Laos’s latest addition to UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List – inscribed in 2019 and to our minds, long overdue – is the Megalithic Jar Sites of Xiengkhuang, commonly known as the Plain of Jars. Usually associated with adjectives such as mysterious or enigmatic the site consists of over 2,000 giant jars, carved out of solid rock and scattered across the rolling hills of an upland plateau region in remote northeastern Laos. (The province is Xiengkhouang while the nearest town, provincial capital and airport is Phonsavan.)
Despite some wild theories they have been proven to be burial jars and were carved over a lengthy period approximately extending from 500 BCE to 500 CE. So, mysterious – not really – but the Plain of Jars is certainly a curious, atmospheric and picturesque site and a welcome supplement to the Laos World Heritage Sites list.
As the Jar site was falling into disuse Laos’s next UNESCO-listed site was just beginning life at the opposite end of the country, in the far southern Champassak Province. Although most of what you see today is 11th-century construction, the temple site of Wat Phu (UNESCO use the French spelling Vat Phou) and adjacent ruined city date to as far back as the 4th or 5th-century CE. Located between Wat Phu and the Mekong River little remains today of the ancient city itself but the Angkorian temple, rising in tiers up the lower slopes of the sacred mountain, Phou Kao, is impressive and another highly picturesque site.
The inscription includes adjacent, associated sites such as the smaller temples of Nang Sida and jungle-clad Tomo on the east bank of the Mekong. (Various names are used to describe the latter site.)
Conveniently, while the Plain of Jars covers the iron-age period and Wat Phu the equivalent of Lao’s ‘Medieval’ era, the 3rd UNESCO site completes the historical range with Luang Prabang’s 15th to 19th-century offerings. The listing includes the entirety of the old town and harmoniously combines older Lane Xang period Buddhist temples with late 19th/early 20th century French, colonial-era architecture.
Hardly an abundance then but, between them, the 3 sites do manage to cover some 2 and 1/2 millennia of Lao history.
UNESCO’s Tentative List for Laos World Heritage Sites is equally sparse, consisting of just the one historical entry – That Luang – plus the natural site of Hin Nam Ho National Protected Area. Nam Ho was only added in 2019 and seems to tickle UNESCO’s fancy while Vientiane’s landmark 16th-century temple has been on the list since way back in 1992. (Judging by UNESCO’s perfunctory write up we don’t hold up much hope.) Nam Ho is a spectacular area of karst mountains along the Vietnamese border in central Laos and home to several critically endangered species as well as awe-inspiring scenery. It borders Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park across the border to the east and is adjacent to other protected areas of Khammouane Province including Phuo Hin Boun and Nakai-Nam Thoeun Biodiversity Conservation Areas.
To our minds, Laos’s beauty and heritage value lies in its magnificent mountain and forest landscapes and to be fair to UNESCO it is rather difficult to pin this down to specific sites. Large sections of the country have been designated protected areas by the government so some good intentions are there although, as is the case we outlined in our earlier Cambodia World Heritage Sites piece, this protection is not well enforced. Corruption, illegal logging, mining, land encroachment and hunting are still rampant and resources, (financial and technical assistance) recognition and encouragement are urgently required if the Lao government is to provide more effective protection.
Not on the List
As we mentioned it’s the forests, rivers, mountain landscapes and mosaic of traditional minority peoples that provide perhaps the country’s greatest riches and narrowing that down for listing purposes isn’t easy. For the above-noted reasons, we’d lean towards natural areas rather than individual temples for instance and increasing revenue by developing eco-tourism in relatively accessible areas such as Nam Ha and Hin Boun might reduce logging and hunting. In these cases, UNESCO recognition, funding and technical assistance would be invaluable.
Combined or mixed cultural and natural sites (e.g in the style of Vietnam’s Trang Anh) might also work in popular but extremely fragile locations such as Si Phan Don, (the 4,000 Islands) or the karst landscapes of Vang Vieng.
On our Tours
Nam Ha, Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars all feature in our 2-week Northern Laos and the Golden Triangle tour from Chiang Mai to Vientiane while our Mekong Adventure, South Laos itinerary offers That Luang, Hin Boun, Wat Phu and the 4,000 Islands (as well as Cambodia’s Preah Vihear). The extended version of the latter starts in Luang Prabang and also adds the Plain of Jars. Our Laos and Vietnam tours, Unexplored – the Far North and Mountains and Hill-tribes both feature Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars while our Laos and Cambodia trip, Indochina Adventure includes Luang Prabang, the Plain of Jars and Vientiane. Finally, Wat Phu and the 4,000 Islands are stops on our Emerald Triangle – Thailand, Laos and Cambodia tour.