Located on the outskirts of Laos’s capital of Vientiane and close to the border with Thailand, Xieng Khuan Buddha Park is perhaps one of the country’s strangest attractions! The name translates as Spirit City, and the site is filled with numerous strange stone statues.
The creation of one eccentric man, Xieng Khuan, is definitely not your run-of-the-mill attraction! In a fairly rural area, and close to the Mekong River, be transfixed by the thought-provoking statues and wonder at the thought process that went into designing the pieces.
The eccentric mind behind Xieng Khuan
Although many of the concrete statues look much older, Xieng Khuan was built in the late 1950s. The man responsible for the wacky and whimsical park was called Bunleua Sulilat. He was born just across the border in neighbouring Thailand, moving to Laos later on.
His strange designs and notions are often accredited to a period of study that he undertook. Local folklore recounts a tale of a young Sulilat stumbling into a cave and meeting a hermit monk by the name of Keoku. Keoku took Sulilat under his wing, teaching him about various religious beliefs and pious practices, providing emotional and spiritual guidance.
Armed with a mass of sacred wisdom, Sulilat created Xieng Khuan based on his interpretations of Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism, often blending different beliefs together.
Following the rise of the communist Pathet Lao, Sulilat left Laos, along with his intriguing statues, and created a newer and larger park in his birthplace - Thailand’s province of Nong Khai. His two Buddha Parks are just a few kilometres away from each other, on opposite sides of the Mekong River.
Although Sulilat was technically secular, his unfailing devotion to his odd statues earned him the title of Luang Pa amongst his followers; Luang Pa is usually only used for monks.
Climb through a giant gaping mouth …
One of the first things you will notice is a large rounded structure that looks a lot like a pumpkin. It is quite plain when compared to neighbouring statues. Small square windows on the outside add intrigue as to what is inside, and the unusual building is topped with a strange spire. The top is rather like some of the headdresses as seen on images of different bodhisattvas (someone close to becoming enlightened). It could also look like fire, a tree, or possibly even horns, depending on which way you look at it.
The most striking feature of the building’s exterior is its entrance. You must crawl (or stoop) to enter through a giant gaping mouth! The teeth look as though they might clamp shut to crunch you into a million pieces, and the bulging eyes of the ghastly face add to the overall grotesque effect.
… And visit hell, heaven, and earth!
Once you have clambered inside the pumpkin-like structure you will be relieved to find that there is more headroom to walk around. Split over three levels, the different stages inside the building represent hell, heaven, and life on earth.
Small patches of light cast an eerie glow on strange statues and, as your eyes adjust to the gloom, you will notice some that are engaged in wicked deeds. The more gruesome statues represent punishments in hell, whilst the more beatific statues symbolise heaven. Weird branches and tendrils creep across and hang from the ceilings, almost making you feel that the building itself is alive.
Watch your step as you explore, as the lighting is dim and the floors are uneven. Narrow steps lead between the levels, with a final set of steps ascending to the outside world. The bright sunshine might dazzle you! You will almost surely be dazzled by the great views over the site too!
Feel a range of sensations when exploring the park
The strange statues can evoke a variety of sensations, thoughts, and feelings, including curiosity, admiration, revulsion, and horror.
Despite being referred to as the Buddha Park, Xieng Khuan is home to diverse representations from Buddhism, Hinduism, folklore, animism, and the unfathomable depths of the creator’s own imagination.
There may be moments of familiarisation, when you spot a statue that is somewhat like others you have seen before, followed by intrigue at seeing something that isn’t quite right. There are many twists … expect deities brandishing severed heads and torsos, the Lord Buddha wearing a crown of skulls, grotesque faces being pushed out of hideous mouths, deformed and distorted creatures, multi-headed serpents (nagas) wrapped seductively around sacred beings, and more!
It is sometimes said that Sulilat modelled the faces of some of the statues after his own face. You could, therefore, be looking at a combination of the Lord Buddha and Bunleua Sulilat!
Many of the large statues seek to impart lessons about morals and life. Or, more accurately, morals from the perspective of Bunleua Sulilat. The Wheel of Life is particularly thought-provoking, and may very well encourage you to question your own existence and path on this earth.
Practical information for visiting Xieng Khuan
Admission to Xieng Khuan is 5,000 LAK (approximately 0.60 USD) per person. There is an additional charge of 3,000 LAK (approximately 0.35 USD) for a camera permit. You really do want to be able to take pictures here, and the small fee is really worth it!
A few street vendors sell a basic selection of snacks and drinks, and there is a small restaurant within the park. Reasonably clean toilets are available. You should plan to spend around one to two hours strolling around Xieng Khuan.
Xieng Khuan is located around 25 kilometres (15.5 miles) outside of Vientiane. Whilst you can book a tour from a number of agencies and hotels in the city centre, it is really easy to get to independently. You can charter a tuk tuk (small three-wheeled motorised vehicle with an open back and sides), or catch a public bus. The public bus is more akin to a rickety old minivan, and you may find yourself nearly flying out of your seat as it bumps along the incredibly potholed roads once you leave the city.
Vientiane’s bus station is near the lively market of Talat / Talad Sao. It is easy to find the correct stand, and, if in doubt, just ask someone!
There are around three departures each hour, although don’t rely on exact times. You know the joke, right? Laos PDR – Laos People’s Democratic Republic, aka ‘Laos Please Don’t Rush’! The bus should take around 45 minutes to reach Xieng Khuan. Be aware, however, that you may need to change buses close to the Friendship Bridge; this can add extra time to your journey.
If a change of bus is required, unless you are in a real hurry, stand firm that you are waiting for the public bus. It is quite common for tuk tuks to advise you that there are no more buses, or for minivans to offer to leave now … for an additional fee! A one-way ticket from Vientiane centre to Xieng Khuan should cost around 6,000 LAK (approximately 0.75 USD).
The bus drops passengers right outside the entrance to Xieng Khuan, and picks up at the same spot for the return journey back to the city.
See a different interpretation of some common religions around Southeast Asia, and explore one of Laos’s most unique and fascinating attractions, with a visit to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park.
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