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Laos – UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A brief country-by-country rundown of Southeast Asia’s various UNESCO Sites beginning, for no particular reason, with the list of Laos World Heritage sites. Well, it is an easy one to start with since the small, land-locked and sparsely populated nation has the grand total of 2 sites. Having said that a scan through the UNESCO list, (which does seem somewhat Euro-centric), brings up a few spurious or surprising entries that could be considered stretching a point whilst Lao’s 2 listings are both solid, indisputable classics and we’ll mention a couple more sites that we reckon could be deserving of future inclusion as well.

Wat Phu and surrounding area
Wat Phu and surrounding area

The north Lao city and former capital of Luang Prabang has been the lucky recipient of World Heritage status for nearly 20 years already, (since 1995), due to the town’s spectacular combination of ancient Lao, (temple), and French colonial period architecture and its exemplary state of preservation. Situated on a narrow tongue of land surrounded on 3 sides by the Khan and Mekong Rivers meant the old town remained largely intact and UNESCO’s early intervention, before more recent investment, could lead to modern development that other Lao town’s have seen, was highly fortuitous. Preservation plans were in place before the arrival of mass tourism and foreign investment.

Old French villa, now boutique guesthouse, Luang Prabang
Old French villa, now boutique guesthouse, Luang Prabang

All new development has thus taken place away from the old centre which with it’s lovingly restored old villas, narrow lanes winding between ancient temples and strategically placed riverside cafes is an absolute delight to explore. Certainly one of the best-preserved old towns of Southeast Asia and we’re yet to meet a visitor who didn’t fall under its charm.

Sunset over the old town
Sunset over the old town

Lao’s 2nd site is both right at the other end of the country, being situated in Champassak province in the far south, and of an entirely different nature, being an ancient Angkor period temple complex so an excellent contrast and complement to the former. The Wat Phu site consists of the main temple itself, dramatically situated on a mountain slope overlooking the Mekong valley, adjacent temples including Nang Sida and Wat Umo and the nearby riverbank site of an ancient city dating to the 5th-6th centuries. Indeed though much of what you can see today at Wat Phu dates to the early 11th century and the reign of Suryavarman 1, this is the oldest Khmer city yet discovered and it was from here that Bavavarman and Mahendravarman set out to expand their empire into what is now modern Cambodia during the 2nd half of the 6th century and though situated in what is now Laos can be considered the cradle of Khmer civilization.

Laos World Heritage. 11th c. sandstone addition to a much earlier brick temple
11th-century sandstone addition to a much earlier brick temple

Wat Phu appears to have been inhabited for the best part of 2,000 years; was possibly a largely Cham province of the Funan empire until the mid-6th century, became the capital of the Khmer-dominated Chenla kingdom from the late 6th onwards and remained a highly prestigious religious centre and pilgrimage destination during the entire Angkor period.

Laos World Heritage. Wat Phu looking north
Wat Phu looking north

A spectacularly situated and relatively well-preserved site but also of immense historical importance and again another site where visits are guaranteed not to disappoint.

Plain of Jars
Plain of Jars

A third site – again of an entirely different nature – that we reckon well-deserving of addition to the Laos World Heritage list is the famous Plain of Jars site in northeastern Laos. These mysterious giant stone jar sites scattered across a remote plain along with associated menhirs have withstood some 2,000 years of time, (not least B52 carpet bombing during the US secret war in Laos), and are certainly due a bit of TLC – and funding – at last. (It has actually been on the UNESCO ‘tentative’ list since 1992 and we’re not really sure what they’re waiting for).

That Luang, Vientiane
That Luang, Vientiane

Another entry on the UNESCO tentative Laos World Heritage Sites list is Vientiane’s iconic That Luang Temple. Perhaps not as obvious a choice as the famous jars but certainly a spectacular, well-preserved 16th-century temple so…why not? A couple more possibilities could be the superb landscapes and associated colonial period sites of the 4,000 Islands region along the Cambodian border and, why not the still relatively well preserved, (but for how long?), old French period Mekong port architecture of Thakaek and Savannakhet which show perhaps more potential showcase possibilities than similar towns in Cambodia or Vietnam?

Laos World Heritage. Plenty of lovely old French period buildings awaiting a brush up in Thakaek Town
Plenty of old French period buildings awaiting a brush up in Thakaek Town

Note both Luang Prabang and Wat Phu, as well as our additional suggestions, feature on many of our tour itineraries – full details of which can be found at this Laos tour link.

Update; Since we originally posted this piece the Plain of Jars site has happily been added to the list of Laos World Heritage sites.)