Not a lot of people visit Laos, the sleepy, landlocked Southeast Asian country just north of Thailand. The Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the world's five remaining communist countries, and has a reputation of being the friendliest and most laid back; a joke amongst travelers is that "PDR" in its name doesn't stand for "People's Democratic Republic", but instead "Please Don't Rush".
When you live in Thailand long enough, eventually you'll have to do a "visa run" to the border. Instead of the usual weekend in Siem Reap or Penang, why not head north to Vientiane, one of the smallest (pop. 200,000) and friendliest capital cities in the world for a weekend of exploration, sightseeing, and halfway decent beer?
Getting to Vientiane - What to Know
How to Get to Laos:
The easiest way to get to Vientiane is to fly direct from Bangkok's Don Muang Airport to Wattay International in Vientiane. The flight usually takes a little less than one hour. Tickets from Air Asia 1000-2000 THB (approx $30-60).
If you live in the north, or have a bit of extra time, you can also take the train directly to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai and Vientiane.
A 28-day visa-on-arrival is available at the airport and at the Friendship Bridge for most nationalities (including US and UK) for $30. You will need to bring one passport-size photo with you and exact change in USD to make the process go quicker. Arriving at Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, getting a visa takes only a few minutes. It goes even quicker if you have already filled out the paperwork provided during the flight. You must have two blank pages in your passport. The visa itself takes up one page. It is surprisingly fast and efficient.
Laos uses the Lao Kip, which has an exchange rate of approximately 8000k to $1. US Dollar and Thai Baht are also generally accepted in Vientiane., although it is always a good idea to have some local currency with you. You can exchange at Wattay Airport and at most banks and hotels.
The official language of Laos is Lao, which is quite similar to an eastern dialect of Thai. You will have no trouble communicating using Thai. Most people in Vientiane, especially in the tourist industry are able to speak English very well, and some older people will be able to communicate in French (Laos was a French colony until 1953).
Vientiane is relatively small, and it's easy to get around. You can pick up a tuk-tuk pretty much anywhere. To get further out of town to the Beer Lao Factory or Buddha Park, you can take a very nice, clean, comfortable Japanese-made bus for just a few thousand kip from the city center.
So, how can you spend a visa-run weekend in Vientiane? What are the top things to see and do in this interesting town?
1. Beer Lao Factory
Cost: FREE (you have to pay for the beer, obviously...) Open on weekdays.
Beer Lao has gained a reputation over the years as the best beer in Southeast Asia. It's just a solid beer; really pretty good! You can find it all over Asia, but what better place to have an ice cold bottle of Beer Lao than at its home?
Just out of town on the main road, you can pay a visit to the Beer Lao Factory. Unfortunately, they've stopped giving tours (they might restart when renovations are complete), but you can visit the on-site museum for free. Also, visit the gift shop for some merchandise (like an awesome yellow hat!) and the "minibar" (ie the tasting room) where you can order a couple of bottles to try the three different flavors; original, dark lager, and gold.
Just a solid lager beer. Not bad at all! Nothing particularly special, but definitely better than most of the Southeast Asian national beers. Fairly light and crisp.
Beer Lao Dark Lager:
My personal favorite! Clean and dark, and a bit sweet. Highly recommended!
Beer Lao Gold:
"Brewed with Precious", the label hilariously reads. It's supposedly only found in Laos, but I was been quite disappointed to have found a bottle in Bangkok. Sweet and malty. Smooth and definitely special, but a little on the light side.
You might as well try them all and form your own opinion! You can get to the factory by taxi or bus #14 in about fifteen minutes from the city center.
2. Buddha Park
Open 8am-6pm daily
Bus Ticket: 6,000k each way (take bus #14 from the city center)
Buddha Park is 25km outside of town, just past the Friendship Bridge, and it is an... interesting place, to say the least.
A field on the banks of the Mekhong River is covered in dozens of odd concrete statues of scenes from Hindu-Buddhist mythology. Though it looks ancient, its all the work of an artist from the past half-century.
Is it a holy site? An art instillation? It's all just very random. If you have time, Buddha Park is definitely worth visiting, just to see the wacky eccentricity of it all. It's a fun morning out of town.
There's no guide or sign markers. You can just sort of wander around amongst the statues taking pictures and marveling at the scale of the large reclining Buddha. At the far end of the field is a large pumpkin-like structure that you can climb up for a view of the whole park.
It's interesting, but don't expect ancient ruins like some of the guide brochures might lead you to believe. Buy an ice cream bar and have fun wandering around the wacky statues. It's so odd that you won't be disappointed.
Cost: 3000k to climb to the top
Back in town, pay a visit to Vientiane's most iconic landmark, the Patuxai, the "Gate of Victory". The Laotian Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument at the opposite end of Lang Xang Boulevard from the Presidential Palace, mirroring Paris' Champs Elysées.
Patuxai pays tribute to Laos' French Indochinese past, but still embraces a uniquely Lao style. Nicknamed the "Vertical Runway", it was built using concrete donated by the USA for the construction of a new airport. The monument was originally built to commemorate independence from France, but has since been co-opted by the Communist Party as a symbol of revolution and victory.
For a very small fee, you can climb the seven flights of stairs to the top of the monument for a view of the surrounding Patuxai Park. Inside, a number of vendors have set up shops and stalls selling everything from lucky amulets to t-shirts ans postcards.
Patuxai is the national symbol of Laos, and is one of the top sights that you really shouldn't miss in Vientiane.
4. Pha That Luang
Hire a tuk-tuk for the short ride. You would really rather not walk. It's further than it looks.
Pha That Luang is the most important Buddhist holy site in Vientiane. A temple has stood on this site since at least the third century, and the great stupa is said to house a breastbone of the Buddha himself.
The impressive golden structure is a magnificent symbol of Lao Buddhism
5. Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket is the oldest temple building in Vientiane. It's a beautiful temple, but what's across the street is a bit more interesting: Haw Phra Kaew.
6. Haw Phra Kaew
Haw Phra Kaew is the original home of the legendary Emerald Buddha, which now resides at Wat Phra Kaew at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The Emerald Buddha, a symbol of Thai strength, faith, and unity, has changed hands between Laos and Thailand many times in its history, and is said to give those who protect it great power.
The temple is, of course, empty now. You can see the Emerald Buddha itself in Bangkok. But Haw Phra Kaew is very much worth visiting anyway, especially if you are interested in history.
7. A Good Cup of Coffee
One thing that Laos took away from its time as a French protectorate is a love of coffee and appreciation for a good pastry. After a long day of sightseeing, there's nothing better than relaxing at the famous Joma Bakery Cafe, or one of the other wonderful cafes on the main street, for a hot cup of very good coffee and a flaky, buttery croissant.