Laos is a majority Buddhist country with many functional temples and sacred places. It also has some of least touched natural areas in southeast Asia. If you’re looking to contemplate life and engage in a spiritual experience, consider visiting one of these most spiritual places in Laos.
Vat Phou/ Wat Phou
Ruins, Buddhist Temple, Archaeological site, Hindu Temple
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.
Called Pah Kha in Lao, the one critically endangered pod of Irrawaddy dolphins in Si Phan Don lives just south of Don Sanlat. Boats can be chartered from the beach at the southwest coast of Don Khon or from the ferry pier at the southernmost tip of the island for less than US$10 per hour. Sightings are best in the early mornings or early evenings. Bring some water; many of the boats are uncovered, leaving you exposed to the sun. Then, with the engine off and a little patience, you will see dolphins, albeit from a distance. Forget trying to take photos unless you’re a professional nature photographer and simply take in the sounds and sights of these majestic animals.
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.
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.
While the Lao don’t believe spirits are necessarily good or evil, they do believe they are mischievous and must be appeased or they may cause trouble. Most homes, businesses and many temples have a small spirit houses for their land spirits to reside. The houses can be simple and made of wood or elaborate and covered in mosaics. Each spirit house has a porch for offerings of water, rice, candles, flowers and incense. Well fed spirits don’t cause trouble.
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.
It’s a 32-kilometer journey through the winding hills to get to the most famous and most often visited waterfall in Laos: Kuang Si. Resist the temptation to rush to the falls and wander around the beautifully curated, Dutch-run Kuang Si Butterfly Park located 300 metres before the entrance. Once you buy your ticket to Kuang Si, you’ll walk through the Sun and Moon bear sanctuary before reaching the aquamarine pools. Swim at the bottom or the hidden pool at the top. Food vendors sell snacks and grilled meats at the base of the multi-tiered falls. You might even decide to stay over night in order to leisurely enjoy the nature. Make a pit stop at the Laos Buffalo Dairy on the way out, try some cheese, ice cream and feed the baby buffalo.
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.
That Ing Hang is second only to Wat Phou in Champasak when it comes to ancient sacred places in Laos. Built during the mid 16th century, the Stupa is a National Treasure of Lao PDR and is located 11.5 km north of Savannakhet. Said to contain a piece of Buddha’s spine, a story that Buddha rested at the base of a Hang tree at the site inspired the construction. Women must wear a traditional Lao sin (wrap skirt) to enter the temple grounds and may not enter the promenade around the stupa. Nuns and monks bless visitors and tie their wrists with colorful strings. After your visit, try some delicious black bamboo sticky rice with coconut for sale near the temple.
Built in 1818, Wat Si Saket is one of Vientiane’s best known Buddhist temples. Built in the Siamese style, it was spared in the raid on Vientiane by the Siamese in 1827, making it one of, if not the, oldest standing temple in Vientiane. Over 6000 Buddha statues adorn the cloister and the Sim, which have tiny Buddhas in niches carved into the walls. The impressive gardens are a peaceful reprieve from the bustle of the capital. Many locals come to pray and give offerings at the temple in the mornings. Visitors are permitted to observed but asked not to take photos.
To channel the meditation of driving the open road, look no further than the Thakhek loop. Feel the wind in your hair on a motorbike and drive through the Karst Mountains onto the hills of the Nakai Plateau. Stunning scenery and interactions with locals will make you feel like you’re living the pages of The Motorcycle Diaries set in Asia.
Dong Ling/ Monkey Forest
Buy a bunch of bananas from the monkey-proof road side stands and head to the sacred monkey forest in the Chomphone Districts of Savannakhet Province. These are most well-behaved monkeys in southeast Asia living on three hectares near Donmeuang Temple. The monkeys are sacred to the local people, and their images can be seen on the temple. The forest itself has a walking path with a pond in the middle and two small shrines toward the back. Visit in the dry season for Hotay Piddok, an ancient Buddhist palm scroll library near the forest.
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Bokeo is the smallest and least populated province of Laos. It sits in the northwest of the country bordering Thailand and Myanmar. With over 30 local tribes and deposits of gems and semiprecious stones, the combination of cultural emersion and natural beauty is unparalleled in Laos. Visit the Bokeo Nature Reserve to see the endangered black cheeked gibbons or book a homestay with a local family.