Landlocked, but not short on beauty or culture, Laos is a vibrant country where history, nature, and spirituality collide. Its beginnings as the heart of Indochina go back at least seven centuries, where economic wealth and finding richness in diversity gave way to internal conflict and division. As a result, it became three separate kingdoms and eventually a French protectorate, until officially gaining independence in 1953. With Vientiane as the seat of its government, Laos has become one of the most successful economies in Southeast Asia and has moved from landlocked to land-linked by establishing strong relationships with its neighbors. Its simple and stunning attractions showcase Laos' strong ever-present Buddhist spiritual vein as well as its French colonial history. In addition to creating an efficient transportation system that accommodates the diverse geography, Laos has found unique ways to continuously share its art, customs, and traditions with the world.
Built in 1563, Wat Si Muang is a Buddhist temple located in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, that was supposedly named after a young pregnant woman who sacrificed herself to appease the gods. It’s located on the Friendship Bridge, which leads to Thailand, and shares space with the ruins of another Hindu Shrine. In the front is the statue of King Sisavang Vong, who ruled Laos for over half a century, and inside the temple are monks ready to give blessings along with Buddha images and statues.
Known as one of the geological wonders of Southeast Asia, Tham Kong Lor is a karst limestone cave that’s about 4.3 miles deep and wide with a maximum height of 300 feet. It’s about 10 minutes from the local village, and once you get there, you’ll have a guided boat ride, so you can check out the stalagmites and stalactites. The cave is home to an emerald-colored pool that is considered sacred to the locals, who believe it’s the skin of Indra, Hindu god of Heaven.
In the center of Vientiane is Pha That Luang, which is considered one of the most important national monuments. Built sometime between the first and third centuries, history had it that Buddhist missionaries brought the breastbone of Buddha as its relic. It’s been ruined and rebuilt a few times over the centuries, with the last reconstruction taking place at the end of the Second World War. There are three levels of the stupa, each conveying a different Buddhist doctrine, and while it is gold in color, the pinnacle is the only piece that’s covered in real gold.
Considered by many to be one of the most beautiful spots on earth, Kuang Si Waterfall is a three-tier waterfall that begins as a shallow pool, leading to deeper waters of about 200 feet. You can take the trail to access the turquoise-blue pool that sits surrounded by lush trees. In addition to the pool, there's also a variety of rescued sun and moon bears at the nearby sanctuary.
There are quite a few spiritual places to enjoy in Luang Prabang, a city between two rivers surrounded by mountains. That Phousi, known as the Sacred Hill of Laos, is revered by locals because of its perceived similarity to the five-peaked mountain of Buddhist mythology. From the top of That Phousi, you can enjoy the view of the Nam Khan River and pay your respects at Wat Chom Si, the Buddhist temple at the hill’s peak.
If you’ve ever enjoyed those sand sculptures that pop up on the beach, you’ll definitely enjoy Xieng Khuan, known as the Buddha Park. Located about 15 miles outside of Vientiane, this Spirit City was built in 1958 by sculptor Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who fled to Laos after the Thai revolution in 1975. There are more than 200 statues that depict the astounding imagination of Sulilat and other artists with sculptures of the many faces of Buddha, Shiva, Vishnu, and other spiritual figures.
Perhaps the most fascinating and macabre place to visit is the Plain of Jars, an archaeological landscape with hundreds of stone jars that seem to rise from the earth. Researchers have surmised that the jars were prehistoric burial pieces, as they later discovered human remains around them. The jars date back to the Iron Age, around 2,500 years ago, and were the frequent targets of war during the 60s and 70s. As a result, visitors' movements are restricted to following the marked pathways, due to potentially unexploded ordnance in other areas, but that's still a lot of ground to explore.
Translated as Gate of Triumph, Patuxai was built during the years of Laos’ constitutional monarchy to honor those who died in World War II and the 1949 war for independence from French. It took 11 years to construct, and its five towers represent the five principles of coexistence, while the open section represents a lotus flower, a revered symbol to Laotians. Visitors can wander around and enjoy the views from and of the monument, which has a musical fountain in the front.
Vat Phou, located less than four miles from Champassak Province hosts the remains of a Khmer Hindu temple. This temple-mountain was used during the 5th century as a shrine to Lord Shiva, and would eventually become the worship center for Theravada Buddhists. One of the most popular landmarks in Vat Phou is the Crocodile Stone, which was believed to be a site for human sacrifices. Between the palaces, shrines, and sanctuary, Vat Phou has enough mystery and history to fuel your imagination.
Just 15 miles north of Luang Prabang, on the west side of the Mekong River, are the Pak Ou Caves. Tham Ting, the lower cave, and Tham Theung, the upper cave, are packed with miniature Buddha sculptures as well as shelves of wooden figurines. Tham Theung is a 300-step hike, and with the help of a flashlight, you can explore this upper cave, which is pitch black. This is a fun half-day trip where you can enjoy the view of the Mekong coming and going.
Built in 1559, Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important religious structures in Laos. It was built by Lao King Setthathirath and remained a temple patronized by the royal family until the mid-1970s. The gilded wood art on the doors of the stupa depict pieces of Buddha’s life, and the scenes on the ceiling show the circle of reincarnation.
Between Laos and Cambodia runs the Mekong River, and on that river are the Si Phan Don Islands, which is a more rural part of Laos. Visitors can enjoy a quiet trip to Khon Pa Soi Falls on Don Po Soi island, which involves a hike as well as a passage across a shaky bridge, or they can head over to Don Khon to relax on Xai Kong Nyai Beach. In between, you may get to see a pod of Irrawaddy dolphins, who count these islands as their natural habitat.