Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the jewel of Indochina, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. Also known as Louangphrabang, the city is located in north central Laos, on the Mekong River about 425 km north of Vientiane, and the capital of Louangphrabang Province. The current population of the city is about 22,000.

Photo:<< Monks on alms round at Luang Prabang

The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name. Until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos.

What to see

The ancient royal city is surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan river. In the centre of the city is Mount Phousi with stunning views of the surrounding temples and hills. Luang Prabang is a city where time seems to stand still.

Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions. As part of the UNESCO plan, new buildings have been limited and development must be in keeping with this magical place.

Most of the attractions are within walking distance which is why it is a pleasure discovering this heritage town with its ancient buildings and mansions of the French colonial era as well as a number of Wats, some in need of urgent restoration.

Wat Xieng Thong, a ‘Golden City Temple’ near the Mekong river, is the town’s most magnificent Buddhist temple. Built by King Setthathirat in the 16th century the temple enjoyed royal patronage until the monarchy was ousted in 1975. The Wat is typical of Laos’ Luang Prabang architecture with impressive curved roofs, dazzling paints and a ‘tree of life’ mosaic. Richly decorated wooden columns support a ceiling that depicts ‘dharma wheel’ as enshrined in Buddhist legend. A small entry fee is collected for ongoing restoration efforts.

Wat Mai Souvannaphoumaram, (Wat Mai) , is of recent origin. Built in 1796, it was restored under the patronage of King Manthaturath in 1821. It has an impressive five- tier roof and bas-relief depicting scenes from daily life as well as scenes from Buddhist legends. The front veranda has decorated columns and there are gold relief panels on the door. It was once the residence of the Sangakharat or Supreme Patriarch of the Lao Sangha.

There are other small and intricate Wats like the Wat Banpakham.

The Royal Palace Museum is worth a visit for its exhibits showcase local history. The entry fee is 15,000 kip (approximately $1.5). Several religious objects and a collection of rare Buddhist sculptures from Cambodia, India and Laos are also on display. The pride of place belongs to exhibits connected with the monarchy — the royal throne, elegant furniture used by royalty, the king’s and queen’s rooms with all their finery, weapons, dresses, gift items presented by several national leaders, including Indian leaders. There are also fine paintings of some royal members.

Phu Si is the hill that dominates the Luang Prabang skyline. It is fairly easy to climb and gives a commanding view of the town, the river and the surroundings. At the hilltop is a stupa, which has railings around it and intricate umbrella decorations. There is also a small cave temple, Wat Tham Phu Si. One can see the Luang Prabang airstrip and planes landing and taking off.

The Nam Kham river can be seen clearly from this height, and there are small temples dedicated to Buddha on the other side of the hill.

The Prabang Phoutthai Awanh shrine houses a golden coloured statue of a standing Buddha. Another shrine contains an idol of the Buddha in a reclining posture. This side of the hill also has a Buddha statue housed in a niche under a hooded Naga (serpent); this depiction of Buddha is sacred to Buddhists. All these heritage structures are in need of massive restoration efforts to restore their past glory.

Getting around

Luang Prabang is small, and just about everywhere can be reached by foot.  Walking and travelling by bicycle is the best way to see this tiny city.

Places of Interest