples, the best thing to do here is wander down to one of the riverside beer gardens, kick back with a cold Beerlao - the Lao national beer - and watch the sun set over the Mekong.
Settled since at least 1000 AD, Vientiane became the capital of the kingdom of Lan Xang ("million elephants") in 1545. Ransacked in 1828 by the Siamese, Vientiane sprung back in time to be again named the capital of the protectorate of Laos by the French, a position it kept after independence (1953) and after the communists took over in 1975. Today Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with an estimated population of 200,000 in the city itself and some 700,000 in Vientiane Prefecture.
Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the main roads running parallel to the river are Thanon Fa Ngum, Thanon Setthathirat and Thanon Samsenthai. The central district, Chantabuli, contains most of Vientiane's government offices, hotels and restaurants. Vientiane's widest boulevard, Thanon Lan Xang, runs from the Presidential Palace (now used for government offices and for state receptions) to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards Pha That Luang, the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos.
Where there are signs displaying street names (by no means everywhere...) these are bilingual Lao and French. The Lao word "thanon" on these signs is translated by "rue", "avenue" or "boulevard", in many cases without any apparent logic. Therefore the Lao word "thanon" is used throughout this article.
Since 2006 a major road upgrading project has been going on in the town center and out of it up to way past the airport in the west and the Friendship Bridge in the east. Financed by the Japanese government and planned and overseen by japanese engineers, the project is nearing completion (September 2007). Gone are the hazards presented by missing drainage gully covers, sidewalks upturned by tree roots, and even the smell from the gullies is no longer very noticeable. Almost no trees have been cut - amazing!. In downtown Vientiane the through roads Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai and the side roads connecting them and down to the river now have sealed surfaces and decent street lighting, and a one-way traffic regime is in place (but not the police enforcing it), and parking regulations have also been introduced. Of course, it is still anarchy on the roads. Foreigners beware: markings for pedestrian crossings have been painted on the new roads, but the local drivers regard them as decoration. Don't rely on them!
Note: do not rely on the Google Earth view of Vientiane for locating the sights: many locations put there by well-meaning users (the "Google Earth Community") are clearly in the wrong place, not just a block or so away but some even in a wrong part of the town!
Vientiane's Wattay Airport is 4 km west of the city. International services are quite limited, but this is slowly changing.
There are direct international flights to/from:
Lao Airlines flies to five domestic destinations (three to five flights daily to Luang Prabang; once or twice daily to Pakse, four times per week to Houei Sai and Oudomxay, and six times per week to Xieng Khuang (winter timetable 2007/08).
Many hotels offer a pickup service from the airport, or you can take a jumbo or taxi for US$6. (Rides to the airport should be cheaper.)
Visas are available on arrival at the airport, and the fee is US$30. Until recently these were only for 14 days, however, 30 day visas are now being issued on arrival. There is a US$10 departure tax for international flights.
From Bangkok many visitors choose to fly into Udon Thani in Thailand instead, and cross the border by bus, as this domestic flight is considerably cheaper than a direct international flight to Vientiane. There is a direct shuttle from Udon Thani airport to the Thai/Lao border at Nong Khai (about 50km away), and there are also direct cross-border bus services from Udon Thani (the city, not the airport!) to Vientiane. This option (flight plus bus transfers and immigration clearance at 2 points) takes at least 2 hours longer than a direct Bangkok to Vientiane flight. Attention: Thai Airways flies from Don Muang, the old Bangkok airport, and Thai Air Asia from Suvarnabhumi, the new Bangkok airport, to Udon Thani.
Plans to connect Vientiane to the Thai railway network remained just plans for a long time, so for now the railhead remains at Nong Khai, on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge. However, early 2007 work was begun on the construction of an extension across the bridge to the Lao side of the bridge (to be completed 2008 or 2009) - ultimately the line will be extended to Vientiane itself.
Until the rail connection with Laos is completed rail travellers must take a tuk-tuk from Nong Khai station to the Thai border post at the bridge, cross the bridge by shuttle bus to the Lao border post, and from there make their way to Vientiane (some 16km) by taxi, tuk-tuk or bus.
The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (Saphan Mittaphap) from Nong Khai, Thailand is the most common means of entry. The bridge cannot be crossed on foot or by bicycle, but there are frequent 20 baht shuttle buses just past Thai immigration. Bicycles can be carried on buses in the cargo compartment.
Direct buses to/from Nong Khai (30 baht) and Udon Thani (80 baht) arrive and depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal. These are cheap, comfortable, hassle-free and popular, so book ahead or arrive early. Note: these buses are not an option if you plan to obtain a Lao visa on arrival at the bridge - the bus will not wait long enough.
Lao visas are available on arrival (until recently, only 15 day, but as of July 2006, this has increased to 30 days) and the official fee is US$35 for most EU or English speaking nations (India is US$40, Afghanistan US$42; countries not specially mentioned: US$30). There is a surcharge of US$1 outside working hours and on weekends. The fee is considerably higher if paid with Thai baht (about US$9 more at current exchange rates), so bring clean US$ notes. A passport photo is also required, however an extra 40 baht or US$1 can usually be paid if you're unable to provide one (they'll use a photocopy of your passport). A 10 baht "entry fee" is charged once through, though walking straight past this desk seems not to be difficult.
Once through immigration, you can take a jumbo (posted price 150 baht, easy to bargain down to 100 baht or less for immediate departure with only one passenger) or taxi (200 baht) to any destination in the city. Shared jumbos are cheaper and local buses to Talat Sao cheapest of all, but signage is nonexistent and you may be in for a wait. You should be able to negotiate to a good deal less than 50 baht/person if you're prepared to share (and possibly wait). It's about 20km from the bridge to Vientiane; allow at least 30 minutes.
When arriving via the Friendship Bridge, you might like to visit the Buddha Park sculpture garden before going on to Vientiane, and save yourself a return trip back past the border crossing later. The same local bus that connects the Morning Market and the Friendship Bridge checkpoint also continues on to Buddha Park.
Going the opposite way, asking around the bus station for Friendship Bridge is effective. There are no immigration fees when exiting Laos via the Bridge, except at weekends when a token 2500 kip "overtime charge" applies.
Tickets from Vientiane to Udon Thani can only be bought from the Talat Sao bus station on the day itself for 22,000 kip.
A direct bus from Hanoi will take at least 20 hours (despite what the travel agents might say) and should cost about US$15-20.
From elsewhere in Laos
Buses to destinations in Vientiane Prefecture depart from the Talat Sao bus terminal, just east of the Morning Market. There is an informative schedule and schematic diagram of the bus piers painted on the central building, which is where you can also buy tickets.
The Southern Bus Terminal, used by all buses going south (including VIP), is on Thanon Kaisone Phomvihane (that is the first stretch of the "Route 13 South"), quite far from town leaving you at the mercy of the tuk-tuk bullies. Note that if you buy a ticket in town you should be able to get a free ride to the terminal.
The Northern Bus Terminal, somewhat north-west of the city center on Thanon T2 (sometimes written as Te2), is where all buses to the north start.
Getting around Vientiane is generally easy, as the traffic is far less murderous than in larger Southeast Asian cities like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Street signage is, however, rather lacking though in the center more and more signs are appearing. The map on the right, which is fully to scale, covers the center only. Maps covering a larger area are available at bookshops and some minimarts, but are not as detailed and not always to scale. Many storefronts feature addresses in Roman letters, and these are often the best way to determine the street one is walking. People navigate using landmarks, so name the nearest embassy, hotel or temple to where you want to go.
Vientiane's rainwater drainage system, which also takes care of "grey water" from baths, sinks, laundry etc consists of gullies on the roadside, usually covered by concrete slabs. These slabs are sometimes damaged and very precariously balanced, or even missing altogether; people rapidly learn to take care before stepping on anything that looks like a slab! Waste from toilets is or should be collected in septic tanks (at every house), but those gullies can nevertheless smell abominably. In the center things have improved markedly as a result of the japanese-funded upgrading of the main thoroughfares and their side streets, with sidewalks and gullies reconstructed and street lighting installed everywhere. This upgrading is now practically completed (November 2007).
Vientiane has a small fleet of genuine taxis retired from Bangkok, usually found lurking at the Friendship Bridge, the airport or in front of large hotels. Fares are set by bargaining, so figure on around US$0.50 per km or US$20-40 to hire one for the day, depending on car type and distance.
By tuk-tuk or jumbo
Tuk-tuks and their bigger cousins jumbos are ubiquitous in Vientiane. To charter a tuk-tuk/jumbo, agree on the fare in advance; short hops within the city shouldn't cost more than 5000 kip, although as a tourist you may have difficulty bargaining to less than US$1 (10000K). All the tuk-tuk drivers carry a fare card for popular destinations but these fares are a bit inflated and a little negotiation is recommended. Share jumbos running on set routes, eg. Th Lan Xang to Pha That Luang, charge a fixed 1000K.
Minibuses connect the center to the suburban districts, but are not particularly useful for tourists, with the possible exception of the bus to the Friendship Bridge. The main terminal is on the east side of Talat Sao.
Bicycles are perhaps the best way to get around the city. Most guest houses and hotels can arrange bike rental for around US$2 per day. Although the city's flat terrain makes for good biking, one-way streets can be difficult to identify.
Despite the poor standard of local driving, cycling is fairly safe in the city because the traffic is quite slow (maybe because of the condition of the roads). But take extra care when the roads are wet, because many are unsurfaced (even in the city center), and they can be muddy and slippery - innocent-looking puddles sometimes conceal deep potholes.
The city center can be quite comfortably covered on foot, at least in the cool season. Pha That Luang, however, is 4 km away from the center and thus a bit of a hike. Out of the city center there are few footpaths so walking can be uncomfortable.
Temples and Stupas
Some temples (indicated below) charge an entry fee of 2000/5000K for Lao/foreigners and are open 08:00-16:00, with a 12:00-13:00 lunch break. The monks of those that don’t charge a fee will be grateful for a small donation in the box.
Wat Si Saket, the oldest standing temple in Vientiane
- Wat Si Saket. Entrance fee. Corner of Thanon Lane Xang and Thanon Setthathirat. Probably the oldest standing temple in Vientiane and among the most atmospheric. Built in 1818 by Chao Anou in the Bangkok style and hence left unsacked when much of Vientiane was razed in a Siamese raid in 1828. Now the oldest still standing temple in Vientiane. Within the cloister walls are hundreds of niches housing Buddha images large and small, made of wood, stone, silver and bronze. In the center of the courtyard is a five-tier-roofed sim (ordination hall) housing yet more Buddha niches and beautiful but fading murals of the Buddha's past lives.
- Haw Pha Kaew. Entrance fee. Thanon Setthathirat (opposite Wat Si Saket). King Setthathirat's former royal temple, which housed the magical Emerald Buddha (pha kaew) after it was taken from Lanna (Chiang Mai). The Siamese took it back in 1779 - the image is now housed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaew - and came back in 1828 to raze the temple for good measure. The present structure is a 1942 reconstruction of dubious provenance. Today, the temple no longer operates and the interior has been turned into a small jumbled museum housing Buddha images; look out for the beautiful tall, lithe, long-armed Buddha in the hands-down "calling for rain" pose.
- Black Stupa (That Dam). Thanon Bartholomie (off Thanon Samsenthai near the US embassy). The mythical abode of a seven-headed dragon that protects Vientiane. It was renovated in 1995 but still has an attractive patina of age, and is slowly being overgrown again by vegetation.
- Pha That Luang. Entrance fee. Thanon That Luang (2 km east from Patuxai). The national symbol and most important religious monument of the country, That Luang is a three-layered gilded stupa. The current version dates from 1566, although it has been ransacked and renovated numerous times since then. Closed Mondays.
- Vientiane's most important festival, Bun That Luang, is held here in November on the night of the full moon.
- There are two temples beside That Luang: Wat That Luang Neua to the north and Wat That Luang Tai to the south, both presently being renovated.
- Wat Si Muang. Between Thanons Setthatirat and Samsenthai, about 1km east of the center. Despite its small size, the temple is very active and houses the city pillar. Followers believe that lifting the small buddha statue 3 times from its cushion means that your prayers or questions will be answered.
- Wats Onteu, Inpeng, Mixay and Haisok are along Thanon Setthatirat right in the town center, and therefore the most likely temples to be visited by travelers.
There are many more temples all over the town, but it must be said that if you are out to admire temples Luang Prabang is the place to go, not Vientiane.
Patuxai, the Victory Gate
- Patuxai ("Victory Gate"). A local rendition of Paris' Arc de Triomphe. Besides the elaborate Buddhist embellishment, it differs from the original in having four gates instead of two and being just a bit higher (to spite the French). Reasonably impressive from afar, a surprisingly frank English sign inside the monument labels it a "monster of concrete" when seen up close - and the concrete in question was donated by the US, although it was supposed to go towards a new airport instead. The monument itself aside, the palm tree-lined park around it complete with fountains is quite pleasant though lacking of shade during the day time, and you can climb up to the 7th story (stairs only) for a view of downtown Vientiane.
- Lao National Museum. Thanon Samsenthai (next to Lao Plaza Hotel). Formerly the Lao Revolutionary Museum by name, the historical exhibits on the first floor are fairly pathetic. The second floor, however, builds up to a fervently revolutionary pitch as it documents the heroic struggle of the Lao against the Siamese, French and American imperialists, including exhibits such as socks worn by Politburo members when they escaped from prison and Kaysone Phomvihane's chest expander. The final rooms, on post-revolutionary Laos, are mostly a photo gallery of pressing topics such as the comrades of the 7th Plenary Session of the Laos People's Congress inspecting fertilizer production processes. A guestbook regularly features amusing arguments between young western visitors on the subject of communism. Most exhibits patchily labeled in English and/or French. Entry 5000K, open daily from 08:00 to 16:00. Bags must be checked at the front desk.
- Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) is a bizarre outdoor collection of huge concrete sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities and real and imaginary beasts. The reclining Buddha is especially impressive. Built in 1958 by mystic Luang Pa Bunleua Sulilat, who was more or less kicked out of the country in 1978 and went on to establish a nearly identical park (Sala Kaew Ku) across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. Located some 24 km from the city, it's about 6 km to the east of the Friendship Bridge - hence it's well worth visiting on the way into or out of Laos if you're crossing the Friendship Bridge, thereby saving you an extra 48 km round trip if you visit from and return to Vientiane. Getting transportation from the Buddha park can be difficult so it is best to hire a tuk-tuk for the entire Vientiane - buddha park - friendship bridge (or vice versa) trip.
- On the main road (Thanon Thadeua), just before the access road to the Bridge branches off, is the National Ethnic Cultural Park where typical houses of various ethnic groups are on display, though only from the outside unless you happen to meet some kind of custodian who will be eager to unlock some of them and show the inside. There also are some statues of dinosaurs and a rather dismal looking small "zoo". Most times the only activity seems to be the kiosks where they sell soft drinks and chips, but there are said to be occasional cultural shows. Tour operators often take their guests here before or after a visit to the Buddha Park. Well, to have it in their brochures may serve to make those more impressive. It is not a place to go out of your way for, not as long as it is not made more attractive.
Apart from exploring the city itself there are several worthwile trips into the surrounding countryside on offer. Some can be done independently, some are offered by commercial agencies. Within one to two hours from Vientiane you can go kayaking, wild-water rafting, trekking through nature parks, etc.
A reputable agency organising adventure tours and eco-tourism is Green Discovery Laos in Thanon Setthathirat next to Kop Chei Deu.
The local people love to go picnicking at some of the rivers or on the shores of Nam Ngum Lake, about 90km from Vientiane. There are floating restaurants along the lake shore; their specialty is fish fresh from the lake. Cruises among the lake's islands can be booked here, which makes for a relaxing couple of hours. Just inquire at your guest house/hotel or at any travel agency (where they will then try to sell their tours).
Hurting legs and backs from a day roaming the city? Go for a traditional Lao massage. There are lots of massage places all over the town, from "holes in the wall" to upscale establishments. Prices range from US$3-6/hour, more for the truly luxurious spa-like places where you will really be pampered (for instance Papaya Spa, on a road parallel to the river facing Xieng Veh temple about 2km from the city center).
All these establishments are 100% aboveboard and legitimate: this is not Bangkok! Your masseur or masseuse will be grateful for a tip. The staff will be happy if you have the decency to take a shower before you go there. They won't say anything to your face, but smelly foreigners make their job less than pleasant.
The locals have only disdain for those (backpackers) that walk the street in almost beach attire. Please dress decently, however attractive a torso you (think) you have.
The local currency is the kip (LAK) which comes in notes of 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 10000, 20000 and 50000 kip. The exchange rate is about 9600 kip to the US Dollar (September 2007).
Banks and exchange offices are located throughout the city center. Phongsavanh Bank, with its distinctive gold elephants, is Vientiane's newest bank and operates a currency exchange until about 16:30 on weekdays, and for shorter hours on weekends. They charge a 1% fee. It is located on Thanon Samsenthai, the same road as the national museum and cultural hall, a few hundred meters in the opposite direction of Talat Sao. BCEL's (Lao Bank for Foreign Trade) main foreign exchange counter is located on the corner of Thanon Fa Ngum (the river promenade) and Thanon Pangkham, charges no commission, and has longer opening hours than most local banks. Other banks in the city have exchange facilities too, including two or three booths of BCEL within Talat Sao.
ATMs can now be found throughout the city, but are notorious for their unreliability (mainly because their stock of kip gets exhausted in the course of the day). Withdrawals are limited to 1,000,000 kip per transaction (a bit more than 100 USD); however, you may make up to three of these in one day. Of course, if your own bank charges a fee for each withdrawal, this will add up!
Thai baht and US$ are almost universally accepted at stores and restaurants; some places also accept Euros. In some restaurants the bill will state the amount in kip and US$, baht or Euro or any combination of these. The Government tries to persuade its people to always use only kip, but at the same time its own offices and institutions will gladly accept US$ or even bill their services in US$.
Credit cards are accepted by travel agencies and in better restaurants and shops, but many charge a 3% fee, take it or leave it...
Places to go shopping:
- Morning Market (Talat Sao - corner of Thanon Lan Xang and Thanon Khu Vieng) - a large collection of indoor stalls selling, well, pretty much anything. There are two floors: the first floor sells mostly textiles, electronics, and watches; the second floor has clothing, gold, and jewelery. Expect to pay about one third or one quarter of the first price you are offered. Despite the name it is still struggling into operation at 09:00 and remains open until around 16:00. It is being renovated or, more precisely, the old buildings are being replaced by modern structures - at present (September 2007) one of these is completed but has some trouble finding tenants for all the shop spaces. This is the first building in Vientiane with an indoor parking.
- Vientiane Department Store (at the center of the Lan Xang side of the Morning Market) resembles the rest of the market so much that you'll be hard put to spot it. It sells mostly imported goods from elsewhere in Asia, mainly from Thailand, Vietnam and China.
- Handicrafts, above all silk and cotton weavings, are for sale in the Morning Market and in many shops along Thanons Setthathirat and Samsenthai, and in several of their side roads. In the Morning Market you should bargain; in the other shops you may try to get a rebate but don't count on it. Some of the better shops are:
- Mixay Boutic (yes, that's how they write it) in Thanon Nokkeo Koumane (with a branch in Thanon Setthathirat) - they have some women weaving fabrics of the shop's own design on the premises, who you are welcome to watch. Beautiful wall hangings, not the cheapest in town but well worth the price. Also on sale are shirts and skirts, scarves, cushion covers and anything made of textiles.
- Laha Boutique, Thanon Francois Ngin: naturally dyed textiles (mainly cotton) from the south (Savannakhet).
- Kanchana: the Beauty of Lao Silk: traditional Lao silk weavings, hand-woven fabrics, textiles and clothing using natural dyes. Just off Thanon Samsenthi on the road to That Dam.
- Lao Textiles, Thanon Nokeo Khumman. Founded 1990 by an American woman (Carol Cassidy), who now employs some 40 artisans, this firm offers modern weavings using traditional motifs - some of their work has been exhibited in museums. Prices are accordingly, but if you can afford them you will get something to be proud of. Not the usual backpacker's souvenirs...
- The Art of Silk, Thanon Manthatulat, run by the Lao Women's Union. Silk and cotton weavings in both traditional and modern designs.
- Mulberries Lao Sericulture Company, Thanon Nokeo Koummane. The sales outlet of a not-for-profit organisation that operates in about five hundred villages in Northern Laos, seeking to create income generating opportunities. Naturally-dyed, handmade Lao silk products.
There are many restaurants in Vientiane. They offer a wide selection of cuisines, from Chinese specialities to Tex-Mex. More restaurants are opened all the time, but many are there for just a few months before they go under; a few are successful and stay and may even flourish. It’s a question of
offering something special, either in the way of the food served, or the atmosphere, or the friendly and competent service. The following is only a small selection.
- Noodle shops can be found all over the town. They typically serve Vietnamese-type noodle soups (pho), often also fried rice and other rice or noodle-based dishes. Prices are very moderate: around 1 USD for a large bowl or plate. There really is no need to go hungry in this town, but it is advisable to eat in places where there are many customers: there the food is likely to be good and fresh. Avoid empty places where the only guests are the flies buzzing around the food on display.
A selection of more "sophisticated" eateries follows:
- Just for Fun, Thanon Pangkham (the road running from the river at BCEL to the Fountain): simpe and comfortable, good Western, Thai and Lao food, also vegetarian dishes.
- PVO, which used to be at Thanon Samsenthai, has moved to a location on the river road, opposite the BCEL bank. It serves excellent Vietnamese food and the pho isn't bad, but for many the best eats here are the stuffed baguettes (7000/14000K for half/full). English menu, open 08:00-20:00.
- Along the river: dozens of unpretentious restaurants and beer gardens, from opposite the BCEL bank strung along the Mekong for approximately 2km upriver. All are pleasant places for a beer and a snack or a complete meal while the sun goes down over the river. One of these is one-time famous John's Restaurant, but since the owner married an Australian and left for down under there is nothing to distinguish it from the other places left and right. All serve inexpensive Lao and some Western food. Among the best is the grilled fish, served by many of them. Take care when you're in for boiled eggs: what you get here are incubated duck eggs. When you open them you're in for a surprise (but at least the little bird does not chirp). The Lao love them, they are hugely popular.
In 2005 one of the eateries along the river put Lao-style reed mats on the ground with low rattan "tables" (ka toke); diners sit cross-legged on the mat around the table. These became so popular that they can now be found at many of these establishments. They are much nicer than the rickety metal tables and plastic chairs that are the standard of all but the better restaurants in Laos.
- Mekong Deck: a new place on the river, near PVO. This one stands out from the competition upriver because of the way it’s laid out; it is a very nice place to nurse a beer and enjoy the company of friends.
- Sunset Bar (Sala Sunset) at the very western end of the Mekong river road. Popular with expats and tourists. The main things to recommend it are the sunsets (and those are not of their doing) and the rickety construction of wood apparently salvaged from demolished buildings. When the river is really high parts of the terrace sometimes wash away. Truly romantic! The beer is cold and whiling away an hour or so under the tree canopy with a bottle or two and some snacks can be very relaxing indeed.
- Café Indochine, Thanon Setthathirat. Authentic Vietnamese food - particularly recommended: the set meals at about 4 to 5 USD.
- Le Provençal at Nam Phu (the Fountain) - good French fare, excellent pizzas. Main courses from about 4 to 10 USD.
- Lotus Restaurant and Bar, next to Cultural Hall. Serves traditional Lao and Western food, 08:30 am - 11:30 pm. Price range: 2-4 USD, VISA and Master Card accepted. Free wireless internet available! The place is nicer than the picture would make you think!
- Khop Chai Deu, near the fountain. Inside (2 floors) and outside seating. Very good Lao, Thai, Indian and Western food. Competent and friendly service. Open until late evening. Price range: 1-4 USD. Try the “Lao Discovery” menu at 6.5 USD (but check with the waiter how spicy it all is…). Good bands play Western popular music some evenings. Also a bar (see below). Buffet at lunchtime.
- Hong Kong Restaurant, opposite Lao Plaza Hotel. Excellent Cantonese dishes (2 USD - approx. 9 USD) and a small selection of dim sum (1 USD per plate). There have been reports of them padding the bill. Check the bill carefully before paying! (That, by the way, is something you should do everywhere: in a country where they use a calculator to subtract 7 from 10 it comes as no surprise that their counting of beers consumed is not always accurate. To be fair, the mistakes are not always to the disadvantage of the customer.)
- Inter Hotel Restaurant - Quai Fa Ngum, riverside, well prepared Szechuan food, about 3 USD/dish. The hotel also runs the Inter Stone House in the same building round the corner; about the same or a slightly higher price range. Their specialty is the sizzling steak on a stone platter.
- JoMa, Thanon Setthathirat, and Scandinavian Bakery in the the fountain square, extremely popular air-conditioned cafes and bakeries with simple lunches and excellent cakes and coffee. If you sit outside keep a close eye on your bag.
- Le Croissant d'Or and Banneton Cafe, almost next to each other in Thanon Nokkeo Koumane (running from the river to Thanon Setthathirat) have croissants and pastries and serve simple lunches. Banneton sells the best baguettes in town - tasty, not just something to chew. Their coffee is among the best in Vientiane.
- Sticky Fingers - Thanon Francois Nginn opposite the Tai Pan Hotel. Quality western style food at reasonable prices. There's happy hour on Wednesday and Friday nights, including half price cocktails.
- Full Moon Cafe, almost next to Sticky Fingers, nice interior with comfortable seating arrangements. Serves what they call fusion fare. Reasonable prices.
- La Terrasse, Thanon Nokkeo Koumane, is popular with expats and tourists alike. It is one of the best French restaurants in Vientiane (very good pizzas, and excellent tender steaks at about 5 US$). Set three-course lunch is 5.50 USD, main dishes up to 10 USD.
- Nazim Indian Restaurant on the Mekong river road: decent Indian food. Their washroom is not the cleanest in the country, perhaps because the patrons of some of the eateries on the river bank are directed here for certain needs (when they are not simply sent down to the reeds at the water's edge). Nazim has opened a branch in Thanon Pang Kham, opposite the offices of Lao Airlines. (No reports on their washroom yet).
- Khao Nieow is a new place in Thanon Nokkeo Koumane, almost next to La Terrasse. Set three-course meals at 4.50 USD. Steaks in two qualities: Lao beef at around 4 or 5 USD; New Zealand lamb and beef at about 8 USD and above. To be tried on a cool evening: the fondue bourguignonne or chinoise at 22 USD for two.
- The restaurant in the Lane Xang Hotel has traditional Lao music and dance performances every evening from about 7pm, which you watch while eating your dinner of (recommended) Lao food. Get there early to secure a table with a good view of the stage. A meal for four, consisting of 5 or 6 dishes including drinks, will come at about 30 USD.
- Kua Lao at Thanon Samsenthai. Authentic Lao food with a good selection of vegetarian dishes; traditional Lao music and dance performances in the evening. Main dishes from 3 to about 8 USD; set meals (recommended!) at 10 USD.
- Le Cote d’Azur on Thanon Fa Ngum: a favourite of the expat community, serving generous helpings of mainly French food.
- The Spirit House on that tree-shaded part of the river promenade that has not yet been "upgraded" to Lao-style sterile banality like the stretch downriver (there are plans for it, but fortunately the money seems to have run out). It is about 0.5km upstream from the end of the paved portion of the road. A restaurant-bar that offers various tasty meals and snacks at reasonable prices. Watch the waiters jump the puddles in the rainy season when you've chosen to sit outside on the terrace across the potholed road.
- Moon the Night Restaurant. Another 0.5km farther upstream from the Spirit House and somewhat difficult to find: the river promenade ends a few hundred meters before – best to take a tuk-tuk. (Directions: from the Novotel 0.5km west past the FORD showroom, then turn into a soi on the left which after 200 meters takes you to the river. There ask around). A very pleasant spot to eat excellent Lao food. A large place, an extensive menu, competent and friendly service. Background music not too loud. Highly recommended. A meal of 6 to 8 dishes for 4 people comes at 15 to 20 US$ including drinks.
- Phonethip Coca Suki Restaurant, Thanon Sailom opposite the Lao Telecom Service Center. Part of a chain that also has restaurants in Thailand and Indonesia. Good Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western food. Reasonable prices and good, attentive service. Very popular at lunch time with office workers and students.
- Kop Kap, across from Tat Luang Temple. A favorite among ex-pats living nearby, if you crave Thai food. Packed during lunch time, the restaurant is known for its excellent Penang curry. Closed Sundays.
- Evening Dinner Cruises on the river – two different companies, on boats moored opposite Wat Chan. Not very impressive, neither the boat trip (1 hour, departure around 7pm: 1 km upstream then 2 downstream and back) nor the food. But very relaxing. This Lao maritime experience will cost you only slightly more than the same meal in one of the beer gardens on the shore.
- Nam Phou. The first and arguably the best of the restaurants around the Fountain (Nam Phu), with good food and exceptional service. A favourite of NGO types.
- L'Opera: at the Fountain; good Italian food (but not quite comparable to what you get in the owner's home country). Good pizzas. Don't go there if you cannot stand opera music - it is played continuously in the background though not, fortunately, so loud that it drowns the conversation.
- Le Central on Thanon Setthathirat: good western food, main courses at 8 to 15 USD.
- Le Silapa on Thanon Sihom, a small atmospheric restaurant with excellent French food. Main courses start at about 6 USD.
- Le Nadao opposite Patuxai, excellent classical French fare, main courses starting at 8 USD.
- La Belle Epoque in the Settha Palace Hotel - ecellent food in an atmosphere of colonial elegance. Main courses starting at 8 USD.
Sunset and Beerlao by the Mekong
Vientiane has a few bars/clubs, but there's no shortage of places for a quiet Beerlao. In particular, the Mekong shoreline is packed with near-identical but pleasant bamboo-and-thatch beer gardens offering cold beer and spicy snacks.
- Bor Pen Nyang, Thanon Fa Ngum (the river promenade), tel. +856-20-7873965, . Breezy fourth-floor (no elevator) bar/restaurant which overlooks the Mekong. Live bands every night. Travellers, locals and ex-pats in seeming harmony. Claims the most extensive Fine Whisky Range in Laos and stocks a wide range of liquors, including absinthe on Thursdays for $2/shot. Pool & Snooker Tables on the 2nd Floor.
- Martini Bar, Thanon Nokeo Koummane, just a block from the Mekong. Movies shown every night. Happy hour from 6-8pm.
- Jazzy-Brick, Thanon Setthathirat nearly opposite Kop Chai Deu. The classiest and most expensive bar in town.
- Samlor Pub, Thanon Setthathirat opposite Wat Onteu. It has long been one of only a few bars in town, and was packed every evening. A lot quieter now that there is more competition. Has pool table and shows sports, but the "background" music often drowns the TV commentary. Tends to stay open later than other bars listed here.
- Khop Chai Deu, Thanon Setthathirat next to the fountain square. The name means "thank you very much", and despite the prices, this is usually the most active place in this part of town until action moves on to one of the discos.
- Deja Vu, next to L'Opera Restaurant on Nam Phu Square (Fountain), a very classy and cozy bar, owned and run by Japanese-speaking Lao owner. Closed Sundays.
There are two clubs near the Novotel hotel:
- DTech, in the hotel grounds. Mainly techno.
- Future, just outside. 80s and 90s songs with a big video screen.
Note that everything is supposed to close down before midnight before the start of the unofficial curfew, although clubs generally stay open until 1-1.30am. The most notable exception is the extremely popular Don Chan Palace Hotel Nightclub which is open until 4am on the weekend.
Now that the closing time is more strictly enforced (December 2006), the popularity of the bowling alley has increased again, as it is open and serving customers for 24 hours a day.
There are numerous places to stay in Vientiane, from very basic guest houses with dormitory-type rooms to comfortable upscale boutique hotels, with prices from very moderate to mid-range and higher. In recent years many new establishments have opened, but mid-2007 the Government announced plans to restrict the number of new permits: they wish to concentrate on quality rather than quantity. The days that anyone could convert their home to a guest house and partake of the boom seem to be over.
It should always be possible to find accommodation here without bothering to book in advance; in fact, the only time there has been something of a room shortage in Vientiane in recent years was in November 2004 when the city hosted an ASEAN summit. Anyway, if such an event should happen again the authorities may well close the border for tourists, as they did in 2004. Normally, just get into the town center (for instance the Nam Phu square) and start looking around along Thanon Setthathirat and its side streets. You’ll find something within minutes.
Room rates may vary depending on the season: high season is something like October through April or May; low season June through September.
Some places insist on an early nightly curfew and lock the front door without giving you a key. If you wish to enjoy the nightlife (what there is of it), make sure that you will be able to stay out and, more importantly, get in again.
The Lao Hotel and Restaurant Association has an extensive list of hotels in Vientiane. The following is just a small selection.
- Sabaidy Guest House, 203 Thanon Settathirat. Has lockers to keep your belongings in. Close to downtown, it's a great place for the budget backpacker. cheap dorm beds and a few rooms.
- Vayakorn Guest House, 91 Thanon Nokeo Khummane (just off Thanon Setthathirat). Opened in 2003. Very clean, well-appointed rooms with wood floors, air-con. Helpful and friendly staff. Rates: US$ 22.00 - US$ 25.00.
- Auberge du Temple, Thanon Luang Prabang (next to Wat Khunta). A bit far from the city centre, but a very pleasant guest house owned by a French-Swiss gentleman
Many more guest houses all over downtown Vientiane - too many to even begin listing them all. Walk in and ask!
- Lane Xang Hotel, Thanon Fa Ngum. A majestic old hotel from decades ago, built 1960. It is one of the oldest hotels in Vientiane. Boasted the first elevator in the country. The charm of past glory - see the bathroom fittings! Hunter S. Thompson wrote dispatches from here after scrambling out of Saigon as it fell. They claim that English, French, Japanese, Thai, Russian, Vietnamese and (would you believe it?) Lao are spoken. Room rate 30 -50 US$ incl breakfast.
- Asian Pavilion Hotel, 379 Thanon Samsenthai. A good if not quite their self-proclaimed "fascinating" mid-range choice formerly known as Hotel Constellation - as recorded in John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy - and Hotel Vieng Vilay. Rooms from US$26 with air-con, hot water, cable TV, breakfast and airport transfer..
- Chanthapanya Hotel, Thanon Nokeo Koummane ("opposite). Owned and operated by the Chanthapanya family the hotel offers the charm of a family guest house while providing the comfort of a hotel. All rooms have A/C, Wi-Fi access, personal safe (too small for a notebook PC), cable TV, 24hr hot water. Wi-Fi access points are on floors 2 and 4, and reception is best there. Beware unpleasant smells from air con in some top floor rooms, and ask for a room with a view (meaning not the view of the neighbors' wall). They lock up early - check with Reception! From US$35 per room per night.
- Inter City Hotel, 24-25 Thanon Fa Ngum (the river road), . Totally renovated in 2004, now a boutique hotel. Ask for a room with a view of the river. Room prices from 46 US$ (standard room) to 61 US$ (deluxe).
- Beau Rivage Mekong Hotel, Thanon Fa Ngum (On the river road but at the shady tree-lined stretch that has not yet been “developed”, a few hundred meters upriver from where the road has been asphalted), . New, very nice. Room prices from 40 to 70 US$ depending on season and single or double occupancy.
- Lani Guest House, Thanon Setthathirat (next to Wat Haisok), . An old, French colonial-style house in a small garden set back from the main road. A quiet place to relax yet right in the center of downtown. Prices from 27.50 (single) to 38.50 US$ (double).
- Orchid Guest House, Thanon Fa Ngum. Rooms from 12 (single) to 15 US$ (double)..
- Settha Palace Hotel, 6 Pang Kham Street (right at the end of the street, north from Nam Phu past Lao Plaza and Day Inn Hotels), . Built circa 1932, the luxurious Hotel has been restored to its former charm. Re-opened in 1999, the French colonial architecture, its period furniture and its landscaped gardens with a free-form pool, complemented by modern facilities, are some of the features of this historical landmark in the heart of Vientiane. If you see a London taxicab cruising the streets, it’s theirs, used to ferry guests around. They have an excellent restaurant “La Belle Epoque” (see below) and an open air sidewalk café. Room rates from US$ 105.
- Green Park Boutique Hotel and Resort, Thanon Ku Vieng (About 1km east from the Morning Market), . A newer boutique hotel built in Lao style - several buildings in a garden setting. Nice pool. It is somewhat away from the center, but ideal to “get away from the bustle” (Shuttle bus to downtown area every hour until 22.00 PM). Room rates depend on season and start at 100 to 125 USD (single); 110 to 130 (double)..
- Don Chan Palace, (far out at the eastern end of the river promenade), . This Malaysian-built hotel, completed in 2004, almost complies with the municipality's town planning by-laws which at the time limited buildings in Vientiane to 4 storeys (Don Chan has 14). The place is an eyesore. Several restaurants; swimming pool; and a popular open-air beer garden overlooking the Mekong which gets crowded late in the evening. Not really recommended as a place to stay: too far from the center - there are many much nicer hotels with more character downtown, where you'll pay a lot less. Rooms at Don Chan: from $130.
Internet cafes are ubiquitous in Vientiane, particularly along Thanon Samsenthai and the east end of Thanon Setthathirat. The going rate as of September 2007 is 100K/minute, usually charged in 10 minute increments.
- FastestNet. Thanon Samsenthai (between Lao Plaza and Asian Pavilion). Lives up to its name fairly well and charges the standard 100K/min. No firewalls or program install restrictions.
The city's waterworks are called Nam PaPaa, which means "water without fishes". Yes, the fishes have been removed but not everything else. Don't drink the tap water - stick to the bottled water available everywhere.
Vientiane is free from malaria, but dengue is a real threat, especially during the rainy season. Take the necessary precautions against mosquito bites by wearing DEET repellent - available to purchase at any minimart.
Some of them can be vicious. If you're bitten see a doctor. Even if you've had a rabies vaccination before your trip: you will still need a booster jab.
Don't follow the example of the locals who will bathe in anything that looks like water. There is a real risk of picking up parasites! Swimming in public pools is okay. There is one in a kind of garden setting on Thanon Sok Paluang, and another, not in such a nice setting, on the road by the Stadium.
Hotel pools are also safe. Some hotels with pools that you can use for a fee if you're not staying there: Novotel, Lao Plaza, Lane Xang - and there are more. Recommended: the Sunday brunch at the Novotel at c. US$ 10 including use of the pool.
Vientiane's hospitals are a far cry from those in the West or even in Thailand. Mahosot and Setthathirat Hospitals can treat common conditions but for anything more serious you're better off heading to Thailand (see below) where there are good private hospitals with USA or Europe trained doctors.
For emergency dental treatment it's also best to go to Thailand; in Vientiane's dental clinics they seem to resort to tooth extractions a bit too easily.
Mahosot Hospital is on the river (go to their "International Clinic" where you pay more and get more personal service, but from the same doctors that work in the hospital itself); Setthathirat Hospital is away from downtown on the Thai-Lao Road.
Recommended hospitals close to Vientiane are:
- Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai, good for treating simpler cases. Tel. from Laos 0066-42-465201.
- Aek Udon International Hospital in Udon Thani, has more facilities. Tel. from Laos 0066-42-342555.
- Ambulance services to Thailand: The ambulances of Wattana Hospital can cross the border to pick up patients in Vientiane; they can also take them to Aek Udon Hospital. Ambulances of Setthathirat Hospital (Tel. 021-351156) can also cross the border.
The bridge is open from 06:00 am till 10:00 pm; outside these hours the gates are only opened for emergencies upon telephone request from the hospital.
Vientiane is a fairly safe city in terms of crime. However, bag snatching from guests sitting in front of cafes is becoming more common. Bags in the baskets of (rented) bicycles or mopeds, even when moving along, are also far from safe. Do not leave a bag in an accessible position. If your bag is snatched, immediately start shouting: the perpetrators rely on tourists reacting by silently trying to chase them without alerting the numerous police boxes. The thieves are often drug addicts.
Probably a bigger hazard than crime is the missing sewer covers on sidewalks. Additionally, there are many loose flagstones that will tip if stepped on. Tread carefully and exercise extreme caution at night.
A "secret" Lao law says that foreigners cannot have sexual relations with Lao women other than their spouses. The penalty, if caught, is US$500 for first time, though as the text of the law is not available, may be much more (the US embassy says $5000); the foreigner may be jailed or deported and the Lao woman may find herself in jail - and that is really the last place anyone would want to be here. If you take a girl to your room and she robs you this law makes it almost impossible to obtain assistance from the police. Bar tenders are happy to provide stories of angry tourists confronting girls in the same bars they picked them up the night before! Anyway, many hotels do not allow foreigners to take girls to their rooms, as it is officially prohibited. Those that do allow it must have some financial arrangement with the local police - this is Laos where the only thing more powerful than the Law is money.
|This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!