Vientiane is the capital of Laos and although it's relatively sleepy compared to other Asian capitals, there was enough happening to keep us busy for several days. We started by visiting the city's temples by foot and then by bike. As a whole, they are less impressive than the temples in Thailand (no thanks to the Siamese, who destroyed nearly all of them in a series of invasions), but many boast special features or histories that make them unique.
Pha That Luang, a golden stuppa of enormous proportions, is the most important national symbol and a point of pilgrimage for many Laotians. Its architectural design is meant to convey different aspects of Buddhist doctrine, with the lotus bud on top symbolizing human advancement toward enlightenment. The stuppa also represents national independence to many Lao people, since it has been rebuilt multiple times following the occupation of foreign rulers.
Another interesting temple is Wat Si Saket, the only temple to survive the Siamese invasions. Today it houses more than two thousand Buddhist images of various shapes and sizes and a couple of interesting dragon-shaped vessels that are used each year on Lao New Year to bless the Buddha images with water. Nearby sits Haw Pha Kaew, a royal temple built to house the legendary Emerald Buddha, which currently resides in Bangkok. There are many monks studying at these temples, all eager to practice their English!
Other attractions in and around Vientiane include Patuxi, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike and the Xieng Kuan Buddha Park, a collection of larger-than-life sculptures built by a priest-shaman who integrated Buddhist and Hindu teachings. The sculptures were supposedly built by amateur artists, but what they lack in meticulousness they certainly make up for in sheer size and bizarreness. It was a fun place to visit, especially since we got to wait for the bus with a couple of beers overlooking a local soccer match. Another highlight is the huge Talat Sao market, where we picked up some amazing hand-woven scarves.
One of the best things about Vientiane, however, is the proliferation of excellent, cheap restaurants - many in the tradition of the French, who ruled here for over 50 years. From quick eats by the river to a 4 course meal with wine, we did our best to take advantage of the city's fantastic culinary offerings.