Laos is full of amazing cultural and natural wonders. This small landlocked county has a surprising amount of biodiversity, and a rich history stretching from prehistoric cultures to the 1975 revolution and beyond.
Laos is the battery of Southeast Asia, with hydroelectric projects creating and exporting electricity. Man-made lakes such as Nam Theun 2 Reservoir have the added benefit of providing recreation and fishing areas to visitors and locals. This resevoir was flooded for the hydroelectric plant that opened in 2010 and exports power from the Nakai Plateau to Thailand. Learn about the watershed, the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area, and how and to where the local villagers that were displaced were relocated.
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The critically endangered freshwater Siamese crocodiles live in central and southern Laos, in the wetlands river system. Adults are olive green and can reach up to two meters long and weigh 70kg. They are elusive in the wild, don’t attack humans and breed in April and May, just before Laos’ wet season. Agriculture, pesticide use, and the damming of rivers have led to habitat destruction.
The Khone Phapheng Falls are in Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, in southern Laos on the Cambodian border. These falls perplexed the French who wanted to find a way to travel on the Mekong River to China. The falls necessitated the building of the railroad connecting Don Det to Don Khon islands, remnants of which can be seen today. Located in Champasak of Southern Laos, Khone Phapheng Falls are the largest set of cascading waterfalls in Southeast Asia. They form part of the Mekong River.
Thousands of mysterious megalithic jars are scattered throughout Xiang Khuang Province in northeastern Laos. Dating from the iron age, the oldest jars go back to 500 BC. The largest “King Jar” is at site 1 and the longest jar is at Site 2. It’s possible to hire a guide to take you on a trek from Site 2, which is behind a rice paddy to Site 3, which is in the forest on top of a hill. The leading theory suggests these stone vessels were used in burial rituals. Evidence suggests that bodies were distilled in the jars until only bones remained. The bones were then removed and interred in a ceramic jar or in the ground. Nine of the 90 sites containing jars have been cleared of UXOs, so stick to the established routes and take a guide out trekking with you.
Rural Lao people are by and large rice farmers, but they often supplement their diet by hunting and gathering in the rice paddies and the forests. It’s not uncommon to see a woman picking greens out of the ditch to serve with a bowl of khaopiak. Slingshots and nets are used to hunt for birds, frogs and fish. Snails are gathered from the rice stalks and everything from snakes to rats are fair game for the barbecue.
The United States dropped more bombs on Laos in the 1960s and 1970s than were dropped on Germany and Japan during WWII. Around 30% of the bombs never detonated, meaning Laos is littered with unexploded ordinances that maim and kill civilians every year. Only a small fraction of UXOs have been safely removed. Learn more about cluster munitions at Vientiane’s COPE Visitor’s Center, and Luang Prabang’s UXO Laos. A small theatre shows documentaries about the Lao Civil War, citizens affected by unexploded ordinances, and the slow, painstaking clean-up efforts. The centre is free to visit, but you will be compelled to leave a donation before you leave. Information about tools that bomb removal teams use and the myriad reuses for war remnants are both informative and will tug at your heartstrings.
Laos has a long complex history with drugs like opium, magic mushrooms and marijuana that have been cultivated for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. During the secret war, US soldiers began buying drugs for recreational use and until quite recently drugs were freely available for purchase in the markets. The staple noodle soup, fer, used to have marijuana included in the list of ingredients. The Lao government has since made the sale and use of drugs illegal and have encouraged opium farmers to grow crops such as coffee instead.
Patuxai or Victory Gate is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Laos, situated opposite the Presidential Palace at the end of Lane Xang Avenue. The large arch is based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Forming the centerpiece of Patuxai Park, the monument is dedicated to the Laos people who were killed in the fight to gain independence from France, as well as the nation’s earlier occupiers, Japan and Siam. The exterior embellishments feature symbols of the Buddhist religion, including stupa-shaped towers and lotus leaves, along with statues of nagas (mystical water serpents) and animist kinnari (half-female and half-bird figures). For a small fee, visitors can climb to the top and enjoy a panoramic view of the Vientiane and see across the Mekong River to Thailand. Sometimes called “the vertical runway, it was completed in 1968 with funds from the US Government that were intended to be used for a new airport.
The majority of Lao people are Theravada Buddhists. Almost every man has, at some point, lived at a monastery and served as a novice. Buddhist lent which falls between July and October, is a common time for boys to take up the saffron robes and earn merit or good karma for themselves and their mothers. While nuns exist in Laos, they are few and far between and often take up the cloth late in life after their husbands die.
Savannakhet is very proud of the dinosaur fossils that have been found in the province. Coming south into town on Route 9 you’ll pass the impressive dinosaur roundabout. Savan Beer features a dinosaur logo, and 100km east of town, dinosaur footprints are preserved in a riverbed. See (and touch!) fossilized remains of dinosaurs and learn about the excavation process in this small but informative museum located in the Provincial Science, Technology and Environment Office.
Laos has two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The town of Luang Prabang joined the cultural list in 1995 to protect the fusion of Lao and European architecture from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wat Phou and several associated settlements in Champasak joined the list in 2001. The thousand-year-old Khmer-era temple was originally created to honor the Hindu gods but was later changed into a Buddhist temple.