Vientiane is the capital and largest city in Laos. Vientiane stretches along the banks of the Mekong at which point it forms the border with Thailand and follows the peaceful rhythm of the river. This is the first stop for most visitors to Laos, and although the capital may come across as somewhat bewildering, there are more than a few surprises in this dusty city worth exploring.
For a capital city, it is remarkably quiet, laid-back. The population of the entire metropolitan area is less than 800.000 people.
Vientiane Capital has a recorded history that stretches back to around 10th Century. The area was originally settled because of the fertility of the surrounding alluvial plains. Vientiane became the capital in 1563 due to fears of a Burmese invasion.
The name of the city is derived from Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. The original meaning of the name of the city is "city of sandalwood", but many, if not most, Lao people claim that the city's name means "city of the moon".
According to Laotian epic, a seven-headed Naga told Prince Thattaradtha to start a new city on the east bank of Mekong River. The prince called this city Chanthabuly Si Sattanakhanahud; which was said to be the predecessor of modern Vientiane. In 1354, when King Fa Ngum founded the kingdom of Lan Xang, Vientiane became an important administrative city, even though it was not made the capital.
The city has been controlled at various times by the Vietnamese, the Siamese, the Burmese and the Khmers – and, more recently, the French and the Americans. Vientiane was the administrative capital during French rule and, due to economic growth in recent times, is now the economic center of Laos.
Although still a small city, the capital experiences a major influx of tourists. Like most French colonial towns of Indochina, Vientiane has broad, leafy boulevards lined with magnificent colonial mansions in various stages of decay, a handful of Buddhist temples and a relaxed tropical feel.
Vientiane has a typically tropical climate, with two distinct seasons based around the annual monsoon. The rainy season begins around June and lasts until late October. Heavy afternoon thunderstorms are normal during this summer period, followed by high levels of humidity which make the hot weather feel even more uncomfortable. However, the rainy season also brings relief to the sometimes dust-choked streets of the capital, cleaning things and helping the dense vegetation burst back into life. By November, the rains have subsided and dry conditions prevail. The dry season runs until May, when the wet season's first thunderstorms are welcomed as they rip across the city. The temperatures range from warm to hot throughout most of the year, except for December and January, when conditions reach their coolest and most pleasant. Bright blue skies and comfortable daytime temperatures make this the most popular season for tourism, but it rarely feels overcrowded in Vientiane.