VIENTIANE (across the Mekong River from Thailand) wrote Paul Theroux in 1975 in “The Great Railway Bazaar”, "is exceptional but inconvenient. The brothels are cheaper than the hotels, marijuana is cheaper than pipe tobacco, and opium is easier to find than a cold glass of beer." Vientiane has a changed a lot since the book was written: it has more or less returned to the sleepy French-Lao town it was before it was corrupted during the Vietnam War in the 1960s except there are a few more vehicles around and construction is taking placed in designated areas in accordance with rules that prohibit building more than seven stories tall. The brothel and bars that disappeared during the post-war period have returned somewhat but not nearly to the degree as they have in Phnom Penh, Saigon and especially Bangkok. Opium-smoking has shifted to the north to the Golden Triangle.

Vientiane is the political, administrative, and commercial center of Laos. It lies on the left bank of a bend of the Mekong River across from Thailand, at the edge of a large plain which extends some 65 kilometers north of the city. To the north and east, the foothills of the rugged uplands of the Annamite cordillera, which cover most of the country, are visible. Vientiane is capital and largest city of Laos but is still very small by international standard (with a population of 430,000 people in Vientiane proper and 830,000 in the region). A nice change if you are coming from a busy place like Bangkok or Saigon, it seems more like a large rural town than a city: most of the buildings are earth colored and one story; the atmosphere is dusty and peaceful. Until fairly there seems to be more chickens cruising the potholed streets than cars.

Rupak D Sharma of the Asian News Network wrote: “Upon my arrival in Vientiane, the first thing I noticed about the city was its remarkably low population density. It was Friday morning when I reached there but the streets gave an impression as if it was a weekend. When the weekend finally rolled in the next day, the thoroughfares looked completely deserted....I was waiting for a friend in front of KP Hotel when I started seeing foreign tourists. One, then another and another. In the span of around 20 minutes, when I stood there, I realised that on average every fourth person that I had come across was a foreigner. I didn’t know what to make out of it at first but later this explained a lot about the correlation between Laos’ scanty population and booming tourism industry. [Source: Rupak D Sharma, Asian News Network, May 2008]

Vientiane is pronounced “Viangchan” or “Wing Chan”. It is a French version of the Lao name Vieng Chan, meaning “Sandalwood City.” Vieng (Vien) in the Lao language means “the city”. "Chantha" (tiane) is a Pali word that means "sandalwood" or "the moon." Sandalwood is the symbol of Vientiane. It could also be the city of the moon, or the city where people respect the moon as their symbol. It is true however, that Lao people believe their origin to be from the moon, and even the design of the national flag has the image of the moon in its center. Vientiane was the medieval capital of the rich and powerful kingdom of Muong Lan Xang Hom Khao, the "Land of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol." The name Vientiane is a French invention and French culture has remained more alive here than it has in other places in Laos. The French influence in architecture is still prevalent. Many street signs are still have French writing on them.

Vientiane is located on a fertile alluvial plain and became the center of a small fiefdom around A.D. 1000. In 1545, century King Phothisarat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom here from Luang Prabang to avoid Burmese aggression. The French made it capital of the Laos protectorate in the late 19th century. Many of the temples were rebuilt in the early 20th century after the city was sacked and destroyed by the Siamese in the 1820s. The Pathet Lao didn't add much after they took power in 1975 except for some blocky concrete buildings. The result is that there isn’t a whole to see and for many Vientiane is simply a stop before they head somewhere else, usually Luang Prabang, Most visitors arrive from Thailand via the Mitraphab (Friendship) Bridge, which was completed in 1994 and lies 19 kilometers away.

Vientiane History

According to myth, the city of Vientiane was created by the Naga Souvannanak (a cobra deity). The first name of Vientiane was “Ban Nong Khanthae Phiseuanam” It is said that it became “Vientiane” town under the leadership of the first Governor, Bourichan or Phraya Chanthabouly Pasitthisak, between 430-120 B.C. See History

In 1357 King Fa Ngoum held a grandiose celebration for the great victory of the unification of all Lao territories enhancing his prestige and power over the nobility throughout the Lan Xang Kingdom and the neighboring kingdoms. It was organized in the Pak Pasak area in present day Vientiane. In 1560, King Saysettha moved from Luang Prabang to declare Vientiane as the capital city of the Lan Xang kingdom, naming it “Nakorn Chanthabouly Sitta tanakhanahood Outtama Rajathany”

During the reign of King Souliyavongsa Thamikarat in the 17th century, Vientiane grew to become one of the most developed civilizations. The city was the center of administration for politics, socio-economics and culture. The kings were brave, clever and kind and people were happy. The palaces were very beautiful, looking like golden houses standing along the bank of the Mekong River. However, Vientiane was burnt down by Siames troops in 1828, and divided into two cities. The city on the right side of the Mekong River became part of Siam and the city on the left side remained part of Laos. At present, Vientiane is a smaller city, only half of its former size.

Vientiane hosted major ASEAN meetings in November 2004 and July 2005. In 2009 it hosted the 25th annual Southeast Asia Games and in 2010 it held a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the foundation of Vientiane as the Capital (1560-2010).

Tourist Information for Vientiane

The National Tourism Authority of (NTAL) is located in Vientiane on Thanon Lan Xang between Talat Sao and Patuxai, across from center du Langue Franciase, Tel: (021)-212013. The National Tourism Authority of Laos (NTAL). Thanon Lan Xang between Talat Sao and Patuxai, Tel: (021)-212013. There is a small tourist office at the Vientiane Airport. These offices usually don't have much stuff.

Orientation: Vientiane is easy and comfortable to walk around. There is relatively little traffic—or at least there used to be—and it is small enough so that getting lost is not a problem. Most places of interest to tourist in Vientiane are located within a short distance of one another. The Mekong River is fairly wide and the city curves around the outside of a bend. In the old part of Vientiane city, along the Mekong River, there are temples, museums, monuments and parks are all located just a short distance apart.

Vientiane is divided into a series of “ban”, or small villages, usually built around local temples (wats). The four main districts are Muang Chathabul in the north, Muang Sisatatanak in the south, and Muang Xaisettha and MuangSikhottabong in the east and west. The older parts of the city are near its banks, where buildings are interspersed with vegetable plots and rice paddies with working water buffalo.

The central district of Muang Chathabuli lies at the center of the bend of the Mekong River. Most of the government offices, hotels, restaurants and historic buildings are here. The water fountain at Fountain Circle and Namphou Gardens is one of the mainland marks. Many of the top hotels and Western eating places are located here. The main shopping area is around Thanon Samsenthai (near the Asian Pavilion and Ekalath Metropole Hotels).

Vientiane is stretched out on the north-eastern bank of a bend in the Mekong River. From the river bank inland, the three main roads run parallel to the river, while the largest and widest boulevard, Lane Xang Ave, runs from the Presidential Palace to the northeast around Patuxai, the Victory Gate, towards the That Luang Stupa, the most important religious monument in Laos. Most of the restaurants, cafes, guesthouses and hotels are in the main “downtown” area and getting around is easy on foot, by bicycle or by tuk tuk. There are several mini markets selling western food and other necessities. That Luang is a little further out and quite a long walk, so a bike or tuk tuk is a good idea, especially in the hot season. [Source:]

Vientiane covers a total area of 3,920 square kilometers. The main districts are called “meung”. These are broken up into “baan”, neighborhoods organized around local wats.. There are nine districts : Chanthabouly, Sikhottabong, Xaysettha, Sisattanak, Naxaithong, Xaythany, Hadxaifong, Sangthong and Park Ngum

Entertainment in Vientiane

At night it is possible to enjoy bars and music venues of many types. Some of the most popular venues for a sunset beer are the small outside local “cafes” which spring up along the river front every night, only to be packed up again at the end of business. Locals favor places that offer traditional “ramwong” dancing and Thai-style disco dancing. Lao yuppies and Thai and Chinese businessmen drift to the upscale hotels and restaurant and karaokes. European and American expatriates generally hang out at the Khopchaideu Restaurant-Bar or Samlo Pub. Some clubs have live Laotians bands that play Western pop music.

Several discos, karaokes and nightclubs are found in the large hotels. Most of bars with hostesses and prostitutes are located by the river. Most of the movies shown in Vientiane are Hong Kong action films shown at video rooms. The mammoth Lao National Culture Hall hosts cultural events such Lao classical dance. Occasionally the circus performs. There are also many, many places to get a relaxing foot or body massage, either in traditional Lao style or a more gentle oil one. A calendar of events may be obtained from the tourist offices. Also check out the Vientiane newspapers, the Lonely Planet books, and posters put up around town.

Restaurants in Vientiane

The best, swankiest and healthiest restaurants are generally located in and around the major hotels. Hygiene is an important consideration when choosing a restaurant in Vientiane. Laotian food, French food, French-Laotian food, Chinese food, Vietnamese food, Thai food, Japanese food, Indian food, Korean food, pizza, and other international cuisines are all available in Vientiane, which doesn't yet have a McDonalds (but is does have Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut).

Vientiane has excellent French restaurants, bakeries and pastry shops. wine. French-influenced specialities include pate sandwiches on freshly baked baguettes. Good French wine is Laos available. A good place to sample Laotian food is at the Dong Palan night, market, where numerous small restaurants and food stalls offer soups, meals and snacks. The food is good but risky from a health point of view. There are lots of noodle shops and sidewalk eateries and vendors that offer sticky rice and grilled chicken and papaya salad. Talaat Thong Khan Kham (on the corner of Thanon Khan Kham and Thanon Dong Miang) is the most popular food market in Vientiane.

Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Its central Nam Phu area is home to most hotels, and it boasts several excellent Lao and Franco-Lao restaurants. Our favorites were Lao Kitchen at 140/01 Rue Hengboun; Xang Khoo Restaurant, Bar & Wine Shop at 68 Pangkham Road; and L'Address de Tinay French Restaurant at Wat Ongteu. There are also several good massage spas along Pangkham Road, a two-minute walk from Nam Phu. And, of course, there are the tourist sites. [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014]

1) Lao Kitchen, 140/01 Rue Hengboun, Vientiane; 21-254-332, Outstanding Laotian food. Dinner for two, including beer, $15. 2) Xang Khoo Restaurant, Bar & Wine Shop, 68 Pangkham Road, Nam Phu, Vientiane; 21-219-314. Lovely Franco-Laotian restaurant owned by Frenchman Arnaud Poire. Laotian lunch for two, including beer, $8, or three-course, French prix-fixe menu, $6. 3) L'Adresse de Tinay, French Restaurant, Wat Ongteu, BanWanchan-Chanthabouly D., Vientiane, 20-5691-3434, Contemporary, French bistro with prix-fixe menu and a la carte dishes, $50 for two, including wine.

Shopping in Vientiane

Vientiane has several markets which offer vegetables, fruits, pig heads, tools, cheap Chinese-made kitchen items as well as a respectable selection of souvenirs, gifts, and interesting items. Many visitors go to the Morning Market (Talet Sao) and Nong Duan Market near Wat Sawang and the shopping areas at Thanon Samsenthai (near the Asian Pavilion and Ekalath Metropole Hotels) and Thanon Setthathilat and Thanon Pangkam.

The city’s main shopping streets are Samsenthai and Setthathirat, around the Nam Phu Fountain area and the Morning Market. The Morning Market (at the eastern corner of the Thanon Lan Xang and Thanon Khu Vieng) is open all day despite its name, roughly from 7:00am to 4:00pm. About a 10 to15 minutes walk from the center of town, it features a wide assortment of goods, including wood carvings, cheap Chinese manufactured goods, silverware, gold jewelry, traditional textiles, furniture, and fish wrapped in banana leaves. In the old days it offered bottles of vodka sold by impoverished Russian Embassy. Sometimes Laos’s minister of finance showed up to sell quail eggs before going to his government office.

Talaat Thong Khan Kham (on the corner of Thanon Khan Kham and Thanon Dong Miang) is the most popular food market in Vientiane. On Thanon Pangkam.and Thanon Pangkam there are some shops that specialize in hill tribe crafts. Thanon Samsenthai is a good place to shop for jewelry. Around town, you can also find shops selling Chinese herbal medicines, paper handicrafts, silk items, ceramics, Laotian musical instruments and hill tribe fabrics. There is also a small night market along the riverfront selling ethnic goods. For fine handicrafts and art, try one of the many upscale galleries in the city center. Keep your eyes open for traditional wood carvings, mulberry paper and a variety of basketry made from bamboo and rattan.

Julie L. Kessler wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ The Talat Sao (which means morning market), where locals shop for textiles, jewelry, ornate silver belts, clothes, food and appliances (don't forget to bargain); the riverfront at dusk, where locals stroll along the edge of the Mekong and crowds engage in open-air aerobic dance classes to contemporary Western music; and the popular night market adjacent to the riverfront for tourist T-shirts, Buddhist art and knockoff items.

Laotian Silk and Textiles

Vientiane is famous for Laotian silk, an art form that has been brought to life after the war period thanks in part to the efforts of an American named Carol Cassidy who has set up a cooperative in 1990 in a refurbished French colonial mansion at Laos Textiles (Nokeo Kumman near Place Namphou). The 40 or so weavers use traditional methods and earn up to three times average national wage.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “ The best textile sources are Oudone Phimphrachanh's atelier (by appointment; Ban Dongpalane; 011-856-21-415-598;; Lao Textiles, Carol Cassidy's showroom and workshop (Nokeo Khoumane Road, Ban Mixay; 011-856-21-212-123;; Phaeng Mai Gallery for silk scarves and wall hangings and workroom tours (117 Nongbouathong Tai, 011-856-21-217-341); and Kanchana for Bouasonkham Sisane's chic traditional offerings (140 Samsenthai Road, Thatdam Square; 011-856-21-213-467;

Sisane's family also owns the adjacent Lao Textile Museum. Talat Sao, Vientiane's morning market, is open until late afternoon and has textiles at very reasonable prices. Quality antique pieces are difficult to find: try Madam Chanthone Thatanakham's Antique Lao Textiles; she has a stall in the market, but the real treasures are at her home (by appointment; 011-856-21-312-390). [Source: Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

Hotels in Vientiane

Vientiane has almost 100 hotels and guesthouses. Only a handful of hotels would be considered comfortable by international travelers. Many new hotels have been built in recent years however and hotels that were once top-end are now considered business class. Many of the high priced hotels are in the tourist neigborhood around the city’s central water fountain. The most luxurious hotel is the Imperial Hotel. The recently-privatized Million Elephants Hotel on the banks of the Mekong River is the largest hotel in Laos. Other comfortable hotels include the Asian Pavilion.

There are dozens guest houses used by foreign travelers, scattered around the city. The lower range ones are used by backpackers and the mid range ones by NGO workers. They are located near the Morning Market. The tourist office in Vientiane and the hotel information desk at the airport can help you find a luxury or standard hotel. The Lonely Planet books have good lists of cheap accommodation options. Hotel touts wait outside the airport and on the Laos side of the Friendship Bridge for new arrivals. Taxi drivers will take you to a hotel that earns them a commission.

Sandra Ballentine wrote in The New York Times, “Stay at the Settha Palace Hotel, a French colonial grande dame (; doubles from $128) or Green Park Boutique Hotel (; doubles from $100). Julie L. Kessler stayed at Ibis Vientiane Nam Phu, Namphu, Ban Xieng Ngeung, Chantabury District, Vientiane; 21-263-201, Pleasant hotel within walking distance of all tourist sites, riverfront, night market, restaurants and watering holes. Doubles $72 a night, including taxes and fees. [Source: Julie L. Kessler, Los Angeles Times. September 12, 2014; Sandra Ballentine, The New York Times, September 23, 2007]

Transportation in Vientiane

Taxis are fairly cheap and they are the easiest way to get around. A taxi ride across town should cost you no more than $1.50. Tuk tuks, pedicabs and motorcycle taxis are also available. Bicycles and motorscooters can be rented. Bikes can be hired from many places around town from between 10,000 and 20,000 kip per day. All the roads in Laos capital are now paved and there is good street lighting. Don't bother with the buses. Many people find that it easy to get around on foot.

According to ASIRT: “Main roads are paved and in good condition. Many secondary roads are unpaved, even in city center. Unpaved roads are slippery when wet. Puddles may be concealing deep potholes. There are few street signs, except in city center. Some signs are bilingual (Lao and French). The Lao word “thanon” (street) is translated as “rue”, “avenue” or “boulevard” on these signs. There are many one-way streets, few of which have street signs. Drivers seldom use turn signals or observe lane markings. Few drivers stop for red lights or stop signs unless police are observing an intersection. Motorcyclists often weave in and out of traffic, make U-turns, and cut in front of other drivers. Residents give directions by indicating landmarks. Give them the name of the embassy, hotel or temple nearest to your destination. There are few pedestrian crossings. Be alert for oncoming vehicles, as drivers seldom yield right of way to pedestrians. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]

”Improvements on the roads were completed in 2008: Upgrading 29 percent of the city’s roads shortened travel times, improved traffic flow and reduced road fatalities in the city from 12.5 to 8 per 10,000 vehicles. Installing street lighting, traffic lights and road signs improved road safety. Improving the city’s drainage system eliminated flood risk in city center and many suburban areas. Building new access roads linked formerly isolated suburbs to the national road network.

”Minibuses link city center and the suburbs. A small fleet of taxis serve the city. Fares are not set; agree on fare before departing. Taxis are generally available near Friendship Bridge, the airport upgraded roads. Public transport is inadequate. Many high school students use motorcycles to commute to school. Local buses provide transport to Friendship Bridge and some sections of the city. Transport is slow, as buses make many stops. Some larger hotels have minibus services, which provide tours around the city for guests.

”Taxis are often older cars. Drivers often wait for riders at Wattay Airport, Friendship Bridge and the Morning Market. Taxis can be hired for a day. Negotiate fare. Tuk-tuks and “jumbos” provide transport in the city and to its suburbs. Tuk-tuks and “jumbos” can be chartered. Tuk-tuk drivers have fare cards, but the fares are high. Negotiate for lower fares. “Jumbos” run on set routes. Fares are fixed. The city is fairly flat.

”Cycling is a good option. Rental bikes can often be obtained through hotels or guest houses. Use caution, especially on main roads, due to local driving culture. Cycling is not recommended at night, due to increased road risk. Walking is a good way to tour the city during the cool season. Sidewalks are in good condition in city center but are often lacking elsewhere.”

Bus and Boat Stations and the Airport

Speedboats and Cargo boats leave from Kao Liaw Boating landing, about eight kilometers from the city center. Vientiane has three bus stations: 1) the Central Bus Terminal, 2) Northern Bus Terminal, 1) and Southern Bus Terminal. Central Bus Terminal: Locally known as Khua Din or Talat Sao (Morning Market) bus station, is located in between the Morning Market and Khua Din Market. It has bus services to nearby places in and around the capital city (City Bus), a few further destinations in Laos, and northeast Thailand. It is also possible to catch a bus to Vang Vieng, Thakaek, Savannakhet or Pakse here, but the other stations have better buses and more frequent departures for these routes.

Northern Bus Terminal: Located on Sithong Road (relocated from T2 road), around 7 kilometers from city centre. This is the main departure point for buses to northern destinations, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang Xiengkhuang and other provinces as well as buses to China. Buses to Luang Prabang takes 11 hours. Southern Bus Terminal: Located on Kaysone Phomvihane Avenue (or road 13 south) in Dong Dok, around 8 kilometers from city centre. This is the main departure point for buses to the south as well as buses to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Wattay International Airport is three kilometers from city center. Taxis, tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis and jumbos provide transport to the city. Purchase a taxi coupon before leaving the airport terminal. Many hotels provide shuttle service to and from the airport. Vientiane is a 45-minute flight from Luang Prabang.

First Friendship Bridge Between Thailand and Laos

The First Friendship (Mittaphan) bridge across the Mekong River connects the Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng. Built mostly with Australia money, it opened in 1994 and is 1,174 meters long and 19 kilometers southeast of Vientiane, the capital and main city in Laos. The bridge has two 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 in) wide road lanes, two 1.5 meters (4 feet 11 in) wide footpaths and a single 1,000 mm gauge railway line in the middle, straddling the narrow central reservation.

Opened on April 8, 1994, it was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and the second on the full course of the Mekong. The cost was about $30 million, funded by the Australian government as development aid for Laos. The bridge was built by Australian companies as a demonstration of their ability to complete major infrastructural projects in Southeast Asia. The official name of the bridge was changed by the addition of "First" after the Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge further south at Savannakhet opened in January 2007. [Source: Wikipedia]

Traffic on the bridge drives on the left, as in Thailand, while traffic in Laos drives on the right. The changeover at the Lao end, just before the border post, is controlled by traffic lights. A shuttle bus service operates across the bridge, between the Lao and Thai border posts. The bridge is part of the AH12 Asian Highway Network. A metre-gauge rail track from Nong Khai station runs along the centre of the bridge. Road traffic is stopped when a train is crossing.

On March 20, 2004, an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments was signed to extend the railway to Thanaleng Railway Station in Laos, about 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) from the bridge. This will be the first railway link to Laos (but not the first railway, as a short portage line once existed). The Thai government agreed to finance the line through a combination of grant and loan. Construction formally began on January 19, 2007. Test trains began running on July 4, 2008. Formal inauguration occurred on March 5, 2009.

On February 22, 2006, approval of funding for the rail line from Thanaleng Railway Station to Vientiane, about 9 kilometer, was announced by the French Development Agency. In November 2010 plans to extend the service from Thanaleng to Vientiane were abandoned. A posited high-speed rail link from China to Thailand through Laos would make the extension redundant. It would also necessitate the construction of a new bridge near to the current First Friendship Bridge. In 2011, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's revised plan prioritises domestic rail expansion over the ambitious regional connectivity plan spearheaded by China. Since February 2010 the Eastern and Oriental Express crosses the Mekong via the bridge into Laos.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress,, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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