Photo: Wat Sisaket, Vientiane.


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Vientiane, the bustling capital city of Laos, is set on the steady waters of the Mekong River. For many years it was a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state, but as Laos has slowly opened up to foreign investment and tourism, Vientiane has undergone vast changes and continues to expand. It’s a small city with growing ambition.

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Vientiane’s name stems from an incorrect French transliteration of “Wiang Jan”, meaning “City of Sandalwood.” It’s home to a vibrant wealth of hotels, bars, restaurants and embassies while maintaining a low-key, laidback feel. The pace of life, as in all of Laos, is best described as slow – bordering on glacial, especially on the weekends. Get out of the tourist centre and you’ll still find tree-lined dirt roads, peaceful temples and relaxed inhabitants more interested in setting up the sound system and barbecue for the party than anything else. With a population of only 850,000, this is likely to be the smallest capital city you will find in Southeast Asia.

That Luang. Photo taken in or around Vientiane, Laos by Cindy Fan.

That Luang. Photo: Cindy Fan

In 1563, King Setthathirat, the last great king of Lane Xang, moved his capital from Luang Prabang (which suffered from constant attacks by the Burmese) to Vientiane, bringing with him the Phra Kaew, the sacred Emerald Buddha, and building Wat Ho Phra Kaew to house it. Unfortunately the move didn’t stop the Burmese from attacking Vientiane and it fell under their control for seven years. This was followed by a golden era of peace until the end of the 17th century, then constant struggle and war with Siam throughout the 18th century: Siam stole the Emerald Buddha in 1778 and the city was razed in 1827-1828, subsequently abandoned and absorbed into their territory. The only temple to survive the attack was Wat Sisaket. The Emerald Buddha is still at the Grand Palace in Bangkok and this remains a sore spot for Laos ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 900 words.)

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