Southeast Asia’s smallest capital, Vientiane, started life as a Khmer trading post on the Mekong and later expanded during the reign of the Lao Kings. Gallic influence, dating from the French Indochina era of the 19th and 20th centuries, is still very much to the fore in the grid of orderly, tree-lined boulevards and backstreets hugging the river, where the peeling stucco facades and weathered shutters of old colonial villas are draped in bougainvillea.
More than a hint of the Arc de Triomphe may be detected in the Patuxai – a monumental archway reminiscent of the one in Paris, but with some splendid Southeast Asian embellishments. Compact enough to explore on foot or by bicycle, the historic heart of the city holds a crop of vibrant Buddhist wats, including the resplendent Haw Pha Kaew, a former royal temple turned museum that now holds a world-class collection of bronze Buddhas and Khmer stone stelae. Further out of town, the gilded Pha That Luang is the preeminent national monument of Laos and symbol of Buddhist devotion.