Vientiane is the capital of Laos. It has some unique temples, a good variety of culinary options, and a remarkable sculpture garden outside of town. It’s a 10 hour bus ride over incredibly bumpy roads from Luang Prabang. It can also be incredibly hot, depending on the season.
There is a cute old down-town area, which is a grid of little streets full of coffee shops and cute cafes. The scene is a cool mix of tropical Asian and European chic. We rented a motorbike to check out the sights around the city. We drove past the Victory Gate, Patuxai. It’s a very iconic image in Vientiane. From there we went out to Pha That Luang. It’s a large new temple with a unique three-layered gold stupa. The original stupa is from 1566 and it is a national symbol. It was closed for the day, but we got a nice view from the outside. I peeked inside a small new temple next door. It had a massive lounging Buddha and some people there for a smoky incense-filled ceremony.
One of the other interest sights in Vientiane is the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor center. During the Vietnam war, loads and loads of bombs (2 million tons of ordnance) were dropped on the small, poor country of Laos. There are still an alarming number of UXO- unexploded ordnance- throughout the country. The visitor center has lots of information on the effects and consequences of these actions. Thousands of people have died or been seriously injured by these hidden bombs as they try to do normal daily activities, like cultivate their fields or start a fire to cook their dinner. There are testimonials and videos from victims in the center. It’s very sad to hear about how lost and useless people feel once they cannot work because of the accidents. COPE provides prosthetic limbs, information, and therapy to victims. There was also an exhibit on groups that are trying to remove the unexploded bombs before they cause more problems, but it is difficult, dangerous work. Another exhibit showed the tools people have created from the metal scraps of the bombs. The COPE center was an emotionally difficult visit, but very moving, educational and enriching.
My favorite place in Vientiane was Wat Si Saket. The temple was built in 1818. The interior has been preserved as a museum. There is a small courtyard with hundreds of Buddhas- some small ones in little niches on the painted walls and some full-sized statues, made from a variety of materials (wood, stone, silver, bronze). Being surrounded by Buddhas always gives me a feeling of peace and calm. The walls of the temple and finishes on the Buddhas have faded with time, creating a beautiful worn, but strong ancient ambience; it’s like time can change the scene but not diminish it. There were some really beautiful details in the temple like gold flowers along one wall, a golden throne, and a dragon-snake (naga). I spent a long time inspecting every corner, nook and face. The Buddhas here looked especially blissful. They smiled with wide winged eyes and upturned mouths. Buddha is always serene but not always quite so warm and welcoming. Inside the temple, there was a large gold Buddha with many more niches with smaller ones. Murals depicted Buddha’s previous lives. Photography wasn’t allowed, and I do believe in saving some things, precious like a secret, so I will not show the inside (though if you Google it, you can see). The temple wasn’t large, but it was so serene I almost couldn’t leave.
My other favorite place was Buddha Park. It’s about a half an hour to an hour drive from the city. In 1958, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat created a large collection of huge cement statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities, animals, and imaginary beasts. There is a large pumpkin near the entrance that you can enter to climb through 3 stories of scenes to the roof to look out over the park. Inside it’s narrow and short but very interesting. There were creatures with multiple heads or arms and a large lounging Buddha. There were elephants and ladies. My favorite was a ferocious head sinking its teeth into another head. It had muscular arms to hold the prey and 2 serpentine tails rising behind it holding a ball or disk high in the air. It was like many Asian demons- meant to be scary, but strangely cute.
Vientiane is often under-rated. It is sort of described as a stark capital city, by comparison to the UNESCO cultural center of Luang Prabang. I found this to be very misleading. I thought Vientiane was rich with a unique set of temples and a very different but pleasant atmosphere. It’s a lovely city!
Also, check out the great sights in Luang Prabang!