A selection of some of Spirit City's 200 Buddhist sculptures. Picture: Supplied.
A selection of some of Spirit City's 200 Buddhist sculptures. Picture: Supplied.

Disturbing ‘cult’ inside party island

On the banks of the Mekong River in Laos is a "city" built by a cult leader and populated by demons, gods and warriors.

Hundreds of these otherworldly beings are grouped together in a park called Spirit City, which was constructed in the 1950s by one of the most unusual men in the modern histories of Laos and Thailand.

This eerie place on the outskirts of Vientiane has become an unlikely tourist attraction, with visitors drawn there not only by its more than 200 giant Buddhist sculptures, but also by the park's bizarre backstory.

The park’s creator — Bunleua Sulilat — also created a second quirky sculpture park in Thailand. Picture: Supplied.
The park’s creator — Bunleua Sulilat — also created a second quirky sculpture park in Thailand. Picture: Supplied.

A low-profile tourist destination, Laos does not have the major drawcards boasted by its neighbours like Cambodia, with its incredible Angkor Wat temple complex, or Thailand with its extraordinary beaches.

Instead Laos is making a name for itself as a country that has truly odd attractions, from this cult "city" to unexplained archaeological sites, a landmine museum, and a remote cave filled with religious effigies.

UNESCO just gave prized World Heritage List status to Laos' Plain of Jars, a curious landscape dotted by ancient stone jars which date back more than 2000 years and remain a mystery to scientists.

Behold, Laos’ unexplainable Plain of Jars. Picture: Supplied.
Behold, Laos’ unexplainable Plain of Jars. Picture: Supplied.

Meanwhile, more and more tourists are heading to Xieng Khuan, the Lao name for Spirit City.

It was given this moniker by Bunleua Sulilat, a controversial shaman born in Thailand but who lived in Laos for many years and developed a cult-like following. Rather than becoming a Buddhist like most of his countrymen, Sulilat blended elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shamanism to create a religion of his own.

A walk through the park presents larger-than-life-sculptures as well as tiny, intricate ones designed with an eye for detail. Picture: Supplied.
A walk through the park presents larger-than-life-sculptures as well as tiny, intricate ones designed with an eye for detail. Picture: Supplied.

An avid concocter of myths who possessed great charisma, Sulilat began to gather a large following soon after he built spirit city in his mid-20s.

He told his disciples that when he was a boy he had been exploring a cave when he met a hermit who gave him secrets to the universe, which he now applied in his religion.

That hermit was called Sala Keoku, which was the name Sulilat gave to the second quirky sculpture park he created, this time in Thailand after he fled over the border in 1975 following Laos' Communist Revolution.

At a towering 40 metres high and 120 metres long, the reclining Buddha statue is the most revered structure in the park. Picture: Supplied.
At a towering 40 metres high and 120 metres long, the reclining Buddha statue is the most revered structure in the park. Picture: Supplied.

Part of the reason his original park, Spirit City, has become so popular with tourists is the unusual appearance Sulilat gave it.

Not only is it filled with strange and sometimes ghastly depictions, but legend has it that Sulilat embedded mystical, often cryptic clues throughout the place, fusing myths taken from Buddhism and Hinduism.

That sounds pretty strange, doesn't it? Well the first tourist I came across in this park agrees with you.

The park draws influences from Buddhism, Hinduism and a collection of other spiritual beliefs. Picture: Supplied.
The park draws influences from Buddhism, Hinduism and a collection of other spiritual beliefs. Picture: Supplied.

"This place is really weird," said the American woman as she walked ahead of me through an entrance designed to look like a demon's mouth.

"Yeah I don't understand any of this," replied her travel partner, gazing up at the huge pumpkin-shaped structure they were entering. Whether they knew this or not, that is whole point of Xieng Khuan.

Sulilat wanted this park to befuddle visitors, to give them mixed messages and leave them unsure of why it was built in such an odd fashion.

Tourists wander through the park — some a little more confused than others. Picture: Supplied.
Tourists wander through the park — some a little more confused than others. Picture: Supplied.

This small park is like a forest of stone statues. Some of them are small, others are enormous, some are simple, others are ornate, some appear friendly, others look terrifying.

One of the first sculptures I encountered was a fierce seven-headed Naga, a dragon from Buddhist mythology which was believed to stand guard over a place, person or deity.

Sulilat would have been well aware of the many bizarre legends that surrounded the Naga, including that they lived in secret in the Mekong River and, if upset, could trigger natural disasters like earthquakes and floods.

Sulilat told his disciples that by following his eclectic faith, and paying homage to several religions at once, they were offering themselves added protection from the wrath of the gods.

 

The park is littered with statues — some of which are enormous. Picture: Supplied.
The park is littered with statues — some of which are enormous. Picture: Supplied.

 

By the late 1970s, having moved permanently to Nong Khai, Thailand, just over the border from Vientiane, Sulilat set up a forest camp where he lived with dozens of his followers.

It was on this site that he built Sala Keoku park in the late 1970s.

Sulilat had many disciples until his death in 1996, after which both of the parks he built began to degrade. It is only in the past decade that the parks have been rejuvenated and become popular tourist attractions, particularly Spirit City due to being just a 35-minute drive from the Lao capital city.

While walking around Spirit City, admiring its sculpted deities from Chinese, Indian, Thai, Cambodia, Burmese and Laos religions, I encountered Australian, American, English, German, Irish and Japanese tourists. All of them seemed confused by their surroundings. Again and again I overheard exclamations of bewilderment.

Even 23 years after his death, Sulilat continues to toy with the minds of humans.

 

Ronan O'Connell is a freelance journalist and photographer who specialises in travel and sport. Continue the conversation on @ronanoco