After establishing our first impressions, we settled down to some serious sightseeing, concluding that there are some splendid sights to see in Vientiane.
By far the most important sight to see is the COPE Visitor Centre. We were deeply disturbed after the visit and the memory will probably always stay vivid in our minds. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the principle source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. COPE has excellent multimedia exhibits and highlights vividly the savage damage done by UXO (unexploded ordinance). Although the Americans dropped a half million tons of ordinance on Laos in the late sixties, both children and adults are today still being mutilated and killed as they look for souvenirs or to sell some scrap metal. After the visit, we sat outside COPE and picked apart each others views. Whilst we knew of the damage done in the Vietnam War, we were sketchy on our history as to why the Americans unleashed this hell on Laos. Alf came across an excellent video on Youtube using live news footage entitled, ‘The CIA’s Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War – 1960-70 – Cold War Footage – Full Documentary‘. The 24 minute video is a must-view.
The first day, we had already visited two important sights, Wat Si Saket and Patuxai. Open this link to view our description of our visits to Vientiene’s oldest surviving temple and Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica.
We spent two full hours in the Lao National Museum, which examines the historic and cultural heritage of Laos, looking at artifacts from pre-history to the present. It currently houses circa 8,000 items from the history of Laos, ranging from paleontology, archeology, history and ethnology. The building, which is typical of French colonial architecture and was built in 1925, is now scheduled to be pulled down. The historic building has been used for a number of historic purposes, including:
- Site where independence was declared in 1945
- Headquarters of the Lao Government
- Guesthouse for a king,
- The palace of the Prime Minister, and
- Until it was renamed the Lao National Museum in 2000, it had been the Lao Revolutionary Museum from 1980 (the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established in 1975).
We went inside Wat Si Muang, Vientiane’s busiest temple. There were worshippers, monks and Chinese tourists taking photos but everybody coexisted comfortably. Built in 1563, the temple is believed to house the central pillar of the city. We observed many Buddhists with floral tributes trying to reconnect with their ancestors and also releasing birds as an act of compassion.
Outside the city, we visited Buddha Park, which is popular with tourists and locals for taking photos and picnics, then we stopped and walked half-way across the nearby Friendship Bridge, linking Laos and Thailand across the Mekong River, opened in 1994 and financed by Australia.
Popular guide books promise some of the widest range of cuisine in Asia’s capitals but we had mixed experiences. We thoroughly recommend the Lao Kitchen for authentic Lao food – you must try their papaya salad (this spicy dish is popular all over South East Asia but it originated from Laos). Another favorite which we stumbled upon is the Khop Chai Deu – we used this place as a watering hole and eatery, where locals and visitors from around the world meet and relax – we were really surprised to find out that it was one of Vientiane’s oldest and most famous bar/restaurants. For a light lunch, we joined the tourists (mainly Chinese) at Joma, a French patisserie that serves excellent sandwiches and salads. We had a delicious and inexpensive meal at Osaka, a Japanese restaurant. Our two biggest disappointments were at the well-known French restaurants, l’Adress de Tinay and La Signature – having spent much time in France, we were looking forward to a treat (one evening was our wedding anniversary) but found both restaurants seriously pretentious, overpriced and the food was poorly prepared.
On balance, we thoroughly enjoyed our five days in Vientiane but with the benefit of hindsight could perhaps have covered the same ground in three days, but it wouldn’t have been quite so relaxing.