Laos — Attractions
There are two iconic attractions in Laos which visitors see when starting their journey in Vientiane: Wat Pha That Luang and Patuxai Gate. Vientiane offers a combination of historic and colonial charm that is beginning to modernize. The new Dalat Sao shopping mall fits nicely into the cityscape, still free from many high-rises. Luang Prabang is a step back in time thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status. Just south of Luang Prabang is the puzzling Plain of Jars. The southern part of Laos with areas such as Savannakhet and Pakse still remains primarily unexplored, but the landscape is mountainous and beautiful with unspoiled nature.
Lao National Museum
The Lao National Museum is a good place to start a visit in Vientiane. Americans may be surprised to learn the Lao took on the American role in the both the Vietnam War and the Civil War. Laos is actually the most bombed country in the world by square footage, and the UN estimates that just under one ton of explosives per capita were dropped on the country by the US between 1965 to 1974. This means there are still an enormous amount of leftover bombs in Laos today. The museum is by no means up to Western standards, but gives a good background on their interesting history.
Address: Rue Samsenthai, Vientiane (across from Lao National Cultural Hall)
Wat Pha That Luang
The golden stupa at Wat Pha That Luang is the national symbol of Laos and depicted on an array of travel guides. When the sun shines, it can be blindingly bright. The original temple was built in the 3rd century, but has undergone many iterations and reconstructions since then. Most recently, it was badly damaged by Thai invaders in 1828 and not restored until 1900, when the French recreated it based on old drawings. The temple is a popular site for locals to make offerings and is a popular destination during Buddhist festivals.
Address: at the northern end of Rue 23 Singha, Vientiane
Resembling the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Patuxay is known as the Victory Gate of Laos. Built in 1968 to commemorate those that fought for freedom from the French, the observation deck provides sweeping views of the capital. The gate is adorned with many beautiful frescos and reliefs, while the surrounding gardens display a magical fountain show at night.
Address: at the northern end of Avenue Lane Xang, Vientiane
Xieng Khouan Buddha Park
A popular weekend destination for expats with children is Buddha Park, a 30-minute drive from Vientiane city center en route to the Friendship Bridge. Built in 1958, the park is home to hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures, the most impressive being the huge reclining Buddha. It is a great place to spend roaming outdoors and taking pictures.
Address: on the way to the Friendship Bridge, Vientiane
Most of the temples in Vientiane were destroyed or badly damaged during the frequent incursions of the Thais. The only one that remained unscathed was Wat Sisaket, and remains one of the most atmospheric in the country. Built in 1818, it consists of hundreds of niches that hold Buddha images with walls adorned with fading frescos. At the center of the complex is the ordination hall, which showcases beautiful Lao architecture, with its five-tiered roof.
Address: corner of Avenue Lang Xang and Thanon Setthathirat
Luang Prabang National Museum
Located in Haw Kham, the former royal palace is now the National Museum in Luang Prabang. At the entrance is a statue of King Sisavang Vong, the last King of Laos, who died in 1959. Visitors can see how they lived, including the throne room and various bedrooms. The museum also showcases the many gifts the royal family received from foreign dignitaries like a moon rock.
Address: Eastern Laos
Pak Ou Caves
A fun day trip is the motor boat ride from Luang Prabang to visit the Pak Ou Caves. Arrival by water takes about 1 hour, 30 minutes, but the caves can also be reached by car in an hour. The entry from the Mekong River is completely filled with Buddha statues in every shape and size, and it is said that locals put them there for safekeeping during the Civil War. The second cave, which requires an uphill walk, is deeper and darker and requires a flashlight to explore properly. There are also various Buddha images hidden here.
Address: by boat, north from the city center
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, Wat Phu in the southern Champasak province is a Khmer temple complex dating back to the 5th century. Although small compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is no less impressive. The temple is adorned with many carvings and reliefs that are excellent examples of classic Khmer architecture. Because of its remote location, it is never too crowded and a great place to visit and photograph.
Address: Champasak province
Plain of Jars
Located in the northern province of Xieng Khuang, the Plain of Jars is a must-see for those that have time to spare. Thousands of stone jars dating back to 500 BC in the Iron Age are scattered about, and it is still a mystery as to what they were made for, but one theory is burial jars. They vary in size from three to 10 feet each and there are over 90 sites with jars, some with as many as 400 in each. Most visitors stay in Phonsavan and visit Site 1 (which has been cleared of ordinance). Be warned though that much of the area is still unexplored so don’t veer off marked paths.
Address: Xieng Khuang province, near the town of Phonsavan