“Oh, you make visa run” was the response of a travel agent when we first inquired about booking a bus ticket to Vientiane. He was a bit surprised when we told him that we actually wanted to stay there. Bangkok, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are all bustling, world-renowned capital cities of SE Asia, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. And then there is Vientiane, often called the world’s sleepiest capital. For many travelers in SE Asia, Vientiane is nothing more than a place to go to renew their Thai visa. They cross the border and then head back to Chiang Mai or Bangkok the same day. We didn’t have high expectations, but didn’t want to dismiss Vientiane without giving it a try, so we decided to spend a couple days checking it out.
Like many other cities in the region, the mighty Mekong River is at the heart and soul of Vientiane. Here it is very wide and flows slowly beside the city creating a natural border with neighboring Thailand. As if saying “Welcome to Vientiane,” Mother Nature granted us a spectacular sunset over the river on the first evening. The fire-like reds and subtle purple hues in the sky were simply incredible.
Just 30 minutes outside of the city lays Xieng Khuan, known to many as the Buddha Park. It was a hellishly bumpy and dusty tuk-tuk ride to get there, but well worth the journey. The main attraction at this relatively small park is an enormous statue of Buddha lying on his side. When we say enormous, we mean it; the feet alone are about two meters tall! Although it may be a cop-out to say “pictures don’t do it justice,” we’re going to play that card anyway.
On our last day in town before boarding the night train to Bangkok, we felt obligated to visit Pha That Luang, the Great Stupa. This temple is the quintessential image of Vientiane, also featured on Laos’ currency. While not as stunning as the statues at the Buddha Park in our opinion, it too was worth a visit. It is an impressively symmetrical structure and worshiped as the holiest Buddhist temple in Laos due to a sliver of Buddha’s breast bone which is kept as a relic inside.
Our walks along the Mekong, visits to the Buddha Park and Great Stupa, and days spent wandering through markets on a quest to find tasty Laotian noodle bowls were all reasons we enjoyed our time in Vientiane. It is certainly deserving of more than its Visa run reputation, and we would encourage all who come to SE Asia to stop through Vientiane.