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I arrived in Vientiane with a mission. I had a to-do list, a carefully combed guidebook, and a curated list of must-have experiences. I was going to fall wildly in love with this capital metropolis. I was going to adore this city, so help me God, and nothing was going to stop me.

Why? Because I like to root for the underdog, and I was sick of hearing people talk smack about how “boring,” “completely skippable” and “basically shit” my future favorite city was. After all, the guidebook described it as downright pleasant! So how dare these backpackers accuse it of lacking tangible charm or notable things to do!

Well, Vientiane and I’s beautiful fantasy relationship got off to a kind of rocky start when I came down with a crippling post-tubing-related, unidentified-but-just-like-food-poisoning illness. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like lying on the bathroom floor of a dank hotel in a city where you know no one, too sick to walk to a pharmacy and too weak to even cry tears of self-pity, to make you feel sorry for yourself. When I emerged from the puke-odored hotel room after two days, I felt my character sufficiently built.

Unfortunately, my little brush with hospital-level dehydration meant I had missed out on a good percentage of my time in Vientiane and would have to scrap many of my plans. Goodbye bicycle tour of wats and museums, goodbye yoga classes and Lao-style weaving lessons. I checked into the adorable hotel for a fresh start, and made a new plan for my final few days. Here’s what I eventually got up to.

Lao National Museum

I think an important part of visiting any capital city is checking out the National Museum. I’ve mentioned before that I especially love museum-going in this part of the world which is so pointedly not known for it. To quote, um, myself — this isn’t the Western world, and these are not world-class museums. As I wrote when I visited the Lao Royal Palace museum in Luang Prabang,

“Even in major cities like Bangkok, the majority of museums tend to be somewhat provincial and less ambitious. But they have an intangible charm, a lack of crowds and a unique insight into fascinating cultures and topics.” More here.

 confirmed what I knew and kept my expectations in check by assuring me that this place “will never be confused with the Louvre,” but I still went in hopeful.

Well, the charm box was ticked before I even entered. I swooned over these sweet murals, depicting the famous and . The exterior marked the perfect balance between decrepit and colonial-charisma.

Inside I smiled at the modest entrance fee (10,000 kip or just over one dollar) but frowned when I had to lock up my bag and camera. Cue the sneaky and poor-quality Blackberry photos.

While the museum is light on English signage, cool air, and impressive artifacts, it makes up for it in earnest effort. My favorite exhibit was about dinosaurs, and more specifically a French geologist who discovered dinosaur bones in Laos but was killed at the end of World War II, before his research was complete. Other fantastic finds were the King’s elephant-riding throne (shown top row of below collage), Vietnam-war era weapons laid casually on the floor, and a display case of actual drugs seized during raids. It’s not every day you get to lay eyes on an actual brick of uncut cocaine. The greatest hidden gem, however, was the guest book. While most people stuck to the typical name, date of visit, country of origin format, a few other visitors added colorful remarks about the lack of air-conditioning.

Oh the historical side, the museum emphasizes the seemingly unwanted interference of other countries in the nation’s history. The French have played a major role in Laos’s history and that was heavily represented. What I hadn’t fully realized was how much America was also all up in Laos’s business. From black and white photos showing parades of people carrying “USA GO HOME” signs to a caption under a display case of guns that read “Weapons imported by the US imperialists for their puppets,” it was clear that I had slept through a few days in history class.

Due to the lack of English signage or clear organization, I left the museum not so much with a clearer understanding of Lao history but rather a clearer understanding of how very little I actually know about Lao history. It’s a good starting point.

Regardless, I was charmed by this little museum. Its run down, its unsophisticated, and walking through it’s hard to fathom that its the National Museum. But its an accurate reflection of the simplicity of life in Laos, as well as the fairly bleak economic situation.

Xieng Khuan Buddha Park

Having gotten the traditional museum visit out of the way, I was ready for something quirky. So one day, two friends and I rented motorcycles to visit one of Vientiane’s most eccentric attractions. The journey brought us 24km outside of town, through some interesting outskirts.

Though we got lost several times, we did get to practice the art of asking for directions in sign language and  make unexpected detours through some markets and even a barber’s district where Chris stopped for a shave.

photo on right via

Finally we arrived at the Buddha Park, despite a distinct lack of signage promised by the man who rented us the bikes. We paid the 5,000 kip (50 cent) admission and made our way in.

The park is the work of one bizarre man, a yogi-priest-shaman with a fascination with both Buddhist and Hindu imagery. Throughout his life he developed a strong following in Laos and in Northeastern Thailand, where he has yet another monument to his unique philosophies and mythologies.

All the sculptures are cast in concrete and many are interactive. The orb-shaped sculpture pictures above left, for example, has three levels connected by steep stairways that eventually lead out to the roof and panoramic vistas of the park. The creepy interior is pictured below.

The sheer scale is impressive, and those with knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu iconography will spot some familiar, if slightly distorted images of Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu and others.

The day we were visiting there was some sort of rocket festival going on, and the sky was frequently punctuated by a sharp sound and a ribbon of white cutting through the blue. It definitely added an element of fun.

While there is no signage and the park is relatively small, it’s definitely a pleasant place to walk around, marvel at the endearing oddity of the human spirit and take some photos.

Or, in Chris’ case, to take some particularly hilarious, and slightly interactive photos. Out of respect to Chris, who is a friend from Koh Tao, I am saving the Buddha-belly pictures for blackmail purposes.

I love me some eccentric, roadside-attraction style sights, and this definitely fit the bill. Buddha Park is, in my opinion, a must-see in Vientiane.

Wat Sok Pa Luang Lao Sauna

I have become a bit of a spa addict lately, which is an odd statement coming from a traveler on a limited budget. Luckily in Southeast Asia it’s cheap and easy to get a fix, and at this point I had become a connoisseur of the Thai massage. Despite the heat I was pretty excited to try Laos’s signature treatment, the herbal sauna.

Still using our rental bikes, we drove just out of town to a forest temple tucked away down a semi-rural road. We wandered the grounds cautiously, not sure where to go, when a monk finally took pity on us and gestured in the correct direction. We giggled nervously walking through a path in the woods until we came upon an un-marked stilted wooden house.

Inside we were greeted by a friendly woman who appeared to be in charge. She bustled us into changing rooms where we swapped our clothes for sarongs and then pushed us straight through a tiny door and into a wall of steam. I had to concentrate to breathe as the sauna was so overwhelming. I went out and back in several times, drinking tea while I was out to stay hydrated and trying to identify the different herbs while I was in, to distract from the intensity.

post-sauna swelter

When I had finally had enough I went for a massage. I asked the woman what the difference between a Thai massage and a Lao massage was and she replied with a smile: “price.”

As I laid in the open-air pavilion and submitted myself to the sometimes-brutal massage, it started to pour rain. I had this strange sensation as I lay there in a sarong on a bamboo matt in the middle of the Laotian countryside, listening to the rain drops hit the palm trees — a kind of Meihoukai Baackes moment. It was pretty beautiful. And all for a whopping 50,000 kip — or six dollars.

Despite my best efforts, I did not fall head-over-flip-flops in love with Vientiane. I did some interesting things and saw some bizarre sights, but I didn’t depart the city with the passion that I had hoped for. However, I’d be happy to return some day and to revisit that sauna again and hit up all the other sights I missed. Hopefully this time I’ll do so with a little bit less food poisoning going on. That would be ideal.

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31 Comments...
  • Diane
    July 28 2012

    Your posts on Asia inspire me so much to get there one day. I was almost convinced and then I saw you looked a tad hot in the pic w/the cup of tea. I don’t know if I could suck up my hatred for the heat and just go. I’ve def never seen anything like Vientiane.
    Diane recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 28 2012

      Ha, well in that photo I had just come out of a sauna! Maybe I should clarify that with a caption 🙂

      • Diane
        July 28 2012

        Oh good, wasn’t sure if the pic was just a general tea pic or if it was a post-sauna pic. Phew, there’s a reason why you’re sweating! There’s hope for me!
        Diane recently posted..

  • Grandma Burr
    July 28 2012

    First thing every day – keep them coming – Gram E

    PS – How is your other grandmother doing? Last I heard she was not too well

    • Meihoukai
      July 28 2012

      Glad you’re enjoying the posts! Grandma E is doing better — tough year health wise but she always has high spirits and a great attitude.

  • I have heard a lot of great things about that Buddha Park in Vientiane (even if it is a bit out of the way), and it looks like it really does not disappoint! Love the goofy pictures you guys took… I don’t think I’d be able to resist doing the same!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 29 2012

      Yes, it’s definitely a must-see if you pass through Vientiane! There is another one in North-East Thailand as well by the same artist, I’d love to check it out some day.

  • Linda
    July 28 2012

    I am so enjoying these writeups on these cities and towns and hotspots (the place with the rope swings?) You paint such a vivid portrait of your travels and the photos are absolutely magnificent. This Buddha park was fascinating. Sorry I have posted as often as I should but I show the office staff the amazing photos weekly. I also enjoy your side “adventures”, although I can relate to the “food like poisoning”, unfortunately. Keep up the good work.

    • Meihoukai
      July 29 2012

      Linda, so glad to know you are reading and enjoying 🙂 Thank you for showing my photos around the office — I feel famous!

  • ….”It was clear that I had slept through a few days in History class.” 🙂 Love that!! I felt the exact same way when I was in Cuba a few years ago and had the chance to go to the Bay of the Pigs Museum…since then, I try to make it a point to do a little “homework” whenever I visit a new country 🙂
    Tiffany @ theUnimaginedLife recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 29 2012

      You know, normally by the time I leave a country I feel like I have such a deeper connection to its story and to its past — for example in Cambodia and Vietnam. But Lao history was still kind of a mystery to me as I was leaving! Unfortunately neither of the museums did me much good — I’ll have to read a book for that one I think!

  • Stephen
    July 29 2012

    It’s not a bad city by any means, but it’s not exactly a “capital metropolis”. Quite small and hardly bustling, like the whole of Laos.
    Stephen recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 29 2012

      Well, I certainly realized that when I got there that it was very small and slow-paced. But, it is still technically a metropolis, being as it is the capital of a country or region! 🙂

  • NaCole
    July 29 2012

    Meihoukai, I absolutely love your blog and I’m trying to soak up as much information as possible before my departure to Cambodia. I must ask though, just how intense is the heat? I hail from SC but that is kinda freaking me out!!!Keep up the great posts.

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2012

      Thank you for the kudos! I was in Laos in April/May, which is the hottest time of the year there and temperatures frequently top 100 degrees. I had been in Asia for some time though and had grown accustomed to the heat. It does take some getting used to, but you adjust!

  • Dani
    July 30 2012

    Looking at your photos I can’t believe we never made it to the Buddha Park! We had heard good things about it but I think we were still ‘Buddha’ed out’ from Luang Prabang and the temples in Vientiane itself. If we ever go back, we have to go there for sure 🙂
    Dani recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2012

      I actually missed out on the temples in Vientiane due to my fun filled days of food poisoning! I’m sure I’ll be back though… Southeast Asia is already calling me back 🙂

  • Hannah
    July 30 2012

    I love the way you always look for the good in each destination, and take the time to learn more about each place by visiting museums and galleries – it is a very admirable quality. And your photos are amazing – you definitely made the most of your time in Vientiane 🙂
    Hannah recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2012

      Aw, thanks Hannah! I do usually love the museums and galleries, but even when I don’t feel like it, I go anyway out of a weird sense of obligation! Traveler’s guilt, ha.

  • Masha (2away)
    July 31 2012

    Hi Meihoukai, just stumbled upon your blog and I really like it!

    Cool that you wrote about Vientiane. Not so many people go there and probably even less mention it as a highlight of their travels. We’ve been to Vientiane last year and actually quite enjoyed our time there, mostly because of its laid-back atmosphere and amazing cheap and delicious steaks 🙂

    We only had 2 full days in the city and wanted to cycle all the way to the Buddha Park on one afternoon. Unfortunately we gave up at some point because of the heat. Very much regret missing it 🙁
    Masha (2away) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 31 2012

      Hi Masha! Glad you found me! Yeah, I can’t imagine trying to do that trip on bicycles, it was really far! We took motorcycles, but as you’ll see in today’s post that ended pretty disastrously as well…

  • Dita
    September 7 2012

    Hi Meihoukai! 🙂

    i’m totally in love with your website, cause you inspire me to keep travelling.. 🙂

    well, i also love Laos. This country is totally awesome with all their simplicity. the people are nice, the culture is good.. really wish to be able to come back there.

    • Meihoukai
      September 7 2012

      Thank you so much Dita! I hope to return to Laos soon as well, you summed it up perfectly 🙂

  • becky hutner
    July 24 2013

    i totally saw myself in this alex. i’m always rooting for the underdog, determined to see in a place what no one else does! having been to northern laos, my husband & i have been curious about vientiane but after reading this, i think we’ll head south. thanks for all the great info, photos & laughs!
    becky hutner recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 26 2013

      Aw, thanks Becky! I always love to hear from someone going through my archives. I’m glad this post could be helpful!

  • Sean
    August 13 2013

    Wow! Those pics taken at Buddha park look amazing! Will definitely have to go there next time I am in Laos!

    Personally, I really liked Vientiane. But more of a city to live and work in – rather than a travel destination. Maybe it was all those nice, (air-conditioned) cafes around that made me feel like I was back at home in Melbourne, Australia!

    Great post and thanks for sharing.

    -Sean
    Sean recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      August 14 2013

      I’ve heard a lot about the wonderful cafes in Vientiane, but sadly I didn’t really get a chance to visit any! Next time 🙂

  • Graham Franklin
    January 16 2015

    Looks like I will have to go back to Vientiane, after reading your post it seems I missed a few things. I did ride a bicycle along the banks of the Mekong, if you care to read about it.
    Graham Franklin recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      January 18 2015

      Fun! I love biking when I travel. Looks like I missed out on it there!