Entering the park, I gaped in awe at the towering, monolithic structures surrounding me. There weren’t only Buddhas, but giant Hindu deities and characters from the Indian epics as well. Not to mention a whole lot of other strange beings I couldn’t recognize. The idea for this otherworldly sculpture park came from a man named Bunleua Sulilat. Amazingly, he embarked on the project with zero prior experience as either a sculptor or as an artist.
But while Sulilat may have lacked experience, he was a man with a clear vision and an unwavering determination. He was so determined, in fact, that he built not just one but two sculpture parks. After visiting the well-known ‘Buddha Park’ in Vientiane, Laos, I also took a trip to the lesser-visited ‘Sala Keoku’ across the border in Thailand. This is also where the artist, and to a number of devotees, spiritual leader, rests for eternity among his surrealist concrete creations.
'While Sulilat may have lacked experience, he was a man with a clear vision and an unwavering determination.'
While geographically close to one another, passing through immigration is required to visit the two sculpture parks on either side of the Mekong
Who Was Bunleua Sulilat?
Bunleua Sulilat was born in 1932 in the province of Nong Khai, Thailand. He would later move to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Laos shares many cultural and linguistic similarities with Thailand’s Isaan region, of which Nong Khai is a part. It’s not clear, though, exactly, why or how Sulilat ended up there. It’s also rumored that he did extensive traveling in India before the relocation.
As Sulilat was taking a walk one day, he suddenly fell into a cave. Some versions of the story mention weeks of torment as he struggled with terrifying mystical visions in the absence of food. Another version simply states that the man who would become his guru was already there in the cave, patiently waiting for him.
The sage known as Keoku took Sulilat as his apprentice, teaching him a philosophy which blends together Buddhist and Hindu ideas. Sulilat would then go on to lead a number of devotees of his own, who followed his every instruction up until his passing in 1996.
Sulilat would even become known as “Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat,” with the term Luang Pu usually only being reserved for ordained monks. But Sulilat never shaved his head or became a monk in the traditional sense. Instead of orange robes, Sulilat and his followers dressed themselves in all white. Whatever his teachings consisted of, we can at least be sure that his group operated outside of the mainstream Theravada Buddhism establishment so prevalent in Laos and Thailand.
Along with leading his group of followers, Sulilat saw producing countless monolithic sculptures of Buddhas and Hindu deities as his life’s work. As mentioned, Sulilat started making sculptures with no prior experience. But even the group of people helping him were also untrained – at least in the beginning. Sulilat and his followers would go on to build sculptures together for around 40 years.
The sculptures consist of concrete and metal, as cement was the easiest and cheapest material for them to work with. One wonders, though, what Sulilat’s creations could’ve looked like had he been a millionaire businessman like Lek Viriyaphant, creator of the Erawan Museum. But clearly, a decent sum of money had to be invested to start such an ambitious project as the Buddha Park. Rumor has it that funding came from the lottery win of one of Sulilat’s devotees.
Sulilat worked for years on his sculptures just outside of Vientiane, but fled to Nong Khai, Thailand in 1975 after Laos’s Communist revolution. It’s unclear whether Sulilat was actually threatened by Laos’s new government, or if he was just being cautious. Whatever the case may be, the same Communist regime continues to rule Laos to this day, and they’re more than happy to promote Sulilat’s Buddha Park as a popular tourist destination. And must-visit destination it is.
visiting Vientiane's Buddha Park
Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat began work on Xieng Khuan, or what’s now commonly referred to as ‘Buddha Park,’ back in the 1950’s. As mentioned above, he fled Laos in 1975. It’s unclear, though, whether or not he’d already considered the sculpture park in Vientiane as complete or as a work still in progress. Whatever the case may be, there are more than enough fascinating sculptures around the park to delight both the average curious tourist and the Hindu mythology buff alike. For the adventurous, there’s even a “hell cave” to explore.
Exiting the local bus from the center of town and entering the park, it feels as if you’ve just stepped over the boundary into another world. Most of the sculptures in the park are visible all at once, making it hard to focus on any one particular piece for very long in the beginning. Once you finally let the bizarre atmosphere sink in, though, you’ll likely find yourself staring at individual pieces for awhile, wondering what symbols or secret knowledge Sulilat meant to impart in these slabs of concrete.
'You’ll likely find yourself wondering what symbols or secret knowledge Sulilat meant to impart in these slabs of concrete.'
There are said to be at least a couple hundred sculptures in the park, but good luck counting them all. In addition to the massive ones outside, a plethora of smaller sculptures are located inside the three-storied dome. Climbing around inside the demon-faced pumpkin can be a little strenuous due to the narrow and steep stairways. But after experiencing a taste of hell, you’ll eventually make it to the top, symbolic of the heavenly realm of Mt. Meru. From heaven, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view of the entire park.
Looking at the entirety of Xieng Khuan from up on high, it’s not entirely clear whether or not there’s any symbolic meaning to the placement of the statues. There is, at least, adequate space in between the sculptures to accommodate a large number of visitors. One of the upsides of the park is that despite its popularity, Buddha Park rarely feels too cramped or crowded.
The best way to get to the Buddha Park is by bus. Find the Talat Sao Shopping Mall, and then walk around to the other side to find the bus station. The bus is supposed to be #14. But this is more like an outdoor market/bus terminal hybrid, and there are no signs indicating where certain buses depart from. However, everyone will know the phrase “Buddha Park” so your best bet is to just ask someone and they should show you the way.
Buses leave around every thirty minutes and cost 6,000 kip one way. Depending on traffic, a one-way ride could take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour. The bus to the park will stop at the Friendship Bridge, which connects Laos with Thailand. You’ll see lots of people getting off there, but stay on the bus for the rest of the journey. (If later on you do plan on riding a bus to Thailand, you don’t want bus #14 but another bus which will drive you across the Friendship Bridge and right to the Nong Khai bus terminal.)
Also be aware that some people have reported switching to a smaller minibus at the bridge which then took them to the park. In my case, I was never asked to switch buses.
Returning back to Vientiane is straightforward. Just leave the Buddha Park and wait on the opposite side of the street.
FROM WITHIN LAOS:
The cheapest way to reach the capital from elsewhere in Laos is to take a bus. Most buses will drop you off at the terminal just outside Talat Sao mall. If you’re coming all the way from Luang Prabang, prices can range from 150,000 – 200,000 kip. Understand, though, that some dub this the “bus ride from hell.” The roads in Laos are bad, and 10 hours on a bumpy, cramped bus is often too much for many people to bear.
Many people break up the journey by staying a few nights in the backpacker party town of Vang Vieng, which is located roughly in the middle of Laos’s two biggest cities.
As I wasn’t interested in either Vang Vieng or a bumpy 10-hour ride, I decided to fly. Though by far the easiest option, domestic flights in Laos tend to cost a lot more than in neighboring countries. Expect to pay around $100 USD for a flight, when a similar domestic flight in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam would only cost you a third of that.
Vientiane is a popular overland destination for people traveling in Thailand. Either they use it as an entry point to explore the rest of Laos, or simply renew their Thai visa at the embassy before heading back. In any case, if you’re coming from Thailand, the town on the Thai side of the border/river is known as Nong Khai. Nong Khai is accessible from Bangkok by train or bus, and it’s not too far from Udon Thani airport, either.
From Nong Khai you can take a bus straight into Laos. However, keep in mind that even though Laos has a visa-on-arrival system, many bus operators demand that you get your Laos visa in advance to avoid any potential slowdown.
Vientiane, of course, has an international airport which you can reach from most major cities in Southeast Asia or from within Laos. However, flights to and from this airport, whether international or domestic, tend to be pricier than other routes in the region.
One way to save money if you’ll be traveling in Thailand first would be to fly to Udon Thani airport from either Chiang Mai or Bangkok. Then, just take a bus over the border to Vientiane. You can do this for roughly a third of the price for what a direct international flight to Vientiane normally costs. The same also applies in reverse.
I recommend staying somewhere within walking distance of Talat Sao Mall. That way, you can reach most of Vientiane’s main destination on foot, or even more easily by taxi. And as the bus station is just outside the mall, it also allows you to get to the Buddha Park or even across the border to Thailand very easily.
Though not the most popular city in Asia, there are nevertheless a wide range of accommodation options in Vientiane, especially for the budget traveler. I found a good deal on my hotel but ended up being much less than impressed with management, so I’m not going to recommend it. Hopefully you will have better luck than I did.
A Trip to Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand
Following my trip to Laos, I traveled back to Thailand by bus, where I decided to spend a few days on the other side of the Mekong in the town of Nong Khai. And while there, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Bunleua Sulilat’s other park, Sala Keoku, which he started working on in 1978. Having just visited the Buddha Park, the more famous of the two, my expectations weren’t incredibly high for Sulilat’s lesser-known creation. But to my pleasant surprise, Sala Keoku is both larger and all-around superior to its predecessor.
In contrast to the Buddha Park, Sala Keoku doesn’t reveal itself all at once. You have to walk all around the park to fully grasp its size and scale. But with the bigger park comes even bigger statues. Some of them stand out like skyscrapers, clearly visible no matter where you stand. It’s said that Bunleua Sulilat fell from one of the higher structures shortly before his death in 1996, although officially he died from a blood illness. But just one look at these towering structures and you can’t help but cringe imagining what must’ve been an incredibly nasty fall.
One of the trademark features of Sala Keoku is the section referred to as the “Wheel of Life,” where various stages of a person’s life are represented. In addition to standard scenes like childhood, work and death, numerous demons and other bizarre scenes have been thrown into the mix. Meanwhile, it’s all centered around a multi-headed Buddhist asura. Getting in and out of this section requires walking through a giant mouth, quite similar to the dome entrance of the Buddha Park, though in this case it seems to symbolize a womb.
Another notable feature of Sala Keoku that the Buddha Park doesn’t have is a large pond. When taking a break from admiring the sculptures, visitors have the chance to look at and even feed some very large fish. You can buy fish feed and give it a go yourself, or simply rest your legs as you watch the big fish competing for the crumbs. It’s an oddly mesmerizing sight. And from across the pond, you can get a view of yet another trademark feature of Sala Keoku: the temple and tomb of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat.
What’s immediately noticeable about the on-site temple is that from the outside, it clearly resembles a mosque. Perhaps Sulilat did so intentionally to present his teachings as those of a ‘universal religion.’ Although it’s also possible that the structure was built by his followers after his death. Inside the building there aren’t any noticeable Islamic motifs, and, as one would expect, Buddhist and Hindu symbols are everywhere.
'To my pleasant surprise, Sala Keoku is both larger and all-around superior to its predecessor.'
Inside, visitors will immediately see shrines dedicated to Bunleua Sulilat and his mentor Keoku (pictured above). There’s even a section with Chinese deities from Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Heading up the stairs to the upper floors, you’ll find various pictures of Sulilat. Some show him as a young man, proudly posing with his sculptures or with his devotees. There are also some photographs from the years shortly before his death. And on the third floor is the tomb of the man himself, with his mummified corpse visible through a few layers of glass. It remains a mystery why Sulilat chose to preserve his body this way instead of being cremated, as is the tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism.
Just as I was about to exit the temple, it suddenly started pouring rain outside. Not having much of a choice but to wander around some more, I noticed a lot of small details that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. I also discovered that the upper floor windows provide some of the best views of the park.
Finally, the rain subsided, and maybe for the first time in over a week, the blue sky revealed itself over this section of the world. I went back for one final walk around the park, admiring my favorite sculptures again in the now more vibrant and colorful setting. And though I thought I’d already seen it all, I still managed to discover a few new pieces.
Creative genius? Eccentric mad man? Cult leader? Perhaps Bunleua Sulilat was a little bit of all three. As much as I’d like to learn some more about the man who made these fantastic sculpture parks, information in English, and apparently even in Thai or Lao, is scarce. Locals in Nong Khai don’t even seem to know very much about the man’s life. Regardless, he’ll at least be remembered for years to come as the person responsible for some of Southeast Asia’s most unique attractions. And whatever you may think of his art or philosophy, one can’t help be inspired by his resolve.
While Sala Keoku is not in the center of town, there’s no bus ride required like there is for the Buddha Park in Vientiane. You can even walk there. The best option, though, would probably be to rent a bicycle or motorbike.
I walked there with the intention of taking a songthaew or tuk tuk back to my hotel, but I was surprised to not see any at all after I left the park. It could’ve just been the day or the time, but keep that in mind if you choose to visit on foot.
It’s possible to fit a visit to Sala Keoku in with other sightseeing around town, so the route varies depending on what you’re seeing first. But just look at the custom map at the top of the article and you shouldn’t have a hard time finding it.
FROM WITHIN THAILAND:
There are plenty of options to getting to Nong Khai from all around Thailand, as it’s the main border town for those traveling overland to Laos. You can take a train directly from Bangkok (Hua Lamphong Station) which takes around 11 hours. You can also take a bus from Bangkok operated by the company Budsarakham Tour.
From Chiang Mai, there is one bus which goes directly to Nong Khai operated by the Sueksa Tour Company for around 900 baht.
However, the best way to reach Nong Khai from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or anywhere else outside of the Isaan region is probably to fly. The nearest airport is Udon Thani, but you can find direct flights by Nok Air for as cheap as the bus or train tickets cost. From Udon Thani airport, you can take a minibus directly to Nong Khai for 200 baht.
From Vientiane, simply go to the same bus station behind the Talat Sao Mall where you took the bus to get to Buddha Park. Don’t take the same bus, but look for a ticket window near the mall that has an English sign for bus tickets to Thailand. There are several leaving every day and they are very cheap, only costing around 15,000 kip.
These buses will take you across the bridge, wait for you to go through Thai immigration, and then take you all the way to the bus terminal in Nong Khai. Fortunately, the Nong Khai bus terminal is within walking distance from most of the area’s hotels and guest houses, so there shouldn’t be any need for a taxi ride.
Nong Khai has plenty of affordable accommodation right beside the Mekong. Though the town isn’t popular with regular tourists (a shame, really), plenty of people doing visa runs to Laos stay for a night or two, hence the abundance of hotel options.
I had a great experience at the Pan Guesthouse. I had a very spacious room with a private bathroom for 500 baht a night. While my room had no view, there was a communal balcony with great views of the Mekong – much nicer than any of the views from the Vientiane side! There were also tables and chairs set up if you want to relax outside during the sunset.