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The Incredible Landmarks of Laos

Author: David Pettitt

Nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia, the landlocked country of Laos is a captivating blend of history, culture and natural beauty. Known for its lush landscapes, historic temples and vibrant hill communities, Laos epitomises the wider southeast Asian region.

Laos, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is situated in Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar to the northwest, China to the north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the southeast, and Thailand to the west with capital city, Vientiane and the UNESCO-protected town of Luang Prabang its two most recognisable urban centres.

Laos boasts a rich and complex history that spans thousands of years. It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of the region were the Mon-Khmer, who were eventually supplanted by the Lao people. During the 14th century Laos was unified under the powerful Lan Xang Kingdom which, in turn, ushered in an era of stability and a cultural and architectural renaissance. More recently Laos endured periods of foreign rule, notably under France, before gaining independence in 1949.

The landscapes of Laos are also exceptionally diverse – vast swathes of dense rainforest and towering limestone karsts are framed by the mighty Mekong River which forms a significant part of its western border whilst, similarly, the country boasts a treasure trove of cultural and historic sites. Focusing on Laos’ most important landmarks, this blog highlights some of the key locations including the royal heritage of Luang Prabang, the enigmatic Plain of Jars, capital Vientiane, the spectacular Wat Phou temple complex and the rural communities of Luang Namtha.

Luang Prabang

The royal capital of Laos and encircled by misty mountains, Luang Prabang is rightly known as the ‘Jewel of the Mekong’. Set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the town is renowned for its exceptionally well-preserved architecture from gilded temples and large monastic complexes to charming French colonial mansions. With over thirty different temples, stupas and monasteries to discover, Luang Prabang’s cultural importance to the country is immense. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a charming place to explore. Highlights include the 16th century Wat Xieng Thong, a masterpiece of Laotian Buddhist art, That Makmo which is known colloquially as the 'Watermelon Stupa' and Mount Phu Si where there are panoramic views of Luang Prabang from the small summit temple. Outside of Luang Prabang visits can also be made to the turquoise pools formed by the Khouang-Sy waterfalls and the Pak Ou Caves which house thousands of Buddha statues left as offerings by pilgrims over the centuries.

Plain of Jars

Located midway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane lies the small town of Phonsavan – gateway to the Plain of Jars, one of the most enigmatic sites in Southeast Asia. This 1,000 metre high plateau was once scattered with thousands of ancient stone jars, ranging in size from small bowls to massive vessels. Although many of these mysterious jars survive, many were lost to US bombing during the Vietnam War when the region served as a command centre for the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the purpose of these jars remains a subject of speculation with local legend suggesting they were used in rice wine production, however, it is now generally considered that the objects were used for funerary practices during the Iron Age and were in use by the ancient civilization that made them until its disappearance around 500 CE.

Vientiane

Laotian capital and the nation’s most cosmopolitan city, Vientiane is home to some of the most important landmarks in Laos. Set on the banks of the Mekong River and facing neighbouring Thailand, Vientiane is a relaxed city of well-preserved French-era architecture and grand religious complexes linked by wide European-style tree-lined boulevards. Highlights of the capital include That Luang Stupa, a towering golden stupa, national symbol of Laos and one of the holiest Buddhist monuments in the country, Wat Phra Keo, once a royal temple, and today a museum showcasing Buddhist art and artifacts, the serene Wat Sisaket which is one of the oldest religious complexes in Vientiane and the Anousavari Monument, a European-style arch or ‘Victory Gate’ and national symbol of Laos' struggle for independence from French colonial rule.

Wat Phou

Wat Phou is arguably Laos’ most impressive temple complex and has much in common, both aesthetically and culturally, with temples in neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand. Positioned in southern Laos, close to the town of Champassak, some of the structures at Wat Phou date back to at least the 5th century AD, preceding the temples at Angkor by almost 200 years, thereby making the complex one of the oldest places of worship in Southeast Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wat Phou was re-discovered by a French explorer in the middle years of the 19th century, was originally dedicated to Lord Shiva and offers a glimpse into the wider region's historical connections with the once mighty Khmer Empire.

Luang Namtha Province

The bustling little town of Luang Namtha is set in the heart of predominately rural region in the northern reaches of Laos and serves as a gateway to the many hill tribe villages that are home to many different minority groups, each with their own distinct history and traditions. Popular villages close to Luang Namtha include Ban Pasak which is celebrated for its production of handwoven textiles, Ban Phoung, known for its traditional blacksmiths, Ban Nam Dee, a Lanten village famous for its paper making and indigo dyeing largely used in the production of religious texts and Ban Thong Jai where many beautiful silk and cotton textiles are produced. It is also possible to travel east through rugged hills and thick forest to the tranquil village of Muang La, a key commercial centre for local hill tribes including the Khmu and Ikhos with historic links to Tibet and Yunnan Province in China.

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