Making our way down to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect but with a population of only around 240,000 people it has a very easy going vibe that we were happily drawn to. We also figured that while we were there we’d apply for longer tourist visa for Thailand that could only be done outside of Thailand. This gave us a couple days to explore this quiet capital and enjoy some chill time along the beautiful riverside promenade.
We arrived quite late in the evening so missed the sunset and had a low key evening as we planned to be up early to get to the Thai Consulate the following day. The actual visa application was pretty simple and didn’t take too long but they need to keep your passport which you can collect the next afternoon. If you’re interested in how we managed to get what is essentially a 6 month tourist visa for Thailand then check out this post.
Pha That Luang
Once the visa applications were sorted we headed over to see Pha That Luang. This monument is the national symbol of Laos and considered to be the most important symbol of Buddhist religion in Laos and Laos Sovereignty. The 44 metre high gold covered Stupa was originally built in the 3rd century to house a sacred ancient relic (believed to contain the Lord Buddha’s breast bone).
It is quite an impressive structure that has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times over the centuries, most recently at the end of WW2, and it was fascinating to see how much awe and reverence the Laotian and other Asian tourists showed towards this grand structure.
The surrounding complex of temples and shrines are equally impressive with a grand mix of the old and new architectural styles.
Patuxai – The Victory Gate
It is dedicated to those soldiers who gave their lives fighting for independence from France in 1949. America donated the funds and cement to Vientiane in order for the city to build a new airport but the government decided to build a massive monument instead. Priorities ha!
Sunsets over Thailand
The rest of our day was spent strolling the promenade along the Mekong River which, in most parts, serves as the border between Laos and Thailand. Every evening loads of people come down to the river to exercise, walk their dogs or just simply sit and enjoy the stunning sunsets over Thailand. A group of locals have even set daily Zumba classes that anyone can join in.
Once the sun goes down the little night market closes off one of the main streets along the river and really comes to life.
On the Bike
The next morning we hired some bicycles and had lots of fun riding around the city. Being such a small capital city, the traffic is not too bad which made cycling around very easy and enjoyable. We took in a few more temples and monuments before heading back to the Thai Embassy after lunch to collect our passports.
Later we made our way over the COPE centre or the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Centre.
The COPE centre provides treatments, prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation for victims of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) incidences and other people with disabilities. UXOs are old land-mines and bombs that haven’t yet detonated but still will explode if someone walks over it or a farmer knocks it while ploughing a field for example.
During a “Secret War” in Laos from 1964 to 1974 the United States conducted 580,000 bombing missions in Laos. That is one bombing mission every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 9 years! About 30% of these bombs never detonated on impact.
The COPE visitor’s centre was one of the most shocking, yet awe-inspiring exhibits I have seen. Although the information about the war and its horrendous after-effects are well displayed and very informative, they also showcase some of the wonderful and inspiring rehabilitation work they do with the survivors of UXO incidences.
I’ve dedicated another post to the COPE Centre and the Secret War here.
Sun Downers with Friends
The rest of the afternoon was spent planning our next moves for heading south in Laos and sipping beers by the river with Jane and Duncan from To Travel Too. And of course getting some pics of another spectacular sunset.
Vientiane surprised us with its laid back atmosphere and charming riverside. It is one of the few capital cities we’d consider staying in for an extended period but at the time we needed to keep moving.
A quick note for travellers;
The National Tourism Authority of Laos office in Vientiane is really helpful and provides free maps of the city as well as maps and info booklets of all the other provinces. It isn’t very well sign posted and we rode past a couple times before finding it but check this map for the location.
It is definitely worth a visit if you’re making your own way around the country, especially in the eastern and southern parts of Laos which seems to be a bit off many traveller’s radars. In my opinion Southern Laos is way more enjoyable and rewarding to those who make the trip down there but that’ll be covered in another post.