The country of Laos is a land-locked nation located in Southeast Asia. Bordered by China and Myanmar to the north, by Thailand to the West, by Cambodia to the south, and by Vietnam to the east, Laos sits at the heart of the well-worn tourist trail. Although it may be less visited than its more famous neighbors, Laos offers a tremendous amount to travelers in the form of a blending of unique architecture, cultural and historic sites, and beautiful river deltas.
The country offers accommodation in the form of backpacking hostels, local inns, and western-style hotels. Similarly, it’s common to move around the country in a variety of ways with tuk tuks and scooters often being utilized to transit both short and long distances. No matter how travelers choose to move around, the long thin stretch of land is home to millennia of history, which has to date produced three UNESCO world heritage sites, all of which paint a unique picture of the history of the country and should be visited during any trip to Laos.
Town of Luang Prabang
The Town of Luang Prabang is an integral part of the history of Laos, which is why it was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, making it the very first location in all of Laos to receive that designation. The town is located in the north of the country on the world-famous Mekong River and is home to a blend of French colonial architecture as well as important Buddhist temples. It’s this blending of cultures as well as the historical significance to the country as a whole that earned it UNESCO world heritage status.
Aside from the historical significance of the many temples and French colonial buildings, the quiet town has blossomed into a destination for tourists looking to explore the nearby river delta as well as for foodies who are interested in Southeast Asian cuisine as a number of bars, restaurants, and cafés have popped up, lending Luang Prabang an exciting blend of the old and the new.
Luang Prabang is easily accessible as it has its own airport (Luang Prabang Airport) located very near to town.
Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements
Situated in the Champasak province of southern Laos, Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements was named Laos’ second UNESCO world heritage site in 2001. The area was originally designed in the Hindu style that aimed to balance the natural and the civic. As a result, space is uniquely planned, working with the nearby geological features to incorporate the many temples, shrines, and other religious and historic sites into the nature that was already there.
The most notable example of why these settlements warranted UNESCO status is the Vat Phou itself. Although the original temple that stood in its place from as early as the 5th or 6th century is no longer there, some structures of the Vat Phou have been around since the 11th century. The Khmer temple complex sits at the base of a mountain and still remains an important place of worship for the surrounding Buddhist population. The temple complex is also thought to be the oldest Khmer settlements found in Southeast Asia to date.
Plain of Jars
The third and final UNESCO world heritage site in Laos can be found in the center of the country, not terribly far from Luang Prabang. The Plain of Jars, also known as the Megalithic Jar Sites of Xiengkhuang was awarded status as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2019. The jars are scattered across the region in a number of sites, all of which have been uncovered and cataloged during archaeological excavations in the region. They are thought to be funerary in use and to date back to the Iron Age, in some cases to 500 B.C.E. All in all, there are over 2,100 jars, which are shaped like tubes, and are often found clustered together.
The sheer size of each individual jar offers clues to the technological advancements of the civilizations that harvested the stone from the quarries and transported them to the plateau’s scattered plots. Of the three Laotian UNESCO heritage sites, this one is undoubtedly the most mysterious, but it also offers visitors a chance to glimpse the past in ways that the other two do not.