Vientiane is my home. It is the capital of Laos and the largest city in my country. But its rising status as a modern city notwithstanding, Vientiane remains a place full of laid back charm. Set on the bend of the historic Mekong River and filled with tree-lined streets and blossoming bougainvilleas, this is where some of Nature’s most beautiful sights can be appreciated.
Here are eight of those natural wonders and where you can enjoy them in my city.
1. Best Nature Reserve – Phu Khao Khouay National Park
There are few places in Vientiane where you can find a greater convergence of what Nature has to offer than Phu Khao Khouay National Park. Just 40 kilometres northeast of Vientiane, it is a 2000-square kilometre expanse of unbridled Nature comprising four mountain ranges, three major rivers, a few reservoirs and lakes.
Lose yourself in the diverse forests there that range from evergreens to mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp and pine. As you marvel at the lush greenery, take note of the little things like the countless butterflies and orchids. More than half of the orchids found in Laos can be found in Phu Khwo Khouay.
The national park is home to wildlife, too. You might just spy some elephants, Asian Black Bear, Sun Bear, wild dog (Jackal and Dhole), Southern Serow, Clouded Leopard, Sambar, Mouse Deer, Phayre’s Langur, White-cheeked Gibbon, Rhesus and Pig-tailed Macaque, civets, and otters. You won’t need much luck to catch birds in action, though. There are a myriad of species like the Green Peafowl, Blue-breasted Quail, Siamese Fireback, Red-collared Woodpecker, Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo, Grey-headed Lapwing, Jerdon’s Baza, Fish Eagle and Purple Heron.
2. Best Waterfall – Tad Xay and Pha Xay
While trekking through Phu Khao Khouay National Park, include Tad Xay and Pha Xay waterfalls in your itinerary. The two falls, less than a kilometre apart, are among the most beautiful in the park. Houay Xay from the northern mountains feeds these two waterfalls. During the rainy season from May onwards, Tad Xay roars to life, plunging some 30 metres into a densely forested gorge. Pha Xay is a little higher at 40 metres. Do as the locals do and have a refreshing swim at the foot of the falls.
3. Best Lakeview – Nam Ngum Lake
My best memories of family outings have to be our excursions to Nam Ngum Lake. 80 kilometres north of the city, the lake lies within a serene, green valley. What we usually do is take a boat trip around the lake. This relaxed ride is the best way to enjoy an unencumbered view of the surrounding mountains and many islands that dot the lake. Then, my family will have lunch at the restaurant there. The fish they serve are caught fresh from the lake. Nothing tastes quite as amazing.
If you have time, on the way back, stop by the archaeological site of Wang Xang which was built during the Hmong-Khmer Empire between the eighth and 11 th century.
4. Best Cave – Vang Vieng
Another place my family likes to visit is Vang Vieng. This eco-tourism destination of rivers, caves, limestone cliffs and rice fields deep in the jungles of Laos is a farmer’s village turned backpacker’s paradise. A few hours’ ride north of Vientiane, it is where my family goes to for some cave exploration.
Here is your chance to explore the numerous caves set in the mountains. There is something very primal about burrowing into the bowels of the earth which I enjoy. The ones nearest to Vang Vieng are Tham Nam (Water Cave) and Tham Jang (Elephant Cave).
Tham Nam is particularly interesting. Within the cave is a system of rivers and it is best explored while sitting on a rubber ring and pulling yourself through the waters snaking round the caves. Tham Jang is less taxing of an adventure. There are well-lit stairs that lead all the way down.
If you prefer to explore the caves from the outside, have a go at climbing the limestone mountains instead.
5. Best River Ride
If caves are not what you fancy, you can take in the sights of Laotian villages while kayaking down the river. Flowing through Vang Vieng is Nam Song River. Inner tubing (sitting on giant rubber tubes shapes like donuts) is another way to ride the waters. The river may not compare to its larger cousin, the Mekong, by way of size, but it trumps in terms of novelty of mode of transport.
6. Best Island Experience – Don Det
South of Vientiane are a cluster of islands called Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands), one of the largest being Don Det. Think coconut trees heavy with fruit, swaying by rippling waters, thatched huts and the rural life and you have summed up Don Det. Take a slow walk around the island, ride a bike or simply luxuriate in the island experience.
7. Best Sunset – Mekong Riverside
To catch the best sunset, take a short walk from Somerset Vientiane to the paved promenade that runs alongside the Mekong River. Watching the golden orb slowly sinking into the waters is probably one of the most calming ways of ending the day.
8. Best of Nature’s Produce – XaoBan
After all that natural beauty, how about some natural products? XaoBan is a little shop that sells products made from fresh produce grown by local farmers. Yoghurts, cheeses, jams, juices, forest honey and salads that are free of chemical additives, there is no better way to eat fresh.
Take some back to your room at Somerset Vientiane, then kick back and enjoy. There are 116 stylish units you can pick from and if you select one on the top floor, you can get a great view of the swirling waters of the Mekong.
Situated at the junction of Rue Samsenthai and Rue Setthathilah, where the famous statue of King Fa Ngum, the first king of the Laotian Kingdom of Lan Xang, stands, Somerset Vientiane also enjoys a central location within major commercial, diplomatic and shopping districts. The serviced residence was conferred four stars by the Ministry of Information and Tourism of Laos in 2012.
Vientiane is slowly but surely securing its place in the world as a growing city. But it still has not forgotten its languid pace of life which sets the perfect rhythm for exploring its many natural wonders. Come to Vientiane and discover its beauty for yourself. When you do, don’t forget to stop by Somerset Vientiane to say ‘hi’.
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