What You Need to Know About
Encircled by hills and jungle, Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula where the Mekong meets one if its tributaries, the Nam Khan River. The city served as the religious and royal centre of Laos for roughly 600 years, from the 14th century until the monarchy was abolished in 1975.
Although it is just a provincial capital today, it retains an aura of divinity. Indeed, the streets are most magical just after dawn when more than 600 monks emerge from the monasteries to collect alms, forming a silent saffron procession past the waiting merit makers.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1995, Luang Prabang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its unique architectural heritage. Traditional homes in Luang Prabang and the surrounding area were originally stilted buildings made from wood and bamboo, with thatched roofs providing protection from the elements. Later, the Tai Dum group from Northern Vietnam introduced an exterior finish made from lime, straw, sand, palm sugar and boiled buffalo skin.
When the French came, they brought with them European building techniques and styles learned in Vietnam. Gradually, a unique Laotian architectural style was born combining these elements along with some Chinese innovations. An impressive example of this unique architecture is the former Royal Palace, built between 1904 and 1909, which now houses the Luang Prabang National Museum.
Vat Xieng Thong
A beautiful temple dating from the 16th century, the roof of its main chapel sweeps low to the ground and coloured-glass panels adorn its walls, making it a staple in the photo albums of curious travellers to Luang Prabang.
Built by King Setthathirath circa 1560, Vat Xieng Thong served as a royal temple and the site of Lao king’s crowning for more than four centuries. Its architecture and intricate accessories make it an excellent example of Laotian craftwork: intricately carved gilded doors depict the life story of Buddha, while its ceilings display Dharmachakras, or dharma wheels, representing Buddha’s path to Nirvana. Many of the temples outer walls also depict Lao legends and other representations of Buddha, while its rear (pictured above) boasts an impression of the tree of life, under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment.
Just Outside of Town:
Kuang Si Waterfalls
About 30 kilometres south of the city lie the Kuang Si Waterfalls, a favourite destination for travellers to Luang Prabang. The turquoise waters of the collecting ponds and peaceful sound of running water offer tranquility and relaxation, a geological expression of Buddhist serenity.
Pak Ou Caves
Located about 20 kilometres upriver from Luang Prabang on the Mekong, these caves are said to have been inhabited by a hermit who achieved enlightenment. The upper and lower sanctuaries contain more than 4,200 wood and gilded statues of Buddha, portraying him in various positions relevant to Buddhism, including teaching, peace and meditation.