Vientiane is pretty laid back for the capital city of Laos. It’s here in Vientiane that you’ll find a monument to the Laotian people who lost their life in prerevolutionary times. In Vientiane, you’ll find the most important symbol of the country of Laos and her most important religious icon. Our guide on Vientiane itineraries includes what to do in Vientiane in 2 days and what to do if you only have one day in Vientiane. This is NOT a capital city that you need to race around and run in and out of cultural museums and must-dos. Vientiane is laid back, and your approach to seeing the best things to do in Vientiane should be the same. Come to the capital, relax a little and explore some of the psyche of Laos.
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Arriving in Vientiane
Vientiane’s bus station isn’t central. Depending on where you’ve arrived from (we came from Pakse to Vientiane) you’ll arrive in either the northern or the southern bus station. We arrived at the southern bus station.
That’s something that you’ll find a lot of in Laos. Each town and city here in Laos has multiple bus stations – depending on where you’re coming from. None of it is very clear, but what is patently obvious that these bus stations are not located for the benefit of anyone travelling to them. I do believe that the town planners were in league with the tuk-tuk drivers. Everywhere we’ve visited in Laos has a bus station (or multiple bus stations) up to 10km out of town for no apparent reason other than revenue maximisation.
And so while our overnight bus, that drove us nearly 700km cost us 170,000 kip. (you can book the Pakse to Vientiane bus online now or read our guide on how to travel the route between Vientiane and Pakse here). The shared tuk-tuk that we take into the centre costs 30,000 kip each. I’m sure we can all do the maths here. If you want to make money in Laos. Buy a tuk-tuk, not a bus.
The Best Things to do in Vientiane
You might decide after reading this, and other content on Vientiane that you’re not going to visit and that’s understandable. While many capital cities around the world have a host of informative museums, world-class restaurants and incredible tours to take, Vientiane is a little more, heck, a lot more laid back than that.
I’d say you should come to Vientiane to visit COPE if nothing else. I firmly believe that you can’t understand a lot of the country without understanding more about how a war that finished in 1975 impacted and continues to seriously impact the people and children of this country. For me, the best thing to do in Vientiane was to come and visit COPE.
Visit COPE in Vientiane
For me, the highlight of Vientiane was COPE – government-run unexploded ordnance (UXO) rehabilitation centre. COPE stands for The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. It is a charity organization providing treatment and rehab for Laotian people with disabilities. Many of these disabilities have been caused by unexploded ordnance (UXO) leftover from the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita. More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos. That’s one bombing mission every 8 minutes. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For NINE years. Between 1964 and 1974, during the Vietnam War, more than 2 million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos. 270 million these “bombies”.
There’s a small exhibition area to walk around, which provides some interesting signage and displays, including a mountain of old artificial legs, but for me, the best part of visiting COPE was the small movie theatre that they have here.
We watch “Bomb Harvest”, which follows the work of the Mines Advisory Group – MAG – and Laith Stevens, an Australian bomb disposal technician with a great gallows sense of humour. There’s a host of documentaries to watch there, where admission is by donation, which goes to support the victims of UXO injuries.
If you come to Vientiane and indeed Laos and don’t visit at least one of the UXO related centres, then I fear you’re missing much of the story of Laos. If you want to experience more, there is a UXO museum in Luang Prabang, and the Plain of Jars area is still littered with UXO and has a great museum to visit.
Your visit to COPE will help support the 5 rehab centres in the eight provinces of Laos and you can visit COPE from 0900 to 1800 every day. Your visit is free, but your donation is incredibly important to help support the work of COPE. Most of those coping with disabilities are children.
Get The Best Views of Vientiane from Patuxai
Patuxai – which stands for Victory Gates is a huge concrete arch found on the Lang Xang Avenue in Vientiane. There are gates on all sides of the monument and its style is somewhat unique, it does, however, resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France. The concrete that was used to build Patuxai came from the Americans and was originally designated for a new airport, but made its way into this monument that is also a roundabout or traffic island. Patuxai is a monument to those Laos people who died in prerevolutionary wars.
The monument has 5 towers and is decorated with Buddhist symbols and Hindu deities as well as scenes from the Ramayana (that we recognise from India) on the ceiling to the night market and temples.
There are internal staircases, and it costs 5,000 kip to climb to the top to get one of the best views of the city (depending on the time of year and the time of day – sunset is said to be particularly good). It was somewhat gloomy when we visited.
Patuxai is open from Monday to Friday from 0800 until 1630 and weekends from 0800 until 1700.
There are markets and stalls on most of the floors as you walk up and the intricate décor is interesting.
Eat Banh Mi in Vientiane
The night market in Vientiane might have some great places to eat, but the best Banh Mi we found outside of Saigon, Vietnam was down by the river. It’s called Khao Jee here in Laos. Found near the river, with a lady who doesn’t speak English, but sells the most wonderful HUGE spicy stuffed pork sandwiches for 7,000 Kip each.
Visit the Buddha Park in Vientiane – Xieng Khuang
You’ll need to go out of the city to visit Xieng Khuang. This is the infamous Buddha Park and it is somewhat bizarre. Catch the green and white number 14 bus from the bus station (it goes every 40 minutes or so) – well a road near the Talat Sao station near the market paying 6,000 kip each way per person. The Buddha Park is 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Vientiane.
Virtually all tourists who take this bus are going to one of two places (or both), the Buddha Park and the BeerLao brewery.
The Buddha Park is literally a park with lots of statues of Buddha and a strange demon’s mouth through which you walk into a giant pumpkin to descend to the depths of hell. You’ll also find David Beckham here (kind of).
The Buddha Park is also known as Xieng Khuang, this is a sculpture park. It was started in 1958 by monk and sculpture artist, Bunleua Sulila. and contains more than 200 statues and Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.
It costs us 5,000 kip each to enter the park.
The biggest sculpture in the park looks like a giant pumpkin. There are three levels – Hell, Earth and Heaven.
We enter through the demon’s mouth. And make our way through the levels for a view of the park – in Heaven. And then, of course, there are the statues of Buddha with the strange David Beckham like faces and no we weren’t able to find out why.
Visit the BeerLao factory near Vientiane
Just because we screwed up and didn’t get to go to the BeerLao factory nearby, their tours ran the day before we headed to the Buddha Park, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. The Number 14 bus runs straight past it! Find out more about taking tours at the BeerLao factory and brewery here
Visit Phra That Luang in Vientiane
Phra That Luang – the Great Stupa is the National Symbol of Laos and the most important cultural monument of Laos. Phra That Luang was built in 1566, at the time that Vientiane was confirmed as the capital of Laos.
Phra That Luang is believed to contain a breastbone of the Buddha and is a gold-covered Buddhist Stupa. It was looking a little tired when we visited. While Phra That Luang is open from 0800 until 1600 every day, it is closed for lunch from 1200 until 1300.
Phra That Luang is 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) from the centre of Vientiane, easily reachable on foot, by rented bicycle or tuk-tuk.
This symbol of Buddhism and ancient royalties of Laos can be found on the Laos currency and on all government logos. This current stupa was built in the 1500s, although there has been a temple here since the 3rd century BC. If you’re visiting Phra That Luang you should dress and behave modestly.
Visit the Vientiane Night Market
Alongside the Mekong River here in Vientiane you’ll find the Vientiane Night Market. Here you’ll find all the usual touristy stuff – handicrafts, t-shirts and the like. We loved the night market in Vientiane, though for the food stalls. Excellent barbecued meat, good Laos salads. Cold BeerLao. You’ll find the night market open from dusk until about 2200.
Take a Laos cooking class in Vientiane
There’s no better way to understand the culture of a country that by understanding its food. Taking a Laos cooking class in Vientiane is a fabulous way to learn traditional Laos recipes, understand local vegetables, herbs and spices and be able to make dishes when you get home. This four-hour class will have you learning all of that from a professional chef and then eating your creations! Check your options here.
Best Vientiane Itinerary For your Time
It’s possible to arrive in Vientiane on an overnight bus, from say Pakse (and either the Bolaven Plateau or 4000 Islands), see the city in a day and then head out that night. Many travellers do this. Check out our recommendations for Vientiane itineraries depending upon how long you want to spend in the city.
How to See Vientiane in One Day
If you have just one day in Vientiane, then you’ll want to first head out to the Buddha Park. This seriously quirky park is about 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) from Vientiane – and you can access it on a public bus. You’ll spend most likely an hour tops there and then head back into the city.
Next head to COPE – its an incredible experience and will give you a fabulous understanding of the impact that the unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War had and continues to have on the countryside.
You’ll want to go to Phra That Luang after your visit to COPE and find a little peace. This is Laos’ most important symbol and you’ll be seeing it everywhere.
End your day at the top of Patuxai to catch a sunset. The Victory Gates monument has some of the best views of Vientiane, especially at sunset. Once you’ve got your important sunset photos head towards the night market, where you can pick up some great Laos food and a cold BeerLao or two before heading you’re your bus and your trip onwards… (book onward transport from Vientiane here)
What To Do In 2 days in Vientiane
You can fit a whole lot into a 2-day itinerary in Vientiane. Choose to slow down the pace of our recommend 1 day Vientiane itinerary or try this.
Day 1 in Vientiane
- Go to the Buddha Park for when it opens at 0900.
- On the way back – remember you’re taking the public bus number 14, which goes every 40 minutes or so so it’s cheap and convenient, stop off at the BeerLao brewery for a tour and a taste.
- Arrive back into Vientiane early afternoon and head to the COPE centre to learn about the after-effects of the Vietnam War.
- Still got energy? Save it for tomorrow and treat yourself to a cold BeerLao or two at the night market.
Day 2 in Vientiane
- Start the day by visiting Phra That Luang – Lao’s most important religious symbol. You’ll want to get here early, as the light is much better for photos then. The stupa opens at 0800.
- After Phra That Luang, you’ll head to a local Lao cooking class. Lao cuisine is fantastic. All the flavours of fresh fruit and vegetable with the heat of spice that suits your palate. Not only will you cook up a storm, but you’ll get to eat it as well!
- End your day at the top of Patuxai, where you hopefully get to see a stunning sunset over the city of Vientiane.
However long you decide to spend in Vientiane you’ll find something to do with your time. The food is good here, life is laid back and the city is friendly. Explore a little and see something of Laos’s capital city during your visit to the country.
Where to Stay in Vientiane
We stayed at the centrally located Vientiane Star Hotel – which has private rooms with private bathrooms, rooms with shared bathrooms and provides a good breakfast. It’s a relatively cost-effective option in Vientiane and provides a great location from where you can explore the city. Check out rooms and availability here.
We left Vientiane and headed for Vang Vieng (check out our post on what to do in Vang Vieng here – and here are details of how to do that – or you can book a bus here. Many travellers leave Vientiane and head to Pakse (details here) and then go onto the Bolaven Plateau (seriously cool) or Lao’s 4000 Islands (massively chilled out. Our route to Vang Vieng was easy, and it was part of our plan to end up in Huay Xai in order to take on the absolutely sublime Gibbon Experience – read our review here.