Along with the Champasak Cultural Landscape, the 5th century Khmer ruins of Wat Phou is the second inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List of Laos. Wat Phou, meaning ‘mountain temple’. Blended into the surrounding nature, the remains of Wat Phou are dotted all over the mountain face. Oriented toward the east, the ruins have two large reservoirs on either side of a long column-lined road leading toward the mountains. Past the palace ruins, up a steep staircase, you’ll find the sanctuary with a modern Buddhist shrine and a natural spring considered sacred.
Pha That Luang
Boun That Luang takes place every November, over three days around the full moon. The stupa in Vientiane is the national symbol of Laos and is said to house a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. Thousands of pilgrims gather at That Luang to give offerings to the monks who come from all over Laos. Processions, parties and a trade show follow. Even if you don’t make it for the festival, the stupa is a sight to behold any time of year. Join the faithful, and place offerings of flowers, candles and incenses at the alter or quietly stroll around the massive yard.
Pak Ou Caves
Bring your headlamp and take the slow boat up the Mekong to Ban Pak Ou. Pak means mouth and the two caves at the mouth of the Ou River are Tham Ting and Tham Theung. Hike up the long staircase to the pitch black upper cave, Tham Theung. The lower cave, Tham Ting, is smaller and less busy with some sunlight shining through. Both caves are pilgrimage locations for devout Buddhists who have been leaving carvings of the Buddha in the caves for centuries. Over 4,000 statues are located inside.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most elaborately adorned temples in the UNESCO World Heritage portion of Luang Prabang. It lies at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan on the north end of the peninsula. Enter one of the smaller shrines and test your strength and conviction by attempting to lift a seated buddha statue while kneeling and thinking of a wish. The temple was built in the mid 1500s by King Setthathirath and functioned as a royal temple until 1975. The temple has been restored several times over the years and has over 20 buildings on the property.
Wat Xieng Khuan
No trip to Vientiane is complete without checking out the sculptures in Buddha Park. Also called Xieng Kuan, this family-friendly park on the banks of the Mekong is 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) from downtown Vientiane. Over 200 Buddhist statues are on display in the park, including a giant domed structure that visitors can climb inside to view the park from above. The Park is full of sculptures that reflect the religious interests of the founder, Luang Pu Bunleau Sulilat, who began the work on the Park in 1958. He was interested in merging the beliefs of Buddhism with those of Hinduism, so you’ll find concrete sculptures of the Hindu gods, demonic figures, zoomorphic creatures, and many of the Buddha, including a 40-meter-long reclining Buddha. There’s also a huge pumpkin sculpture, which can be entered through the mouth of a demon leading to three floors representing Earth, heaven and hell.