The capital city of Laos is often overlooked as a pass-through destination or visa run hub. This is a shame as it’s one of the most mellow major cities in Southeast Asia and is home to many fascinating cultural sites and great vegan eats. Give the city a chance! Spend at least three days here so you can experience these 8 fascinating cultural things to do in Vientiane, Laos.
Lola exploring ancient structures in Vientiane, Laos.
PHA THAT LUANG BUDDHA PARK
Exploring Pha That Luang, Vientiane’s Buddha Park.
One of the most fascinating cultural things to do in Vientiane, Laos is the Buddha Park. I was most excited to see in Vientiane was Pha That Luang (GoogleMaps), otherwise known as Buddha Park. I love anything that’s slightly bazaar, over the top, and larger-than-life. The gigantic statues nestled around the riverside Buddha Park in Vientiane didn’t disapoint–I was absolutely delighted. Buses leave throughout the day from Khua Din Bus Station and go directly to the park so there’s no reason to splurge on a costly taxi or tuk-tuk for the 25 km ride.
Religious statues at Pha That Luang, Buddha Park in Vientiane.
The sculpture park may be the most famous national monument in Laos but it’s not nearly as old as the religious sights in neighboring Thailand or Vietnam. The park was started in the 1950s by Hindu and Buddhist shaman Pu Bunleua Sulilat. There are over 200 statues here in various poses. Most are of Buddha but some are other spiritual figures as well such as Ganesha and Shiva. The most enormous statute is a massive reclining Buddha that’s 390 feet long.
You can climb to the top of the largest structure which has three levels to represent hell, earth, and heaven. Enter through a mouth and go up questionable stone stairs and you’ll be rewarded with a birds eye view of the artistic Pha That Luang grounds. There is a small entry fee to visit the Buddha Park Vientiane.
The That Dam Black Stupa.
Right in the center of town is quite possibly the most beautiful roundabout to ever exist. In the center of the road is the That Dam (GoogleMaps) monument. The bell-shaped stupa is in the form of an unopened lotus flower and is often referred to as the black stupa. It has been worn over time and can be seen today with exposed brick but it’s believed to have once been covered in gold adornments including a 7-headed Naga (water serpent).
Looking at a few of the 7,000 Buddhas at Wat Sisaket.
Nearby the black stupa is the 19th-century Thai style Wat Sisaket (GoogleMaps) which has been renovated into a museum. The temple is home to around 7,000 of Buddha statues as well as many stupas that hold the ashes of former kings. There is a small fee to enter which is worthwhile as there are many signs throughout the grounds which explain the different buildings and their historic purposes.
Some of the many Buddhas around Wat Sisaket.
WAT PHRA KAEW
The gilded exterior of Wat Phra Kaew.
Wat Phra Kaew (GoogleMaps) is around the corner from Wat Sisaket in Vientiane, Laos and also has an entrance fee. As I’m usually most moved by the exterior decor of temples I decided not to enter and just snap a picture from outside the grounds. This temple once held the famous Emerland Buddha which now resides at The Grand Palace in Bangkok. The architecture of the temple is stunning and dates back to 1565–today it isn’t an active Buddhist temple but is instead used as a museum.
Buddhist blessings at Wat Simuang.
Wat Simuang (GoogleMaps) in Vientiane, Laos a colorful temple that’s popular among locals as it’s believed to be a place of good fortune. During my visit, I was fortunate enough to receive a blessing by a monk and was able to lay low as I watched many other blessing ceremonies take place. The 16th-century temple is one of the most vibrant I’ve seen–it even has a rose gold Buddha statue!
Scenes around Wat Simuang.
COPE VISITOR CENTER
A display of artificial limbs at COPE Visitor Center.
Laos is the most bombed country in the world. From 1964 to 1973 the US ran 580,000 bombing missions over Laos which calculates a bomb dropped every 8 minutes for 9 years. Laos was never at war. But even 50 years later people are suffering from this war atrocity as it’s believed that there are 80 million unexploded bombs (UXO) in Laos. It is crucial for foreign visitors to learn and respect this history and share this information once they get back home as it seems most of the world is ignorant about this massive suffering. The COPE Visitor Center is a must thing to do in Vientiane.
To learn about the impacts of the UXO in Laos visit the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise Center (GoogleMaps). COPE is the main source for artificial limbs in Laos for survivors of UXO. There are still blanket bombs exploding today and killing many local people. When there are survivors are in need of urgent medical care and often prospects. The multimedia exhibits at COPE clearly explain the history of the bombing in Laos, the risks that are still present today, and the long-term impact of such a careless act of war on an innocent country. It’s entirely suffocating to learn this dark history but I believe it’s travelers duty. If you have time, watch one of the many documentaries to learn about the brave Laotian people who have dedicated their lives to clearing bomb sites in order to try to protect their people.
Take a stroll along the mellow Mekong River.
Visiting the COPE center is heavy. Head down to the river to process what you’ve learned and reflect on history and how it continues to haunt people today. Vientiane is conveniently located on the banks of the Mekong River. There’s a lovely boardwalk that’s a popular place for locals to go for a morning run or stroll for the evening with their families. During my visit, the water levels were extremely high due to flooding and there were many boat rides available.
PATOUXAY VICTORY MONUMENT
Reflections at the beautiful Patouxay Victory Monument.
In the style of the famous arches that can be found in Paris, Barcelona, and even New York City’s Washington Square Park is the Patouxay Victory Monument (GoogleMaps). The arch was erected in the 1960s as a war memorial and boasts stunning traditional Laotian carvings. It’s best to visit early in the morning as this is a popular spot for tourist to snap selfies as it’s one of the most common things to do in Vientiane. It’s free to explore the area from the outside.
PHA THAT LUANG GOLDEN STUPA
The Golden Stupa at Pha That Luang in Vientiane.
Pha That Luang (GoogleMaps), also known as the Vientiane’s Golden Stupa, is one of the most iconic Buddhist structures in Laos and therefore one of the most fascinating cultural things to do in Vientiane. The 145-foot golden stupa is believed to rest on a spot that has been considered sacred and held some sort of monument since the 3rd century.
Views around the Pha That Luang temple grounds.
The temple grounds are actually much larger than just the golden stupa. There’s a museum as well as several Buddhist structures that are flanked with impressive statues and adorned with neon paintings that depict Buddha’s life. Be sure to also pay respect to the reclining Buddha–this pose represents Buddha in his death. Did you know that Buddha was a human and isn’t considered to be a god?
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