I still can’t get over the Buddha Park in Laos. Not because of how amazing it is, but because it’s the last thing I expected to see in the country.
I grew up thinking of communist countries having no religion. Why? Because John Lennon said so. I think I had some other friends confirm that. Then again, one rule of communism is that there aren’t really any rules. At the beginning of my life, there were dozens of communist countries around the world. Now there are only five: China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. While I’ve only been to two of them so far, I don’t think there is any one characteristic that could be applied to all five.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos. With over 700,000 citizens, the city is fairly busy. In the heat of the day, things can get really lethargic. But then you can head out to the riverside market at night and get lost in the crazy crowds. Half of the city is full of urban ruins left over from the French colonization, while the other half of the city is full of half-built projects reminiscent of North Cyprus where they just ran out of money.
Religion in Laos
All across SE Asia, religion is very prominent. The number of temples in Thailand, even just in the city center of Chiang Mai, is staggering. In Laos, there are just as many temples. Two thirds of Lao people are Buddhist, nearly a third follows a Laotian folk religion, and the remaining few thousand are Christian or otherwise. Hardly anyone in the country is agnostic or atheistic.
In Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can watch the impressive alms-giving ceremony. Please note, it’s at 5:30 a.m., not 6:30 as I was told. I’m still kicking myself for missing it during both of my visits! Anyway, every morning, locals kneel on the street with bowls of food. The monks come out of their temples and somberly accept the food. Apparently it’s the only food that the monks will eat all day, but as I said, I have yet to witness it myself.
Getting to the Buddha Park
There aren’t many attractions to see in Vientiane. The Patuxai Arch is definitely the highlight. Built from 1957 to 1968 to celebrate Laos’ independence from the French, it’s appropriately modeled after the Arc de Triomphe, but it was never completed due to a lack of funds. Other key attractions include Pra That Luang (the Golden Stupa), Wat Si Saket (a temple with thousands of Buddha statues) and Haw Phra Kaew (an old temple turned museum). Personally, I think they only make the list because there just isn’t anything else that impressive. Except for the Buddha Park.
Located 15 miles outside the city, just past the Friendship Bridge back into Thailand, the Buddha Park was first started in 1958. Over the years, over two hundred Hindu and Buddhist statues were added, including a large Reclining Buddha. Yes, it’s a combination of both religions. The architect, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, studied Hindu in Vietnam. He built the park (which he called Spirit City) to express his studies. Actually, he built two parks! In 1975 after the Laos Revolution, he fled to Thailand just a few miles away across the river to build the second park.
Tourism in Vientiane is nothing like Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang. While there are a few taxis in the center of town that will take you out to the Buddha Park at an exorbitant rate, it’s easy to just get the local bus from near the central bus station. Simply find the #14 Bus Stop on Google Maps and pay 6,000 kip ($0.75) for a one-way ticket to the park. This is the same bus you would take to the Friendship Bridge if you want to get to Thailand by bus (although it’s easier to use the direct bus to Udon Thani).
If you feel the need to take a taxi, they will charge you 300,000 kip ($38) for a round-trip. That’s not just a waste of money, it’s criminal in my opinion. Kinda like they’re stealing money from you. Just don’t do it. The bus is so much easier.
The ride to the park is about half an hour. The bus can also get really crowded, and there’s a chance you might have to stand for the journey, at least to the Friendship Bridge. Before you leave, make sure to pick up a lot of water. The park charges three times the usual cost, and there’s not a lot of shade there. It’s easy to get dehydrated.
Exploring the Buddha Park
On my first visit to the Buddha Park back in 2017, the entrance fee was 5,000 kip. Now it’s 15,000 kip ($2). The entrance is also changing a lot. The first time, it was just a dirt lot with a hut where you purchased the ticket. This time in April 2019, they were in the middle of constructing a large temple-like entrance for the park. I’m guessing the price will go up again when everything is fully established.
Within the park, all the statues are numbered to give you a general idea of a route to follow. Get a quick photo of the first statue on your left, and then turn your attention to #2 on the route – what I consider to be the main attraction of the park. It’s a massive turnip-shaped edifice full of macabre sculptures and scenes you can climb through. It’s a little hard to describe, but I’ll try. This giant clay ball has three levels, each with two “layers.” The outer layer is walkways with a set of steep stairs leading between the different levels. The inner layer is where the clay statues and scenes are. There are a couple entrances from the outer to the inner layer, and another set of stairs within the inner layer. Confused? So was I while I was there trying to make my way through it!
The scenes in the inner layer are really interesting. The three levels represent hell, earth and heaven. On the lowest floor (hell), things get a little grotesque, reminiscent to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. There are beheadings, eviscerations and skulls galore. As you ascend to the next to levels, the scenes get a lot nicer.
At the top, you can get out to the roof from either layer, although the hole from the inner layer is tighter. From the roof, you can get a really good view of the park. It gets hot up there, so I’m guessing you’ll spend as little time up there as I did.
In total, there are 66 stops along the route. All of them are quite intricate, and some are massive. The Reclining Buddha is one of the highlights, but so is the four-faced head with skulls piled on top, or the giant statue holding a dead princess (presumably) in its hands.
The park isn’t only statues. The landscaping is certainly part of the attraction too. Ponds, trees and flowers are everywhere. Sadly, the trees don’t offer that much shade.
One of my favorite “attractions” was a mini “temple” with stairs climbing up the side. The stairs are steep and tiny, and get even shallower as you get to the top so you’re basically climbing with your toes as you reach the summit. It’s worth the climb as you get another great view of the park from the top.
The Buddha Park has a small restaurant area where you can order all the local dishes. The prices are a bit higher than in town, just as they are at many amusement parks. You can either eat in the large dining hall, or try to grab one of the huts out in the flower fields by the river. The first time I was there, it was just a wild pasture where cows were grazing, but now it’s a well-kept series of flower beds along a path leading down to the river.
While the statues in the park seem to be a completed project, there are other areas being expanded into. As mentioned, the entrance is getting a fancy new building. There’s another space where events can be held (perhaps weddings and the like) and more gardens are being planted. In the two years between visits, the walkways changed from dirt paths to concrete, and other small buildings were erected to sell food and drinks where there used to be street food stalls. Who knows what the place will look like in a couple more years.
When you’re ready to return to Vientiane, simply leave the park, cross the street and wait outside the restaurant at the bus stop. There’s a small sign to mark the spot. It’s the same 14 bus to get back.
- Location: Deua, Thanon Tha, Vientiane, Laos
- Opening hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- Entrance fee: 15,000 kip (about $2)
- What to wear: It’s a religious site, so cover your knees and shoulders. You could also wear pants and a long-sleeve shirt to protect yourself from the sun.
- When to visit: All year, although it might be better to visit outside the rainy season (May-October).
Virtual Tour of the Buddha Park
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Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.
- Journal Entry: Putting Up With the Scams in Asia
- A Guide to Spending Three Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
- The Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat in Laos
- A Full Itinerary for a Day at the Kuang Si Waterfalls
- The Blue Lagoon in Laos is Nothing Like the One in Iceland
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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