Tourism is a fast-growing industry in Laos, where every part of its 236,000-square-kilometer land area hides a piece of history or a cultural gem that is uniquely Southeast Asian. This landlocked country has no beaches to speak of, but plenty of possibilities for eco-adventure and cultural excitement. Studying abroad in Laos is best for those who love rugged and unspoiled nature, as that is everywhere. Here are some of the top ways students can explore the natural side of Laos while studying abroad.
Float or paddle down the Nam Song River in an inner tube or a kayak and take in the sights. The Nam Song may be a small river as rivers go, but it's the surrounding Laotian countryside that lures tourists. Large rock formations line the riverside in stark contrast to the lush greens closer to the waters.
After a short sojourn on the river, hit Vang Vieng, grab some grub and a few drinks in any of the bars, restaurants, and cafes that make up the town's main street. Other activities you can do on your side trip to Vang Vieng include taking a zip line to cross the Nam Song and swinging on a rope hanging over the river.
Enjoy a day of spelunking in a cave full of Buddha sculptures. Pak Ou holds many wonders for an adventurous spirit. The most visited of these wonders is a cluster of caves about 25 kilometers north of Luang Prabang known as Tham Thing, or lower cave, and Tham Theung, or upper cave. These caves are homes to a wide variety of Buddha figures. Name a posture, and the caves probably have a Buddha sculpture in that pose. Most of the figures are made of wood and are laid out on wall shelves.
Parks Of Peace
Buddhas in caves? What about a park full of Buddhas? In a meadow near the Mekong River sits Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park. The park, located about 25 kilometers southeast of the capital city of Vientiane, hosts about 200 statues of Buddha. The statues are made of reinforced concrete, the largest of which is the 120-meter reclining Buddha.
If you want a view of the entire park, look for the giant pumpkin sculpture in the middle of the park. It is three stories tall, each story representing the three levels of the world — Hell, Earth and Heaven. To get to the top, you will have to go through the mouth of a giant demon and find your way through the Earth level before ascending to Heaven.
Buddha Park contains other sculptures in the likeness of characters in Buddhist and Hindu lore, including the gods Shiva and Vishnu. There's another park just like it across the Thai-Laos border, the Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand, which was also built by the priest Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. If your study abroad in Laos includes world religion or theology classes, this trip might be part of your course.
Zip, Zip Away
Book a trip with The Gibbon Experience in Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos, and live for a few days in treehouses 25 meters high, up in the jungle canopy, the home of this elusive primate. Spend your days flying around an amazing zipline circuit, whizzing past breathtaking mountain vistas. Tuck in for the evening in fully functional treehouses, where meals are brought to you by housekeepers on zipline.
Explore the ancient ruins of Vat Phou. Also known as Wat Phu, this Khmer temple complex in southern Laos is a sight to behold. Although not a natural wonder, Vat Phou is just one of the many legacies of the Khmer empire, which held sway over most of Southeast Asia, including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, from the 9th to 13th centuries. This sacred Angkorian temple is a World Heritage Site.
Walk the Plain of Jars and marvel at thousands of megalithic jars that dot the landscape: Before you start frolicking in the fields of Xieng Khouang, you might want to know that these jars, some dating back to 500 BC, were used for mortuary practices. The jars functioned as distilling vessels for the dead as they transition from the mortal world to the spiritual realm. Some of the jars here are so huge that local legends have been built up around them. One legend tells of a race of giants who used the jars to brew and store rice wine. Another says the jars were used to gather rainwater in preparation for the dry season.