One of Asia’s smallest and most unusual capital cities is Vientiane, the potholed administrative and political centre of communist Laos. Sleepy and slightly dishevelled, Vientiane lies along the northern banks of the mighty Mekong River, directly across from Thailand. This is the first stop for most visitors to Laos, and although the capital may come across as somewhat bewildering, there are more than a few surprises in this dusty city worth exploring.
Also known as the City of Sandalwood, Vientiane was sacked by the Thais in 1828, resulting in an unfortunate lack of ancient temples and other reminders of its long history. It wasn’t until the French arrived a century later that Vientiane was rebuilt and reborn, a process which continues even today thanks to development aide from foreign countries.
Like most French colonial towns of Indochina, Vientiane has broad, leafy boulevards lined with magnificent colonial mansions in various stages of decay, a handful of Buddhist temples and a relaxed tropical feel.
Seemingly forever under construction, Laos’ capital is a dusty, fractured yet fascinating city to explore. In many ways, its rustic character is precisely what gives Vientiane much of its charm. Underlying the haze is a sense of recovery, struggle and optimism, as evidenced by the ever growing number of hotels, restaurants, bars and tourists.
The wide Mekong riverfront is perhaps the most popular area of the city for visitors to base themselves. Most of the city’s amenities lie between the river road and the neighbouring Nam Phu Fountain, including bakeries, a handful of modern bars and mid-range restaurants.
Vientiane is a place that demands you slow down and match its languid pace. Walking or riding a bicycle is a great way to explore the central part of town. For those who want to experience the countryside, you can be out of the concrete and into the rice fields within minutes. With less than 300,000 residents in the capital, museums, cultural attractions and entertainment venues are in the minority, with the emphasis here on daily survival and cold beers at sunset overlooking the Mekong.
Nowhere else in Laos is the modern world encroaching on tradition more than in Vientiane. Monks chat on mobile phones, young kids play in Internet shops and new Land Rovers cruise past crumbling mansions. It’s this sharp contrast of imagery that makes Vientiane worth a few days of exploration. The city may not blow your mind, but there’s no disputing that Laos’ capital is one of the most unique and laid-back cities on the planet.
Thanks to its favourable location along the Mekong River in the middle of an enormous fertile valley, Vientiane has been continuously inhabited since the 10th century. The Khmer, Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese have all had their turn at the wheel, repeatedly conquering and often sacking the city even after it had been integrated into the first Lao kingdom known as Lan Xang, meaning the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’.
Vientiane reached a new height of importance in 1560, when King Setthathirath relocated his capital from Luang Prabang in the north to present-day Vientiane. He built the impressive That Luang stupa on the site of an ancient Khmer temple east of the city. This beautiful Buddhist icon remains a major symbol of Lao sovereignty and a reminder of this communist nation’s Buddhist roots. This was Vientiane’s Golden Era, which came crashing down in the late 1800s when the Siamese razed the city. Only one Buddhist temple was left standing, the stately Wat Sisaket, built in 1818.
All but abandoned until the late 19th century, when the French colonised Laos as part of their Indochina plan, Vientiane has been on a slow path of recovery ever since. The French made Vientiane the capital of their new colony and most of the city we see today dates from this period or later. With so little historical infrastructure left after the Siamese invasion, there are few reminders of the city’s pre-colonial existence.
The French ruled Laos with a relatively fair hand until WWII, after which a number of Lao independence groups emerged and began campaigns for autonomy. Independence was achieved in 1953, when Laos become a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, Laos was sucked into the Vietnam War soon after independence, resulting in the dubious honour of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.
While the countryside bordering Vietnam was being bombed into oblivion by the Americans, extensive aid money from the US was keeping Vientiane insulated from the tragedy afflicting the rest of the nation. This sad irony allowed the capital to thrive during wartime by supplying entertainment services for US soldiers and government officials.
When Saigon fell in 1975, the boom in Vientiane also ended. The communist party, Pathet Lao, took control of the capital and created the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which still governs the country today. Within days, Vientiane was transformed from a hedonistic haven to a repressed city where anything related to American culture was outlawed. When the Americans withdrew financial aid, the economy of the capital collapsed.
In the chaos that ensued, the Pathet Lao forced the traditional monarchy to abdicate, marking the end of 600 years of Laotian royalty. The communist government also tried to outlaw Buddhism, but massive public protests in 1977 forced the Pathet Lao to back down. The Soviets stepped in to replace the role of the Americans, creating a radically different city. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Laos was forced to re-evaluate its position in the world.
The opening of the Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane and Nong Khai, Thailand in 1994 was the first step towards new foreign policies. Since then, development money from many nations has poured into Laos to help with infrastructure, agriculture and education. The communist government is still in power, but capitalism has made serious inroads into Vientiane’s economy. The future of Laos will greatly depend on how well the government can wean itself off of international aid and assume responsibility for its own sustainability.
Vientiane has a typically tropical climate, with two distinct seasons based around the annual monsoon. The rainy season begins around June and lasts until late October. Heavy afternoon thunderstorms are normal during this summer period, followed by high levels of humidity which make the hot weather feel even more uncomfortable. However, the rainy season also brings relief to the sometimes dust-choked streets of the capital, cleaning things and helping the dense vegetation burst back into life.
By November, the rains have subsided and dry conditions prevail. The dry season runs until May, when the wet season’s first thunderstorms are welcomed as they rip across the city. The temperatures range from warm to hot throughout most of the year, except for December and January, when conditions reach their coolest and most pleasant. Bright blue skies and comfortable daytime temperatures make this the most popular season for tourism, but it rarely feels overcrowded in Vientiane.
By March the weather turns hot again. Farmers burn their fields and dust and haze hang heavy over the region, often creating unpleasant conditions. To help ease things during the region’s hottest period, April’s Pi Mai New Year celebrations bring frivolous water fights to the streets in an effort to cool everyone off.