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7 facts about Vientiane, Laos

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

Find out something you didn’t know about the laid-back capital of Laos

As busy capital cities go, Vientiane in Laos is noted for being at the more laid-back end of the travel spectrum. Nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, right on the border with northern Thailand, Vientiane boasts colonial charm, tranquil Buddhist temples, friendly locals and fabulous food. Today, we look at seven interesting facts about this delightful city

1. It is known as the City of Sandalwood… and the City of the Moon

Historically, Vientiane’s name meant “City of Sandalwood”, but these days the capital of Laos is better known as the “City of the Moon”. The Moon and sandalwood may not, at first, seem to have much in common, but the association comes from the fact that the words for both “Moon” and “sandalwood” are spelled and pronounced identically: “chantha”, which is where the “tiane” bit comes from (“Vien” means “city”).

Monks in downtown Vientiane, LaosMonks in downtown Vientiane, Laos

2. It once lay in ruins

With a history stretching back at least as far as the early 11th century, Vientiane is not without a story or two to tell. Though in 1545 it was an administrative centre (but not the capital) of the Lan Xang Kingdom (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), it was razed to the ground in 1827 in a siege by forces from neighbouring Siam - now known as Thailand. It then lay in a state of decay for decades until it came under French rule in 1893.

3. It owes its reincarnation - and some of its architecture - to the French

Vientiane was given a new lease of life by French colonial architects, who rebuilt the city that would become the capital in 1899. This is the reason why you’ll notice more than a hint or two of the Parisian about Vientiane’s architecture, which, in common with that of many colonial cities in this part of the world, contrasts pleasingly with its traditional Buddhist buildings. These Buddhist structures also owe their survival to the French, who rebuilt and restored many of Vientiane’s old temples.

The grand Wat Pha templeThe grand Wat Pha temple

4. A “Bridge of Friendship” connects it with Thailand

The Siamese may have laid siege to Vientiane in the 19th century, but the two countries have put all that behind them and are now connected by a bridge crossing the Mekong River on the border between Thailand and Laos, upon which Vientiane sits. It’s known as the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, and it was built in the 1990s, crossing directly into northern Thailand.

5. “The Vertical Runway” is Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe

The monument that dominates the city’s commercial district looks a little out of place. Patuxai is Vientiane’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe of Paris, its official name being “Victory Monument”. It was built in 1969 to remember Laotians killed in the pre-revolutionary wars, and it offers excellent views of the city for those unafraid of heights. So where does the “Vertical Runway” nickname come from? The answer lies in the origins of the concrete used to build it: it was donated by the USA and had originally been earmarked for the building of a new airport.

“The Verticle Runway” - also known as “Victory Monument”

6. One of its most popular attractions is said to be haunted

Wat Si Muang is one of Vientiane’s popular tourist destinations. This Buddhist temple is built on the ruins of an earlier Khmer Hindu shrine, traces of which can still be seen. The current temple, built in 1563, is said to be guarded by a spirit: that of a pregnant local girl named Nang Si, who is said to have been sacrificed at the time the temple was built. The story goes that she leapt to her death into the hole into which a pillar was being lowered as the temple was constructed. The calm of the temple belies this rather grisly story, and a small Buddha statue inside is said to answer people’s problems and grant them their wishes.

7. It’s home to one of only three bowling alleys in Laos

Bowling doesn’t seem to have caught on in Laos, as evidenced by the fact that the entire country has just three bowling alleys - one of which is in Vientiane. It’s just as well that you’re not ever likely to have to resort to bowling to keep yourself occupied in this gem of a city.

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