Must Sees for Laos Travel
Posted on 20/04/2018 5:19:24
One of Asia’s most stunning locations, landlocked Laos is often overlooked by tourists in favor of the more popular destinations such as Thailand and Vietnam. Central to both the Indochinese Wars, Laos has been an isolated country for many centuries, even during the occupation of the French colonial forces that ruled the country until its independence in 1953.
Laos retains its traditional values and old-fashioned charms, despite its introduction of western tourism, and the increase in the number of foreign tourists to the country in more recent years. The people are incredibly laid back, and very friendly, even by the normal Asian standards. Meeting the people is one of the major highlights of any visit to Laos, although you will not see “Lao People” as a major attraction in any tourist brochure.
The country is surprisingly diverse, for somewhere that is so small, and the many different ethnicities that live within the Lao borders get along with very little problems. In the highlands of the north, the colorfully-dressed hill tribes cover the region, while in the lowlands to the south, palm trees stand tall above the many Buddhist monasteries that dot the countryside. Laos also retains a little of the French colonial architecture and influence, with many bakeries and coffee houses exuding their exotic odors in the early morning all across the country. Even the smallest village has its own bakery and coffee shop, and in many of the larger towns and cities, the old French colonial buildings have become boutique hotels and stylish restaurants.
Must See Sites in Laos
There are thousands of places to see in Laos, and no single trip could encompass them all, unless you are staying for around a year. For the average tourist, there are certain limitations to where you can go and what you can see in just two weeks, and there are a number of sites that you should really not miss when touring in Laos.
No tour of Laos can be complete without a visit to the laid-back capital of the country, Vientiane. With thousands of friendly tuk-tuk drivers and affordable spas all over the city, this former trading post for the French is one of the most languid cities in Asia. Easily walkable for touring the city, the old quarter of the city is filled with glittering temples coated with gold, river serpent statues on almost every corner, boulevards lined with fragrant tamarind trees, and the constant sight of wandering Buddhist monks in saffron robes.
Majority of the older French Colonial buildings have been converted to posh boutique hotels of classy French cuisine restaurants, making the most of the city’s French colonial history. The city has a distinctive Gallic flavor to it, with more than a hint of exotic panache.
Lying at the confluence of the Nam Khan and the Mekong river, Luang Prabang is a city that combines world-class tourism with a sense of spiritual nourishment. A protected city and the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Laos, Luang Prabang contains 33 gilded temples, known as “wats”, as well as the usual faded French colonial villas and delicious Gallic cuisine restaurants. The old and disused French villas have been turned into fabulous hotels and employ some of the best chefs in Asia for French cuisine, thanks to a flood of foreign investment in the tourism industry in the city.
While the population may have grown rapidly over the last 20 years, the city, made up of a number of smaller villages and towns, has retained its sleepy and friendly atmosphere. Nearby, aquamarine waterfalls plunge from great heights in the hills and mountains around the city, while hiking and mountain bike trails meander through the wooded hillsides. Kayaking tours and river cruises complete the adventure activities in this area of outstanding natural beauty.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
Situated in the dense jungles southwest of Luang Prabang lies the stunning falls known as Kuang Si. The vibrant blue waters of the falls flow down through a series of small pools that make up the waterfall. The pools at the top of the falls are smaller, and more eroded than those at the bottom, which are big enough for a pleasant swim should the tropical heat be too much for you. The falls draw large numbers of onlookers that come to see this little piece of paradise amidst the dense jungle.
The falls are a little off the beaten path, and can be tricky to find on your own. However, the many tuk-tuk drivers in Luang Prabang are always willing to take visitors to the falls, and the fare is always negotiable. Nevertheless, it is worth the first asking price to get to see these amazing falls for yourself, although haggling is actually expected.
Plain of Jars
One of the most unusual sights in the world is the Plain of Jars, at Phonsavan in northern Laos, some distance to the southeast of Luang Prabang. The origin of these jars is unknown, and they are spread across the Xieng Khouang plain. Made of carved sedimentary rock, the jars each weigharound 14 tons, and range from three feet to 10 feet in height. Archeologists have estimated the jars to be around 1,500 to 2,000 years old.
To this day, many theories have been proposed as to the actual use of the jars, whether for food use or as funeral urns, but the plain is not the only place they can be found. In smaller areas, there are scattered remnants of the same type of jars in other areas that run in a long line all the way to northern India.
Xieng Khuan Buddha Park
Located near the capital of Laos, the park was built in 1958 by local priest-shaman and mystic known as Luang PU Bunleua Sulilat. Sulilat was responsible for uniting the Thai and Laotian people due to his unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism, until he was forced to leave Laos after the 1975 revolution. The park was the first sculpture park of its kind in Asia, and lies just outside Vientiane, by the banks of the Mekong River.
The park contains more than 200 statues, engraved with cryptic symbols by Sulilat, and gives off an intense aura of mysticism. Distinctly ancient in appearance, the giant Buddha statues lounge around the park, looked on by statues of Vishnu, as Lord Shiva threatens visitors with all eight hands armed with giant stone swords.
Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center
Lying in the midst of the dense jungles south of Luang Prabang is the rescue center for the endangered Asian black bears that have been rescued from poacher’s traps. Poachers prize the animals for the value of their internal organs, skulls, and fur, which are sold on illegal markets outside Laos. The Tat Kuang Si center is a natural habitat developed specifically to allow these rescue bears to live a natural life, with plenty of hammocks, tires, and other toys to play with to keep them amused.
Visitors to the refuge can wander through the park along beaten paths between the habitats, and can watch the bears in their natural environment, albeit with a few unnatural additions for play. The most sought after part of the bears is the bile gland, which can be milked for its contents. The bile is sold on black markets in China, and is used for certain traditional Chinese medicines. Poachers keep the bears in tiny inhumane cages and regularly milk the bile until the bear dies or is slaughtered for the other valuable parts of its body.
Pak Ou Caves
Located in the cliffs above the Mekong River to the northeast of Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou caves are just two of the hundreds of caves that cove r the cliffside of the river gorge. Set in a steep face of rock that stands over the site, the caves are filled with thousands of Buddha statues. Once a major religious site in Laos, the caves have long been disused, and many of the statues have cracks and chips in them, and some are in serious states of disrepair. Ranging widely in size and form the statues were once visited only at the Laotian New Year, when Buddhists would come and bathe in the waters of the caves to receive more merits on their journey to enlightenment. Accessed by boat from Luang Prabang, visitors have to climb a long, zigzagging whitewashed staircase to get to the caves.
Kong Lor Cave
Containing one of the most sacred underground pools in Laos, and one of the natural wonders of Southeast Asia, Kong Lor Cave lies in the central region of Laos. Notable for its more unusual karst limestone formations, the cave was formed by the action of the Nam Hin Bun River, which flows directly through an entire mountain, emerging on the other side. Inside he cave, the stunning pool of emerald green water glows with its own phosphorescent light, and the locals believe that the pool is sacred.
Access to the caves is only by boat, and visitors can hire an experienced local boatman to take them through the long cave, negotiating the sprawling cavern systems inside the mountain. Massive tunnels are adorned with huge karst formations as you pass through on the way to the pool, and narrow passages that can barely fit the small boats are expertly navigated by the boatmen. The skill that is required to navigate these passages is evident once you get inside and find that the only light they have to go by is the headlight of the boat, which gives off a weak orange glow. Yet the skilled boatmen are so familiar with the cave system than they rarely even scratch their boats even in the narrowest of tunnels.
The cave system through the mountain is still used daily to ferry goods such as tobacco and the various harvests from the farms on one side of the mountain to the markets on the other side.