Patuxai, the most recognizable monument in Vientiane, is one of the most visited destinations in the city, and it is well worth seeing.
While Luang Prabang may have become a tourist mecca over the last few years, Vientiane is more of a stopover for travelers with fewer tourist sites. This also means that even the tourist traps of the city have less of a tourist-trap feel.
On my first half-day in Vientiane, I sought out the iconic tourist destination in the center of the city. I booked my hotel because of the proximity to the night market and Patuxai; however, I didn’t realize just how far of a walk it was (I need to remember to check the scale on the map).
It was a hot walk up Long Xang Avenue — I decided to stop at the Morning Market on the way back to my hotel as the name doesn’t reflect the opening hours, but I ended up returning much too late. I saved the Morning Market for my final day in the city as I returned from Luang Prabang — I prefer to purchase souvenirs at the end of the trip anyway.
I was exhausted by the time I arrived at Patuxai around 4 in the afternoon. The shops around the park were preparing to close, and the shops inside the monument were already mostly closed. It made the walk up the steps to the top a lot quieter, particularly as there were few tourists at the time.
Patuxai history and design
Patuxai, sometimes Romanized as Patuxay and meaning Victory Monument, was built between 1957 and 1968. It was built to honor Laotian soldiers who died in World War II and the war for independence from France in 1949 and designed by local architect Tham Sayasthsena.
Many people have noted the resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but I can’t comment on it as I haven’t visited France yet. However, what I can tell is that the four-axis arch is a similar architectural structure, but Patuxai incorporates much more local design to distinguish itself from its French counterpart.
The monument was funded by the US, though the funds were intended for an airport.
There are five towers at the top of Patuxai that represent the five principles of coexistence as well as five Buddhist principles of thoughtful amiability, flexibility, honesty, honor and prosperity.
The view as a tourist
The most difficult part in getting to my destination that first day was crossing the street to the park. This is the busiest road in Vientiane and the traffic splits around Patuxai and the park with a U-turn section and cross street at each end — it creates corners that make it difficult to see oncoming traffic. Fortunately, even with this road being busy, it isn’t nearly as busy as most streets in other Asian cities. Also, most drivers in Vientiane go at a slower pace.
Crossing the street in Vientiane, even such a busy street, was much less nerve-wracking than in Vietnam or China or Taiwan (especially Tainan).
Once in the park, the monument became more impressive — it stands out from afar and grows as one approaches. I wanted to stand around and admire the structure, but I was more interested in finding a little shade to avoid heat stroke.
There was a nice mix of tourists and residents in the park — I even found a couple taking wedding photos, but thought it rude to snap a few of them.
From the top of Patuxai, visitors can see almost all of Vientiane — there are few tall buildings in the city to obstruct the view, but incoming investment and development may change that.
The winding staircases don’t provide much of a view as it is drab concrete inside, though it is possible to look at the interior arches and designs through the inset Buddha images.
There are two outdoor areas to take in the view of Vientiane — the final two floors of Patuxai. The final floor requires a walk up a narrow spiral staircase, which means visitors need to be aware of others walking up or down at the same time. Similar to subway etiquette, it’s best to allow those coming down to move out of the way before climbing up.
It was still hot as I stood atop Patuxai gazing out at the city. I was surprised at how quiet it could be — I hadn’t expected a city in Southeast Asia to be so calm. I was not able to stay there long, however, as the monument closes at 5 pm (I was one of the last people to buy a ticket for the day).
I walked back down through the monument and watched more vendors close up shop. As I wandered out to the surrounding park, I found a shady spot next to the fountain — a gentle breeze blew mist on me as I cooled off and watched the life around me.
I walked farther north along the street, but turned back as the sun was beginning to set and I became hungry — it was time to find the way down to the night market for dinner. I also hoped to find a spot along the Mekong River to watch the sunset, assuming I could make it there in time.
On my final day in Laos after my return from Luang Prabang, I headed back to Patuxai, this time in the evening. I had no plans to see more of the city that day — it was reserved for relaxing and eating. I wanted to see the monument with lights. After missing out on seeing Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon in the evening, I wasn’t about to miss out on this one.
It was beautiful in the evening, especially as there was less traffic. The best photos I could take were from across the street, partly because my tripod is short and it would be difficult to fit all of Patuxai in the frame from the park.
As I headed back toward the night market in a tuk tuk that offered a reasonable price, I peered back over my shoulder to catch a final glimpse of the national monument of Laos. I would’ve taken a picture from the tuk tuk but the bumpy road made it impossible.