Laos is starting to gain traction on the South East Asian tourist trail with more and more tourists visiting this landlocked country to appreciate its fascinating mountainous landscapes and laid back lifestyle. Among the best sites in Laos are the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which currently includes the Town of Luang Prabang (1995), and Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements (2001).
Town of Luang Prabang
The Town of Luang Prabang is incredibly well preserved and was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. This ancient town is located in the centre of northern Laos and one of the most well-preserved towns in South East Asia. Beyond its lush green mountain backdrop, this town still has 34 Buddhist temples in place that date back to the 16th century, and located near to other more modest and aristocratic buildings which showcase some of the finest Indochina and French architecture and date from the 19th and 20th century. This architecture is a fine example of the fusion between Lao urban structures and traditional architecture.
In addition to the preservation of the 34 ancient wats, there are plenty more structures that have been listed by UNESCO, including at least 111 civil buildings. Most of the preserved structures are located in the oldest part of the city.
On the western border of town is the Mekong River, which is still a popular recreational and commercial transportation link for this country. The distinctive artwork (pottery, wood carvings, murals, etc.), ritual and cultural traditions continue to make Luang Prabang a favoured tourist destination on the Laos holidays for its endless interests.
Luang Prabang is easily reached on the tourist trail with direct access by air from Vientiane, Chiang Mai (Thailand), or Bangkok. For the travellers that want to get a better appreciation of the local sights and landscape, there is the option to travel overland. Plus, for the adventurous, there is a regular boat service that travels along the Mekong River with a journey time in the region of two-days.
This part of Laos is one of the country’s most beautiful spots, and continues to attract more tourists which led to higher prices. Other worthwhile attractions in the local area include the Wat Xieng Thong temple, the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum, Pak Ou Caves and Kuang Si Falls.
Today’s Luang Prabang has an atmosphere that is mostly unchanged dating back to the 1940’s with bicycles continue to rule the lanes and streets. Beyond the old town region, the area given protection by UNESCO includes a forest mountainous area located on the other side of the river. Plus, there are local areas of the Mekong River that are protected and preserved as development free zones.
Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements
The Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements give a perfect example of classical and early Khmer architecture that dates as far back as the 5th to 13th centuries. Vat Phou was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, and is located on the lower slopes of Phu Pasak in the Champasak province which is approx 500 km from Vientiane.
A major settlement in the ancient complex is the city Shestupura which dates to the 5th century, which is likely to make it the earliest urban settlement in South East Asia. Also, the nearby area also includes several other lesser-known and natural archaeological sites that make a great way to spend a day or two on the Laos travel packages.
Many of the ancient structures built at the time of the Khmer Empire were positioned in a geometric pattern which relates to the Hindu relationship and vision between nature and man. This layout included two major cities, the Vat Phou complex of temples, as well as other shrines, temples and water works. Overall the total area of Vat Phou and related ancient settlements takes up a total area of 39,000 hectares.
While one of the ancient temples is dated to the 5th century, most of the other remaining structures are reported to date to the 11th to 13th centuries. Even though Vat Phou is significantly smaller than the world famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is still worth a visit on the Laos tours and will remain preserved for years to come thanks to the recognition of UNESCO.
Also, similar to other ancient sites of this era in South East Asia, the Khmer architecture was created using bricks, sandstone and laterite. Any visitor to this region is certain to be amazed by the high-quality workmanship that was involved in completing these structures, which notably includes the extraordinary carvings that are etched onto the surface of the walls.
Because this mountain temple has a hillside location it offers fascinating views of the local landscape that includes the Mekong River.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Vat Phou is open to the public year-round and arriving at this destination is relatively easy with passage to the town of Champasak achieved via a short bus or car journey from Pakse. For the more scenic trip, a boat trip along the Mekong River to Champasak is possible and takes in the region of 2 or 3 hours.
Future World Heritages in Laos
Beyond the two cultural sites that have already been accepted by UNESCO, there is also hope in the future that the ancient Plain of Jars archaeological landscape will get protection and become an international attraction. The Plain of Jars is located in Xiangkhoang province and contains thousands of ancient stone jars that stand at a height of 1 to 3 metres, and date back to the Iron Age (500 BC to 200 AD). This site is located in northern Laos and is already an established tourist site that spans hundreds of km. It is not understood which civilisation created the giant stone jars, but it is still a great place to visit on the Laos private tour.