LUANG PRABANG-THE WORLD HERITAGE TOWN
The ancient town of Luang Prabang in the center 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 Luang Prabang's colonial and Chinese architectures, all set in a backdrop of lush green mountains. The Mekong River frames the town's western border, and it remains an important commercial and recreational transportation link.
Vibrant cultural traditions, rituals and distinctive artwork such as temple murals, woodcarvings 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 town is directly accessible by air from Bangkok, Vientiane and Chiang Mai, and travelers looking for a bit of adventure can opt for overland travel from all directions in dry season. There is also regular boat service on the Mekong (a two-day voyage) to and from Houeixai, which borders Chiang Khong in northern Thailand.
THE PLAIN OF JARS
The Plain of Jars is located on the Xieng Khouang Plateau in north-central Laos, and is comprised of thousands of stone jars in about 300 clusters from 1-3 meters in height.
Local legend claims the jars were constructed to distill an alcoholic brew to celebrate a victorious military campaign over an ancient king. However, archaeological evidence suggests that the jars are funerary urns, carved by Bronze Age people around 2,000 years ago.
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. Now, Xieng Khouang is a peaceful area with cool weather, vast grasslands, several ethnic minorities, hot springs and caves.
Based on the Plain of Jars' extraordinary heritage, the Lao Government is preparing a nomination dossier for a submission to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to inscribe the area as a World Heritage Site. The Plain of Jars is accessible by air from Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Overland travel is possible from northern and central Laos and north-central Vietnam.
WAT PHOU COMPLEX
The Wat Phou Complex and the surrounding Champasack Heritage Landscape is located 500 km south of Vientiane on the east bank of the Mekong River in Champasack province. Wat Phou is an excellent example of early classical Khmer architecture, dating from the 7th to 12th century AD. At the foot of Wat Phou is the ancient city of Shestupura, which was settled in the 5th century AD, and is believed to be the oldest urban settlement in Southeast Asia.
Besides the main Wat Phou Temple Complex, there are several archeological and nature sites nearby that can take some time to explore. Considered by many to be the most beautiful of all Khmer temples, Wat Phou Champasack is distinguished as much by its dramatic and symbolic environmental setting as it is for its masterful architecture and iconographic arts. The temple nestles at the foot of the 1,408- metre Phou Khao Mountain, known in Sanskrit as Lingapar Wata or 'Linga Mountain' because it is said to resemble the Linga of the Hindu god Shiva. Reputed by legend to be Shiva’s birthplace, this has been a sacred site since at least the 5th century, when near by Setapura is believed to have been the capital of the proto-khmer kingdom of upper (Land) Chenla.
Construction of the Wat Phou Temple began as early as the 7th century - under Jayavarman I, though most of the surviving building date from the reigns of Jayavarman VI (1080-1107). (Converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 14th century and still plays an important role in local religious life today). The temple complex measures 1,400 metres in line running east to west up the lower part of the Phou Khao Mountain. It is built on six different levels/terraces, connected by steps and central walkway. Most are man-made, but the uppermost level is a natural terrace where a spring flows out of the mountain.
The water from this spring was channeled so that it flowed through the main sanctuary and over the central Shiva linga (the place of which is now occupied by a statue of the Buddha). From there the sacred stream flowed down the artificially terraced mountain slope into two sacred reservoirs or barays and finally in to the Mekong River, whose life-giving waters were believed to sustain the whole of the ancient Khmer Empire. Standing structures within the temple complex include quadrangles, a Nandin Hall, small pavilions, brick towers, stairways and the main shrine, which was dedicated to Shiva. The site along with other outlining temple was inscribed on UNESCO’s world heritage List as Wat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasack Cultural landscape on 14 December 2001.
An Exhibition Hall funded by the Japanese government was opened at the main entrance area to the site in 2003; this houses important artifacts recovered both within and nearby the complex. A major festival is held at the site in February each year.