Top 5 cultural wonders of Laos

Pip
August 17, 2015

Squeezed between Vietnam to its east and Thailand to its west, both firm traveller favourites, Laos has remained somewhat of a hidden gem. But this landlocked country in the heart of South East Asia is home to some of the region’s richest cultural sites, ranging from ancient Khmer temples to unexplained stone age constructions. Journey along the lifeblood of the region, the mighty Mekong River, to Buddha-filled caves nestled into cliff faces, witness the philosophical blending of Hinduism and Buddhism on the outskirts of Vientiane, or wander the charming streets of the former royal capital of Luang Prabang. Here are five of Laos’ most impressive cultural wonders.

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a beautiful fusion of European colonial architecture and traditional Lao design.

It’s hard to visit Luang Prabang and not be captivated by its beautiful fusion of European colonial architecture and traditional Lao design, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surrounded by lush mountain ranges on a peninsula created by the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, the city once served as the royal capital of the country from the late 19th Century until Vientiane took over in 1946. Its streets are lined with traditional Lao wooden structures, interspersed with impressive two-storey brick colonial buildings, as well as a scattering of pagodas that illustrate elaborate temple design and decoration. Of these, Wat Xieng Thong, dating back to the 16th Century is one of the most complex and impressive, not to be missed.

In addition to its aesthetic beauty, the city of Luang Prabang is shrouded in legend and Buddha’s prediction of its prosperous future came true as it went on to become the Buddhist religious centre of the region. Today the city retains its charm and is a magnificent place to wander, soak up the atmosphere along the Mekong, watch the tranquil comings and goings of red-robed monks, and marvel at the artistic heritage the city displays.

Pak Ou Caves

Pak Ou Caves
While the Pak Ou Caves are one of Laos’ most revered religious sites, the journey up the Mekong is equally rewarding as daily river life passes you by.

From Luang Prabang, journey upstream two hours to the riverside grottoes of Pak Ou which lie opposite the village of Ban Pak Ou. These sacred caves overlooking the Mekong River are filled with hundreds of miniature Buddha sculptures of varying sizes and positions, left as devotion over centuries. They are nestled into an impressive limestone cliff, with a lower cave overhanging the river and an upper cave, reached by a set of stairs that ascend to one side.

While the Pak Ou Caves are one of Laos’ most revered religious sites, the journey up the Mekong is equally rewarding as daily river life passes you by. Don’t miss a stop at what is affectionately known as ‘Lao Lao Village’ - a narrow collection of streets where beautiful fabrics are created on traditional weaver’s looms and available for purchase.

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars, Xieng Khouang
Human remains and ceramics at the site have led researchers to believe the jars were somehow involved in prehistoric burial practices.

The great Annamese Cordillera stretches across Indochina and lying at its northern end is the Xieng Khouang Plateau, home to a megalithic archaeological site known as the Plain of Jars. Although the significance of these clusters of jars is not certain, human remains and ceramics at the site have led researchers to believe the jars were somehow involved in prehistoric burial practices. They date back to the Iron Age, as early as 500 BC, and offer an intriguing glimpse into Southeast Asian culture during this period.

Despite extensive bombing throughout the Indochina wars and many jars being removed by collectors, there are still more than 2000 jars remaining at around 90 jar sites, but with bomb-clearing still in process, only a few sites are open to tourists. The Plain of Jars can be reached from the town of Phonsavan and most tours take in sites 1-3, but if you want to venture further, two-day treks will take you to a trio of lesser-known sites referred to as Phakeo.

Xieng Khuan’s ‘Buddha Park’

Buddha Park, Vientiane
The site is known locally as ‘Spirit City’ and while for some it emanates a quirky rather than spiritual atmosphere, it has become a highlight for many visiting the region.

Just to the southeast of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, lies a riverside meadow where more than 200 Hindu and Buddhist statues have been set within the landscape. Known as ‘Buddha Park’ or Xieng Khuan, this public area was designed by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Laos shaman, in the 1950s, blending the two religions in an elaborate and sometimes unusual way. Statues of Buddha, cast in concrete and mostly oriented towards the east, stand alongside images of Hindu gods, including Vishnu and Shiva.

The site is known locally as ‘Spirit City’ and while for some it emanates a quirky rather than spiritual atmosphere, it has become a highlight for many visiting the region. Don’t miss the giant reclining Buddha or immense pumpkin sculpture representing Hell, Earth and Heaven and accessed through the mouth of a demon head!

The Temple Complex of Vat Phou

Mount Phu Kao-Vat Phou or Wat Phu Temple
This sacred ancient Hindu collection of partially ruined temples, shrines and waterworks is protected as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

Venture to the south of Laos and the Champasak province where the Vat Phou Temple complex sprawls across the base of Mount Phu Kao. This sacred ancient Hindu collection of partially ruined temples, shrines and waterworks is protected as an UNESCO World Heritage site. It is considered an important architectural display of the Khmer Empire which ruled across much of South East Asia between the 10th to 14th centuries and was designed to represent the Hindu interpretation of humanity’s relationship with nature.

The site is divided into two sections, with two ruined palaces in the lower section, joined by a steep stairway to the temple sanctuary above. Here a linga dedicated to Lord Shiva was once bathed by sacred spring water from the mountain, but today a large seated Buddha can be found with three smaller saffron-robed Buddhas in front. The temple was converted into a Buddhist monastery in the 13th century and is still a place of worship for Buddhists today. While the walk to the top of the temple complex can be challenging, the views across the complex and the Mekong Valley below are well worth it!

A cultural legacy that resonates throughout South East Asia

Laos’ cultural sites reflect not only the religious devotion of its people throughout history and their mysterious practices, but also the changing influence of rulers across South East Asia. For those looking to explore the fascinating cultural legacy of the region, Laos’ should not be missed.

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