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A heritage guide to Laos

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Laos may be small but it boasts a history that far outweighs its size. From French to Chinese, Dutch to British, hill tribes to ethnic Lao, a wealth of outside influences and internal diversity have shaped the country into the vibrant, culturally rich nation it is today.

Whether exploring Laos’ French roots through its cuisine, discovering the traditional handicrafts of the hill tribes, or traveling back hundreds of years to a time of warring kingdoms through its palaces and Buddhist temples, the country’s history is a richly woven patchwork that invites you to unpick it, one historic thread at a time. Read our heritage guide to Laos below!

Be dazzled by the regal grandeur of Laos’ early kingdoms

While Laos gained independence from the French in 1953 to become the nation we know today, its recorded origins can be traced back to 1353 when the Lao people, originally a tribe from China, founded the first Lao kingdom – Lan Xang or “land of the million elephants”. Traveling through Luang Prabang, once the religious and cultural center of the kingdom, you’ll find many signs of this ancient history. One of the finest temples in the city is Wat Xieng Thong, also known as the Temple of the Golden City: built in 1559, it’s been witness to the crowning of kings, worshipping monks, and numerous religious festivals. Strolling past the cascading roofs, golden pagodas, and ornate stencils of mythological scenes, soak in centuries of Lao craftsmanship and architecture.

If Wat Xieng Thong tells the stories of Laos’ early rulers, Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace is something of a finale, a final curtain call on the country’s monarchy. Built during the French colonial era in 1904, it was home to the royal family until the monarchy was overthrown in 1975 and is now the Royal Palace Museum. Wandering through its halls is akin to walking through history, with paintings and statues of the Lao monarchy, lacquered Ramayana screens, and royal artefacts showcasing the opulence of the kingdom, including the royal car collection and Crown jewels.

Laos, Royal Palace Museum, Heritage travel guide

Trace the country’s ancient roots through its temples and shrines

While the written records of Laos begin in the 14th century, you can travel even further back in time through ancient temples that predate the Lao Kingdoms. Wat Phou, a pre-Angkorian temple and one of the oldest places of worship in Southeast Asia, is a must when visiting Pakse and the 4,000 islands. Many of the ruins are believed to have been built by the pre-Angkorian Chenla kingdom which ruled the area in the 6th to 8th centuries, while later additions were made by the rulers of the Khmer Empire.

If timings allow, try to catch the Wat Phou Festival, which takes place over three days in January or February. One of the largest festivals in Laos, it’s a chance to become immersed in the colorful cultural and religious heritage of the country, with offerings, traditional dances, music and candle-lit processions.

Peel back the layers of religious history by following in the footsteps of royal pilgrims on a boat trip to the soaring limestone caves of Pak Ou. The Lao believe that their ancestors first used the caves as a shrine to the river spirits in the 8th century, but when Buddhism was introduced in the 14th century, Pak Ou became a site of pilgrimage. Today, row-upon-row of Buddhist statues cover every surface, left there by royalty and worshippers over hundreds of years. Wandering through the caves, past the gold-lacquered and wooden Buddhas that gaze out over the Mekong River, offers a fascinating insight into the country’s richly complex religious heritage.

Laos Buddha Statue

Experience Laos’ living history through its traditions

Of course, not all of Laos’ history is found in museums and ancient temples; it lives on in the Buddhist traditions and rituals of everyday life. You can experience this tradition first-hand by rising early to join locals in Luang Prabang as they make offerings to a procession of saffron-clad monks. This sacred tradition of ‘Tak Bat’ takes place every morning and is thought to have begun during the 14th century when the city became the capital of Lan Xang. Watch as locals sit or kneel to place rice and vegetables in the alms bowls of the passing monks with the hope of gaining merit for their next life – perhaps make your own offering.

When in Vientiane, visit the historic temple of Wat Si Saket, one time host of the Emerald Buddha and now home to thousands of ancient Buddha statues which take you on a journey through history. From the 13th-century Khmer-style stone Buddha protected by the Naga King to stucco murals from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the temple is a treasure trove of historic artefacts. In mid-April, these statues make their annual outing to be cleansed as part of the New Year celebrations – our local experts can let you know if your trip coincides with the ceremony.

Laos Buddhist monks

Trek through the highlands to meet Laos’ indigenous hill tribes

Its landlocked location and complex history of kingdoms, colonizers, and international influences have contributed to Laos’ extraordinary ethnic diversity. To truly get under the skin of this diversity, spend some time in the lush highlands where, hidden away amongst the emerald paddy fields, coffee plantations and limestone caves, you’ll find the country’s hill tribes. Spending time with Laos’ indigenous groups offers a chance to experience its origins through traditions and daily life that have remained unchanged for centuries.

Be introduced to local life and customs in Ban Houay Fai, a Khmu village, enjoy lunch in a Hmong village known as Ban Tinpha, travel by long-boat in the Nam Et Phou Loei protected area, stay in traditional bamboo huts, learn about the medicinal plants found in the jungle, and head out after dark with a local guide to spot sambar deer, civets, porcupines and owls. 

Laos rice field workers, travel guide

Unpick the layers of history that weave through traditional handicrafts

The country’s rich ethnic diversity can also be seen in the wealth of traditional clothing and exquisite crafts you’ll encounter throughout Laos. Take a boat trip along the Mekong to observe the rituals of everyday rural life, including women weaving colorful cloth or baskets. And if these catch your eye, be sure to fit in a visit to Luang Prabang’s lively night market where a kaleidoscope of colorful local textiles, silks and ethnic handicrafts tempt you at every turn.

Learn more about these traditional heritage crafts at The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC), a celebration of Laos’ ethnic cultural heritage. By showcasing skills handed down from generation to generation, it promotes and preserves the traditional techniques used by the hill tribes and invites you to explore Laos’ tapestry of cultural heritage through art and handicrafts. For a truly hands-on experience of this cultural heritage, try your hand at dyeing silk. Using natural dyes from the garden, you’ll learn the traditional art of transforming silk skeins into a rainbow of turquoise, ochre and emerald green, a process little-changed in centuries.

Laos handicraft street market

Eat your way through Laos’ culinary heritage

When traveling around Laos, it’s impossible to miss the influence of the French. The capital city, Vientiane, is an eclectic mix of Chinese and French architecture, while Champasak’s quiet streets are lined with colonial buildings, some charmingly crumbling, others beautifully restored. But there can be no better, or more enjoyable, way to discover Laos’ French history than through its food.

In many ways, the combination of Laos’ culinary heritage and the French influence is a match made in gourmet heaven – the fresh zing of Southeast Asia combined with the French cuisine’s attention to detail make the food the highlight of a trip. Feast on a freshly baked baguette from one of the many bakeries in Vientiane, or sit in a street café with a coffee and a crepe, to watch as the colorful vibrancy of Laotian life unfolds around you.

Laos buffet, food travel guide

Make it happen

Inspired by our Laos travel guide? If you’re planning a trip to Laos, let our local experts be your guide to its history and cultural heritage. Their lived experience of the country’s history means there’s no-one better to help you experience the ancient traditions, religious history, and centuries-old influences that make Laos the country it is today.

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