Laos owns two cultural World Heritage Sites listed on the UNESCO list: Luang Prabang peninsula was listed in 1995, and offers a unique cultural legacy of temples, housing and small streets surrounded by the Mekong, the Nam Khan River and the mountains. In Southern Laos, a couple of kilometres from Pakse stands the pre-angkorian temple complex of Wat Phou recorded on the World Heritage Site List in 2001, while the Plain of Jars in the north east is on the tentative list for classification.
The ancient town of Luang Prabang in the centre of Northern Laos has been described as one of the most charming and best preserved towns in Southeast Asia. There are 34 Buddhist temples among colonial and Chinese architecture, all set in a backdrop of lush green mountains. The mighty Mekong River frames the town’s western border, and is still used as an important commercial and recreational transportation link. Vibrant cultural traditions, rituals and distinctive artwork that include temple murals, woodcarving and pottery make Luang Prabang an attractive destination for a wide range of interests. Due to its outstanding cultural and natural features, the town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
The Vat Phou Temple Complex and surrounding Champasak Heritage landscape is located 500 km south of Vientiane on the right bank of the Mekong River in Champasak Province. Vat Phou is an excellent example of early and classic Khmer architecture, dating from the 7th to 12th centuries AD. At the foot of Vat Phou is the ancient City of Shestupura first settled in the 5th century AD and believed to be the oldest urban settlement in Southeast Asia and which is now waiting to be uncovered by centuries of soil deposits. Besides the main Vat Phou Temple complex, there are many lesser known ancient archaeological sites and natural areas nearby that can take some time to adequately explore.
The Plain of Jars
The Plain of Jars is situated on the Xieng Khouang Plateau in northern Laos. The site comprises thousands of stone jars, varying in height from one to over three metres, in clusters of up to 300 jars. One local legend states that the jars were originally constructed to distil an alcoholic brew to celebrate the victorious military campaign of an ancient king; however archaeological evidence suggests that the jars are funerary urns, carved by a Bronze Age people around 2,000 years ago. More recently, due to its strategic location, the Plain of Jars played a pivotal role in the second Indochina War and was the site of many ground battles and intense aerial bombardment. Xieng Khouang is now a peaceful place with wonderful cool weather, vast grassland, many ethnic groups, hot springs and caves.
Lao food may be little known outside the country, but it is considered a very healthy cuisine. This is due to its great use of fresh vegetables and herbs, which appear in almost every Lao meal. Both meat and fish are usually grilled or steamed and as a result, the flavours are fresh and the dishes are low in fat.
Walk around the numerous food markets and stalls that dot Luang Prabang and Vientiane and you’ll be confronted by the fragrances of galangal, lime, lemongrass, basil, coriander, garlic, ginger, mint and dill.
Lao coffee, strong, sweet and delicious, is another must-try. Lao produces some of the finest Arabica in the world, and whether you like hot or cold, black or milky, a cup of this fine stuff will set you up for the rest of the day. Laos has been a pioneer in the region for organic and fair-trade products; select these when purchasing local products.
Laap – a traditional Lao food made from chopped meat, chicken or duck – is a favourite. The finely chopped meat, spices and broth are mixed with uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried, and crushed. Laap is eaten with a plate of raw vegetables and sticky rice.
In general in Laos pay attention to the hygiene of the restaurants, as in rural areas the consumption of raw vegetables and meat (Laap) is often a source of food poisoning or diarrhoea.