Laos is a culturally diverse country, incorporating 49 ethnic groups that influence its customs, culture, cuisine, and arts. Often overshadowed by its more widely known neighbors Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, this tranquil, landlocked country has plenty to offer visitors besides the benefit of fewer crowds.
Encompassing undulating mountains, thundering waterfalls, remote villages, and underground caves, this exciting Southeast Asian country has a “back-in-time” feel. From the mysterious Plain of Jars to the gilded Pha That Luang national monument, we explore five of the country’s most impressive attractions.
1. Vat Phou
A little way off the beaten track, this complex of temple ruins set against a magical mountainous backdrop is a must-see.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a seat of power for the Khmer Empire from the 10th to the 14th centuries. The site also bears testimony to several other Southeast Asian cultures that occupied the region through the centuries. Shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between humanity and nature, Vat Phou lies on the banks of the Mekong River, with parts of the development dating back as far as the fifth century.
Dedicated to Shiva, the site was adopted by Buddhist monks in the 13th century, and Buddhists continuing to worship there to this day. During the Vat Phou festival, which is held yearly on the full moon of the third lunar month, thousands of nationals flock to the temple to bring offerings for Buddha. The ancient temple complex bursts with food and drink stalls, along with presentations of traditional Laos dance, musical performances, games, and other entertainment.
2. Plain of Jars
Located in the Xiangkhoang Plateau, the Plain of Jars comprises thousands of carved granite and sandstone jars. The attraction encompasses more than 90 separate sites, each featuring between one and 400 jars, some more than 2,000 years old, with the tallest jar standing around 3.4 meters high.
A mystery to archeologists and locals alike, the Plain of Jars dates to the Iron Age. Some locals theorize that the structures may have been used to collect rainwater or brew and store rice wine.
Situated on a plain in the Lao Highlands, the jars lie in ruins today. They received relatively little Western attention until the French archeologist Madeleine Colani surveyed the area in the 1930s. After discovering human remains, including burned bones and ash in a nearby cave, Colani suggested that the jars were funeral urns for local chieftains, although many historians dispute this claim. Bizarrely, similar clusters of jars have been found across Asia, forging a path that leads to Northern India, causing some researchers to believe that the site formed part of a wider trade route.
3. Pha That Luang
Also known as the Great Stupa, Pha That Luang is the most important national monument in the country. Located in the country’s capital, Vientiane, the site dates to the third century. It has been reconstructed several times over the years after enduring foreign invasions. The existing complex comprises three levels symbolizing the three realms of Buddhism, and the temple is surrounded by 30 smaller stupas.
According to an account dating back to the 1600s from Dutch envoy Gerrit van Wuysthoff, the monument originally featured an enormous pyramid covered in around a thousand pounds of gold leaf. The site was repeatedly plundered by the Chinese, Siamese, and Burmese over the years, with the Thai invasion of 1828 reducing it to ruins. It was not until the French arrived in 1900 that Pha That Luang was restored to its original design.
4. Bokeo Nature Reserve
Created to protect the black-cheeked gibbon, a species believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the region in 1997, Bokeo Nature Reserve is home to the Gibbon Experience, a world-leading eco-tourism conservation project where guests stay in tree houses, travel by zip line, and search the tree canopy for the elusive ape.
Having earned an international reputation as a “hidden paradise” of Laos, Bokeo Nature Reserve is in the northwest of the country, comprising 123,000 hectares of primary rainforest. Other wildlife sometimes observed in the reserve include bears, elephants, wild buffalo, tigers, and chimpanzees.
The Gibbon Experience operates local tours, creating jobs for local people and supporting indigenous people in developing sustainable agriculture. At the same time, it establishes a model of eco-tourism to protect, preserve, and explore this unique ecosystem.
5. That Ing Hang Stupa
Standing 9 meters tall, this 16th-century tower is believed to contain an important Buddhist relic: a bone taken from Buddha’s spine. Buddha is believed to have stayed here after falling ill on his journey to the Kingdom of Sikhottabong. Substantially rebuilt during the reign of King Setthathirat in the 1500s, That Ing Hang was restored by the French in 1930.
The temple features a hollow section containing a collection of Buddhist images that, in line with religious customs, women are forbidden from entering. There is also a Buddhist repository containing 4,000 palm leaf manuscripts, considered one of the most important collections of Buddhist scriptures in Laos today. Its oldest components date to the 16th century.