A weekend in Vientiane
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A weekend in Vientiane

The Lao capital offers a charming blend of colonial history, cultural landmarks and modern amenities

TRAVEL
A weekend in Vientiane
Patuxai Victory Monument draws inspiration from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Just a 45-minute drive across the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and with a linguistic resemblance to the Isan dialect, Vientiane is one of the most welcoming destinations for Thais seeking a weekend experience. This humble town radiates the allure of a bygone colonial age and its laid-back lifestyle allows visitors to avoid any rushing.

 

From the northeastern town of Nong Khai, it's easy to take a bus to the capital of Laos or catch a train to Thanaleng Railway Station, which is 14km from Vientiane. The good news is that travellers may now have a new option to save time and money in the near future.

Two weeks ago, the Lao National Railway State Enterprise and the State Railway of Thailand started a trial run of a new cross-border service that connects Thanaleng Railway Station to Vientiane Khamsavath Station. The official launch of the service is expected to take place in the coming months.

For this trip, my travel companions and I opted to take an early morning flight from Bangkok to Vientiane. We were greeted with a regionally inspired breakfast that blends French and Vietnamese flavours, transporting us back to the time of European colonisation in Southeast Asia.

Pairing fresh herbal beverages and coffee, the best-selling dishes are special pork combo banh mi (Vietnamese-style sandwich filled with ham, marinated pork, vegetables and sweet and spicy sauce), pork spare ribs rice noodles, vegetarian bun (egg and tofu rice noodles served with fresh spring rolls), and bun cha (grilled pork rice noodle). Since all food is offered in big portions for sharing, customers are advised to order properly in order to minimise waste.

We began our sightseeing tour at That Luang (Great Stupa) where we were amazed by an intricate Lao-style structure. Looking around, visitors can travel back in time to the 3rd century when the pagoda was built to house Lord Buddha's breastbone from Sri Lanka in an attempt to expand Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia after a group of Indian monks arrived in Vientiane.

As time passed, it was replaced by a Khmer-style sanctuary until King Setthathirat moved the capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and rebuilt it in 1566. But when Burmese, Chinese and Siamese troops invaded Laos in the 18th and 19th centuries, this gold stupa was destroyed and abandoned.

Between 1900 and 1930, the French undertook extensive renovations to this sacred national monument. Reminiscent of miniature stupas, it is encircled by three-tiered walls rising from a square base. With the naga-like stairs acting as guards, visitors can pay homage to the Buddha statues in pavilions that stand in the centre of each side.

The cloisters have been turned into an exhibition gallery featuring a wide selection of Lao and Khmer-style artefacts excavated in the town, such as a Tailue-style wooden Buddha statue from the 18th century, a sizable Lan Xang-style Buddha head made from lime mortar in the 17th century and an ancient Khmer-Bayon-style boundary stone, which was crafted between the 11th and 13th centuries to resemble a Buddha statue in meditation posture.

A five-minute drive from the temple, we reached Patuxai Victory Monument, which is reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Situated in the heart of the town, this monument was erected between 1957 and 1968 as a tribute to the Lao people who lost their lives fighting for independence from France, as well as against earlier occupiers Siam and Japan.

That Luang's cloister displays Lao and Khmer-style Buddha statues and paintings.

With a combination of European and Lao architectural arts, it boasts four towering arched doorways and a bright blue ceiling depicting several Hindu deities and mythical creatures like Vishnu, kinnaree and the elephant Erawan. During the day, visitors are allowed to ascend the roof and take in the views of the Mekong River and city. There's also a musical fountain show to watch at night.

After that, we headed to Cosi Vientiane Nam Phu to get some rest. Opened in March, this is the brand's first overseas property and the newest addition to Nam Phu Square, which is flanked with a string of historical sites and tastefully decorated cafes and eateries that make it easy for guests to get around.

With the Total Travel Freedom concept prioritising comfort, convenience and connectivity, this new lifestyle hotel offers 95 vibrant, eco-friendly rooms in three types -- Cosi, Plus and Family, with sizes ranging from 18m² to 39m².

On the ground floor, a café corner with compact snack shelves stands in the modern multipurpose lobby where visitors can enjoy delicious pastries and coffee or tea as they check in. Here, you will receive a free daily food and beverage credit of 66,000 kip (110 baht) which can be used at any time for breakfast or light snacks.

Additionally equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi, plugs and USB hubs, the living area and co-working space is a favourite hangout for students and digital nomads throughout the day. On each floor, the vividly painted walls illustrate historical sites and popular tourist attractions, encouraging visitors to design their own routes. On the 8th floor, there's also a self-service laundry room and a tranquil rooftop pool with stunning views of cityscapes and sunsets.

I spent one night in an 18m² Cosi room with a bright colour scheme to create an energetic feeling. My room was small but functional with everything needed for modern life. The bed was very comfy, a yellow headboard provided plug sockets and USB ports, and a smart TV allows guests to connect with entertainment applications on their smartphone.

Laos Nam Phou Park once served as the first morning market in Vientiane.

Apart from a blue mini fridge and orange safety box, the open closet takes inspiration from classic pulleys used by local residents to collect drinking water from Nam Phou, the sole draw-well in Vientiane during the French colonial era.

"As an affordable lifestyle hotel, our goal is to provide guests convenience and comfort. Nowadays, travellers just need a clean room with a comfy bed, water, lightning-fast internet, plug outlets and USB connections. Our hotel uses smart hospitality TVs to ensure guest safety, and their accounts are instantly removed from the system upon check-out," said Pasin Nopsuwan, a general manager.

"In Vientiane, most eateries and bars close by 11pm, so our lobby is designed to serve as a hub where people can come to hang out day or at night. Our hotel has received permission to manage the Nam Phou Fountain. We plan to turn it into a relaxing place where local residents and tourists can come and enjoy live music performances and fun activities during the winter."

Once our batteries were recharged, we caught a glimpse of Laos Nam Phou Park which stands next to our hotel, and cast our imaginations back to the colonial era when this spot was developed into the city's first morning market in 1912. It became a gathering place for local vendors and merchants from neighbouring provinces to exchange goods before being transformed into a fountain around 50 years ago. There, the ruin of the original drinking well is still visible.

Vientiane Night Market.

When its fountain lit up in the evening, we realised it was time to explore the local dining and nightlife scene. Within a five-minute stroll from the hotel, the Vientiane Night Market is packed with hundreds of vendors selling a variety of reasonably priced fashionable clothes and accessories. It was a utopia for passionate shoppers like my friends, who were astonished by stunning clothes priced between 31 and 400 baht.

Not far, Walking Street in the Vientiane New World neighbourhood draws hundreds of tourists and residents with a colourful range of street food such as BBQ pork, Korean fried chicken, spicy meat skewers marinated with Sichuan pepper, grilled eggplant with spicy sauce and spicy seafood salad.

Before departing the city the following morning, I had a five-minute walk from the hotel to Vat Sisaket, which is home to a highly revered Lan Xang-style statue of Luang Pho Saen. In 1818, Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang kingdom, built this exquisite temple in a perfect combination of early Bangkok and Lao architectural designs.

Inside, the ordination hall's walls sport striking murals that portray the life of Prince Pookkharabat in the Balasankhya Jataka, who used his magic fan to prevail in several wars. Peering up, the walls also feature a collection of 2,052 tiny Buddha statues that represent harmony.

Outside, the cloisters are adorned with more than 6,000 Buddha statues made from wood, stone and bronze that date from the 16th to 19th centuries. Also on view is hang hod, an ancient naga-shaped wooden trough, which is used to pour blessing water on Buddha images during New Year celebrations.

Walking Street in the Vientiane New World neighbourhood.

My walking tour ended at Hor Phra Keo, which stands on the other side of Setthathilath Road. Originally built in 1565 as the private chapel of the Lao royal family, this temple once housed the holy Emerald Buddha statue until the Siamese took it back in 1778.

Furnished with intricately carved wooden elements, it has been turned into a museum to display Lao artefacts such as a gilded throne, Khmer Buddhist stone tablets, wooden carvings, bronze frog drums and palm-leaf manuscripts.

Travel info

Until July 31, Cosi Vientiane Nam Phu is offering special promotions with room rates starting at US$58++ (2,125 baht). Guests will receive a daily food and drink credit, free Wi-Fi, additional 15% discount and X3 points when booking as a CentaraThe1 member. Visit centarahotelsresorts.com/cosihotels/czvl/laos-awakening.

Vat Sisaket was constructed by Chao Anuvong, the last monarch of the Lan Xang kingdom.

Hor Phra Keo was the former private chapel of the Lao royal family and once housed the famous Emerald Buddha statue.

Cosi Vientiane Nam Phu.

That Luang was rebuilt by King Setthathirat in 1566.

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