Dominating the old city centre and a favourite with sunset junkies, the abrupt 100m-tall hill of Phu Si is crowned by a 24m gilded stupa called That Chomsi . Viewed from a distance, especially when floodlit at night, the structure seems to float in the hazy air. From the summit, however, the main attraction is the series of city views. Beside a flagpole on the same summit there’s a small remnant anti-aircraft cannon left from the war years.
Ascending Phu Si from the north side (329 steps), stop at the decaying Wat Pa Huak , one of the few city temples not to have been colourfully (over) renovated. It has a splendid carved wood Buddha riding Airavata, the three-headed elephant from Hindu mythology that featured on Laos’ national flag until 1975. The gilded and carved front doors are often locked, but during the day there’s usually an attendant nearby who will open the doors for a tip of a few thousand kip. Inside, the original 19th-century murals have excellent colour, considering the lack of any restoration. The murals show historic scenes along the Mekong River, including visits by Chinese diplomats and warriors arriving by river and horse caravans. Three large seated Buddhas and several smaller standing and seated images date from the same time as the murals or possibly earlier.
Reaching That Chomsi is also possible from the south and east sides. Two such paths climb through large Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam to a curious miniature shrine that protects a Buddha Footprint . If this really is his rocky imprint, then the Buddha must have been the size of a brontosaurus. Directly southwest of here a series of new gilded Buddhas are nestled into rocky clefts and niches around Wat Thammothayalan . The monastery is free to visit if you don’t climb beyond to That Chomsi.
Another place to see in Laos: Wat Xieng Thong