When I made my first online post on Champasak, a Filipino friend messaged me that he had not known of any other Filipino who knew about and was interested in going to that little known corner of Laos. While the comment did not surprise me, how pleasantly charming rural Laos is did.
For many of us, Laos may not rank highly as a travel destination choice. For one, there is no direct flight going there, and traveling around is not as convenient as in its other neighboring countries. It is certainly not the richest or most convenient country to explore, but it is also not the most unexciting: the country retains the textures of old-fashioned Southeast Asia that have been sadly lost by the others.
Early this year, my mom and I went on a little adventure with the goal of visiting Laos’ Holy Trinity of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Starting off from Louang Prabang, we went deeper into the heart of the country to see the enigmatic Plain of Jars, and then took the big leap from its capital Vientiane to see Vat Phou in Champasak.
Old Town of Louang Prabang
Once the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, Louang Prabang may be the country’s most popular destination. The old town offers a visual feast for its distinct and well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. The developments that took place between the 19th and 20th centuries created an urban fabric that blended traditional and European colonial influences, notably those of the French. Its setting at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and Nam Khan, further adds to its beauty.
Vat Xieng Thong, a royal temple, stands out as its most important cultural gem, as well as one of the most refined Buddhist temples in the region. It exemplifies the apogee of Lao architecture with its three-tiered roof and many gilded carved woodworks. It also houses the fabled Tree of Life colored-glass mosaic, a masterpiece in itself that I was even lucky to gain access to at night.
On the other hand, the temple on top of Mount Phusi draws the attention of many who want to witness unparalleled sunset views. The peak can be ridden with hordes of tourists, but the views halfway through the hike are equally satisfying without feeling crammed. Several houses along the main streets have been converted into cafes and hotels, which, at some point, raised concerns about site conservation and management. While changes are indeed taking place, they are not as bad as I expected. Having previously visited Hoi An, its counterpart in Viet Nam, there is just no way Louang Prabang can be tagged as fairing worse.
Other interesting things to see include the daily alms giving, which sees hundreds of monks and their apprentices lining up to get their food ration from residents (as well as some tourists who just won’t leave them do their own thing), and the nearby waterfalls at Kuang Si National Park.
Visiting Louang Prabang now is more enjoyable than it was a few years ago, when it was the craze to tick it off the list, having once been ranked as one of the most desirable destinations in Asia. It is no longer as crowded as most would claim it to be, and it is simply difficult not to love it.
Megalithic Sites in Xiengkhuang: Plain of Jars
I first read about the Plain of Jars when I was 15, and its mystery and allure have never left me since. It then took me 20 years to finally see it, and it truly never fails to impress, perhaps even more than Stonehenge.
The trip from Louang Prabang to Phonsavan can take between 6 and 7.5 hours as the mountain roads are not the best. Jar Site 1 is extensive, sporting a plethora of jar types. Little is known about their use, and theories range from their use as Iron Age funerary vessels to vats in fermenting local alcohol, probably the notorious Lao whiskey. The arresting landscape, however, is dotted with craters left behind by extensive bombings by the Americans during the Laotian Civil War, and some areas are still restricted due to the high presence of unexploded bombs. Some of the innocently standing ancient jars also fell victim and got broken.
Initially, I wanted to visit other jar sites, but after the visit to Site 1, which took place at what probably was the best time to be there, I no longer felt the urge to check out the others. At Site 1, we got great lighting, no crowds, the quietness I always want, and great weather. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, too! Phonsavan does not offer much as a city, so one only goes there for the jars alone.
Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape
Vat Phou is one of the earliest Angkorian stone temples that was built on the slopes of Mt. Phou Khao in the south. While the structures in situ cannot compete with the great ones in Angkor, the unspoiled location of Vat Phou cannot be undervalued and can even rival that of the Temple of Preah Vihear, another Angkorian World Heritage Site, in northwestern Cambodia. The temple complex was erected in between two water sources, the Mekong and the natural spring from the mountain that fed its massive reservoirs. The water from the spring, considered sacred, also ran through the lingam in the main sanctuary in the upper section.
On our visit, Vat Phou was being dominated by a large group of monks, providing countless opportunities for what many would call postcard-worthy snaps. The causeways leading to the top are lined up with stone lingams, which are believed to be where the kings and pilgrims would receive their blessings. Not far from the main sanctuary is an area with carved stones, the most intriguing of which is the Crocodile Stone, which some have determined to have been used for human sacrifices. Another fascinating aspect of the site is the lingam-shaped outcrop on top of the mountain, the main reason why Vat Phou and its settlements came into existence.
Reaching the site from Pakse on a very reliable motorbike gives one a window to appreciate the bucolic sceneries of Champasak province, a still largely ignored part of Laos. The nearby Bolaven Plateau boasts a nice loop for bikers, some waterfalls, as well as superb mountain-grown coffee. It is definitely not to be missed!
There is always a special place for Laos in the hearts of those who have been there.
Image credits: BERNARD JOSEPH ESPOSO GUERRERO