Laos is one of the few truly exotic travel destinations left in the world. With a ‘back-in-time’ feel to it and with a truly friendly population combined with atmospheric Buddhist temples, places of interest and enigmatic heritage sites, you are guaranteed a roller coaster of a cultural ride in exploring this country.
From the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang (yes, that’s right – an entire town a heritage site) to the unexplained and mysterious Plain of Jars you’ll be fascinated and in awe of this wonderful land.
1, Luang Prabang
The ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Considered by many travellers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is 700 metres above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Here visitors are subjected to an inflamed economic bubble that does not apply to the rest of the country. Being Laos’ premier tourist destination and (arguably) Southeast Asia’s most beautiful spot, ironically tourists will pay more for the innate pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping than they would in the country’s capital city Vientiane.
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545. Regardless, it has continued to overlook Vientiane as the destination of choice with its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. Even the hardest of hearts would have a struggle not to warm to the place. The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples), on the tourist trail. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation.
Cascading waterfalls, scaling peaks and the milky-brown waters of the Mekong River provide ample opportunity to swim, climb and sail your way through Luang Prabang. It is only as recent as 1989 that Laos opened up to tourism and the country that had previously been cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia developed a small but steady economy, based on tourism and regional trade. This small and gentle town where most locals are asleep by 22:00 is now one of the richest and most visited provinces in Laos. It’s one of the few places where you feel that this is the genuine article and one that retains its unique ambiance.
2, That Luang
That Luang, or the Great Stupa, in Vientiane is a national symbol (its image is on Laos’ official seal) and also the most sacred monument in the country. From the outside That Luang looks more like a fortress surrounded by high walls and it features two temples with the main stupa, the top of which is covered with gold leaf, standing 148 feet tall.
The beautiful architecture is in Lao style, influenced by Buddhist beliefs – these include finely-gilded, red-lacquer doors, pointed lesser stupas, many Buddha images and beautiful flower and animal images.
Locals say that it was originally built as early as the third century to house a breastbone of the Lord Buddha brought to Laos by an Indian missionary. However, the current structure was built by King Setthathirat in 1566 on the site of a 13th century Khmer ruin. He named Vientiane the capital after Luang Prabang in the mid-sixteenth century. An elegantly crafted statue of him stands in front of the main entrance to That Luang.
That Luang was greatly damaged by the Burmese, Chinese and Siamese during invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries then was basically left alone until French colonial times. Restoration work was completed in 1900 by the French and for a second time in 1930, again with the help of the French.
Every November when the Boun That Luang Festival is held in Vientiane, a large crowd of followers and tourists come to town from all over Laos and neighbouring countries. The festival is considered the most important Buddhist celebration in Laos with many activities going on for three days and three nights. The main event is always held at That Luang and thousands of people come to pay respect to the stupa and to enjoy the colourful event that includes parades, live music and religious ceremonies.
3, Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng for many travelers is simply a piece of heaven on earth. Surrounded by scenic landscape ranging from mountains to rivers and limestone cliffs to rice fields, this small and scenic town offers a long list of interesting attractions. The Nam Song River is where you will witness the famous tubing – and young travellers sitting in large inner tubes floating downriver is a common sight in Vang Vieng.
Actually it has become a large part of the reason why many young people come here in the first place. The well-known Tham Poukham Cave features the ‘Blue Lagoon’, a nice spot to swim and swing lazily on a rope, while Tham Norn is among one of the biggest caves in Vang Vieng. If time allows, make a stop at the local market to catch a gimpse of everyday life in a typical Lao rural area.
4, Wat Si Saket
Wat Si Saket located in Vientiane is famous for its cloister wall housing thousands of tiny Buddha images and rows with hundreds of seated Buddhas. These images mainly date from the 16th and 19th centuries and come in all sizes and are made from wood, stone and bronze – more than 6,800 Buddhas in total.
If visiting the temple early in the morning, visitors will come across the many locals that go to pray and make merit as well as to offer food to the monks. It is a charming daily ceremony to witness. The temple is quite shady as it is surrounded by tropical fruit trees.
Wat Si Saket is not only famous for the interior walls of the cloister but it also has beautiful architecture and layout with history dated back to 1818. Among the many interesting features there are its lovely surrounding verandas, an ornate five-tiered roof, a drum tower, a small library building with a Burmese-style roof and the flowered ceiling of the ordination hall.
Located opposite the Presidential Palace, the temple was built by Chao Anuvong, the last king of the Lan Xang Kingdom in early Bangkok-style architecture mixed with its own unique style. It survived the Siamese-Lao war of 1828 and has become the oldest Buddhist monastery in Laos.
Art enthusiasts will be thrilled to see many figurines and sculptures fashioned by highly skilled craftsmen such as the five-metre long beautiful detailed wooden naga (in Sanskrit, it means serpent deity) as well as a Khmer-style Buddha seated on a coiled naga.
Opening Hours: Daily from 08:00 – 16:00
Location: On Lan Xang Road (across the street from the Presidential Palace), Vientiane
5, Bolaven Plateau and Tad Fane Waterfall
Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos is famous for its great scenery, ethnic villages and unexplored corners. It’s probably best known for being home to some of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular waterfalls including Tad Fane and Dong Hua Sao (aka Taat Fang). The plateau’s elevation ranges approximately from 1,000 to 1,350 metres above sea level and here the weather in general is milder than the rest of the country, getting cool, especially at night.
Its fertile plains allow farmers to produce some of the best tea and coffee in the country (coffee remains Laos’ biggest agricultural export.) Tourism has become another important source of income for locals as the area has almost unlimited trekking and daytrip opportunities.
Situated in the heart of the golden triangle, Bokeo is just over the border from Chiang Rai province in Thailand and also borders Myanmar while China is less than 100km away. Although Bokeo is the smallest province in Laos, it harbours a large number of interesting minority groups (approximate 30 ethnicities). The province split off from Luang Nam Tha and was created in 1983. The name Bokeo translates as ‘gem mine’ and the city is known as the ‘land of sapphires’. Panning for gold, and digging for precious stones is a major occupation here.
Huay Xai, the capital provincial of Bokeo, sits on the bank of the Mekong River. Like most minor cities in Laos, several temples built in earlier centuries and surrounding villages seem to be the only attractions. However, Bokeo’s real economic strength is tourism. A holiday among a network of hunts and shelters built on top of trees in primary monsoon dry deciduous forest is a decidedly appealing one. A perfect spot where one can observe the forest’s rare habitants from above. Besides fascinating attractions and delightful activities, Houay Xai is also known as the gateway to explore the rest of Laos, a famous stopover spot for most arrivals before boarding a boat and heading southeast to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. A trip up north on Bokeo’s winding and bumpy roads will lead to Luang Namtha and beyond.
Over the centuries, Bokeo has remained an important stopover for Chinese traders traveling by boats between China and Thailand. Nowadays, the only connection between Bokeo and Chiang Rai is via ferry and speedboat. However, a bridge between Laos and Thailand is scheduled to open in 2012.
7, Buddha Park ( Xieng Khuan )
Buddha Park (aka Xieng Khuan) is a famous sculpture park with more than 200 religious statues including a huge 40-metre high reclining Buddha image.
The best spot for photography here is on top of the giant pumpkin structure standing about three stories high. The entrance is crafted to look like a demon’s mouth (about three metres high) with a stone ladder inside leading to a bird’s eye view of the entire Xieng Kuan Park.
It was built in 1958 by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism. This explains why his park is full not only of Buddha images but also of Hindu gods as well as demons and animals from both beliefs.
The most outstanding ones include Indra, the king of Hindu gods riding the three-headed elephant (aka Erawan and Airavata), a four-armed deity sitting on a horse and an artistic deity with 12 faces and many hands, each holding interesting objects. They are all equally impressive not only because of their enormous size but because they are full of interesting details and interesting motifs.
There is a local eatery and café offering food and drinks to tourists at one end of the park right next to the Mekong River that makes a great spot to chill after all the walking and climbing. Among the popular snacks are papaya salad, fried bananas and cold Lao beer. It also has a souvenir shop and restrooms. There is a small fee for entering the park as well as for photography.
Opening Hours: Daily from 08:00 – 18:00
Location: About 25 kilometres southeast of Vientiane, along the Mekong River
How to get there: The Buddha Park can be reached by public bus or tuk tuk
8, The Plain Of Jars
The Plain of Jars is considered the most distinctive and enigmatic of all Laos attractions. The large area around Phonsavan, the main city of Xieng Khouang Province is dotted with stone jars but no one has a clear idea as to why they are there.
The mysterious jars were carved from both sandstone and granite in various sizes from very small to about 3.5 metres high and are thought to be more than 2,000 years old. Legend has it that they were made to store rice wine while some believe they were for storing the dead. Until today the function of the jars is still disputed.
Of all the many jar sites, the three most popular ones to visit are known as Site 1, 2 and 3. The main reason is because they are safe from UXO (unexploded ordinance). Still, visitors are advised to walk only on the known routes as Laos is considered the most heavily bombed/mined country in the world. During the Vietnam War this area got hit hard and some of the bombs did not go off. Site 1 is where the biggest jar is located. While Site 2 and 3 offer picturesque views of farmlands and villages as they sit on top of small hills.
Opening Hours: All year round
Location: Around Phonsavan, the main town of Xieng Khouang Province in Northeast Laos. Site 1 is about 15km southwest of Phonsavan and has about 300 jars. Site 2 is about 25km south of Phonsavan and contains about 90 jars spread over two hills. Site 3 is about 35km southeast of Phonsavan and contains about 150 jars. It’s actually only 10km away from Site 2.
How to get there: It’s easy to hire taxi (4WD and driver) from Phonsavan to the jar sites or visitors can catch a local bus to Site 3 but not site 1 and 2.
9, Wat Phu
Wat Phu (meaning ‘mountain temple’), is situated on a hillside and offers stunning views over the surrounding land and Mekong River. Visitors who appreciate art and history will be amazed by the magnificent workmanship in this ruined Khmer temple complex in the form of temple pillars, barays, lintels, pediments, terrace, courtyard, walls, doorways, sanctuary, shrine, library and palaces.
There is also a natural spring that is believed by locals to emit holy water. Older than the great temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Wat Phu was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2002.
10, That Ing Hang Stupa in Savannakhet
That Ing Hang Stupa is about nine metres high with beautiful carving and decoration. It’s reported to house a relic of Buddha’s spine. The 16th century stupa is located in Savannakhet, Central Laos.
Savannakhet itself is famous as the birthplace of Laos’ popular former leader, Kaysone Phomvihane. It was also known as a French trading outpost back in colonial times therefore there are a number of vintage French colonial and Sino-Franco buildings in the business districts.
The sacred stupa is an important place of worship not only for Laotian Buddhists but also Thai Buddhists who live in northern Thailand. ‘Dress with respect’ is a must for all visitors. Women may be required to wear traditional pahsin (Lao-style sarong) before entering the temple grounds. There are plenty of them available at the nearby stands and stores.
Opening Hours: Daily from 08:00 – 18:00
Location: In Ban That Village about 15km north of Kaysone Phomvihane District, Savannakhet Province in Central Laos
How to get there: To get there from Kaysone Phomvihane, it’s best to take a tuk tuk taxi for the roundtri