Nestling in a slim valley shaped by lofty, green mountains and cut by the swift Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang exudes tranquillity and casual grandeur. A tiny mountain kingdom for more than a thousand years and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of ancient red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, not to mention some of the country’s most refined cuisine, its richest culture and its most sacred Buddha image, the Pha Bang. For those familiar with Southeast Asia, the very name Luang Prabang conjures up the classic image of Laos – streets of ochre colonial houses and swaying palms, lines of saffron-robed monks gliding through the morning mist, the sonorous thump of the temple drums before dawn, and, of course, longtail boats racing down the Mekong before the river slips out of view through a seam in the mountains.
It is this heritage of Theravada Buddhist temples, French–Indochinese shophouses and royal mystique that lends Luang Prabang a pull unmatched by any other city in Laos. This is not only where the first proto-Lao nation took root, it’s also the birthplace of countless Lao rituals and the origin of a line of rulers, including the rulers of Vientiane, Champasak and Lane Xang. Luang Prabang people are tremendously proud of their pivotal role in Lao history. Indeed, they’re somewhat known for their cultured ways in the rest of the country; in Lao soap operas, the doctor or the intellectual invariably speaks with a Luang Prabang accent.
Luang Prabang ’s strict building code, drawn up by UNESCO, keeps it from becoming another modern architectural nightmare without turning it into a museum. Inevitably, the city has lost some of its sleepy charm and dreamy serenity as a result of the growing influx of tourists, but exploring the side streets and dusty lanes, its not hard to feel as though you’ve stepped into the city of yesteryear. Parts of the city do already feel over touristy – indeed, on stretches of Sisavangvong Road, were it not for the unmistakable architecture, you could be anywhere else on the well-trodden Southeast Asian tourist trail – especially when you’ve come from other parts of the country where tourism is still a novelty. Though the city remains surprisingly laidback, with none of the hassle associated with other parts of Asia, an airport expansion is due in 2013, which will allow larger planes to fly in and out of Luang Prabang, meaning the small-town charms of this beautiful city could be encroached on further.
Most travellers spend only a few days here on a whistle-stop tour of Laos, part of a wider Mekong trip, though the city really demands longer – this is a destination best savoured at a leisurely pace. If time is limited, top priority should go to the old city, dubbed by the UNESCO World Heritage team as a “historic preservation zone”. In a day, you can easily tour the sights, beginning with the sunrise view from Mount Phousi and a wander around the lively morning market, before heading to the elegant Royal Palace Museum in the former Royal Palace, en route to Luang Prabang’s most impressive temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you’re here for a second day, enjoy some of the sights around Luang Prabang by taking a boat up the Mekong River and contemplating the hundreds of Buddhas within the holy Pak Ou Caves, or travelling south through the surrounding hills to one of the area’s two major waterfalls, Kouang Si and Tad Se. But whatever you do, be sure to soak up Luang Prabang’s languid atmosphere by wandering the streets at dawn, when the town’s legion of monks receives alms and life and the city seems to have little changed from a century ago, or at dusk, when the air fills with otherworldly chants wafting from the temples.
Luang Prabang’s air of serenity is disturbed only at festival time. The most famous festivals last for days and inspire a carnival atmosphere that makes it easy to forget that these complex rituals held the very structure of the kingdom in place for centuries. Lao New Year in April is perhaps the town’s biggest festival, but near the end of the monsoon, two holidays – the boat races and the Festival of Lights – also bring Luang Prabang to a festive standstill. A visit coinciding with one of these festivals would certainly enhance your stay, though the most popular time to visit remains the cooler months of December and January, when the weather is clear and dry.
Knowledge of Luang Prabang’s early history is sketchy, at best. The earliest Lao settlers made their way down the Nam Ou Valley sometime after the tenth century, absorbing the territory on which the city lies. At the time, the area was known as Muang Sawa, a settlement thought to have been peopled by the Austroasiatic ancestors of the Lao Theung. According to folklore, this migration of the Lao to Luang Prabang was led by Khoun Lo, who claimed the area for his people and called the settlement Xieng Dong Xieng Thong. By the end of the thirteenth century, Xieng Dong Xieng Thong had emerged as one of the chief centres of Lao life in the Upper Mekong region, a principality significant enough to be a vassal state of the great Siamese kingdom of Sukhothai.
However, it wasn’t until the legendary Lao warrior Fa Ngum swept down the Nam Ou with a Khmer army in 1353 and captured Xieng Dong Xieng Thong that the town emerged as the heart of a thriving, independent kingdom in its own right. Claiming the throne of his grandfather, Fa Ngum founded the kingdom of Lane Xang Hom Khao – the Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol – and established the line of kings that was to rule Laos for six centuries.
With Fa Ngum came monks, artisans and learned men from the Khmer court and, according to histories written a century and a half later, a legal code and Theravada Buddhism. Yet Fa Ngum was still very much the fourteenth-century warrior. After his ministers grew weary of his military campaigns and his rather uncivilized habit of taking his subject’s wives and daughters as concubines, he was exiled and replaced on the throne by his son, Oun Heuan, during whose peaceful reign the city flourished.
The sacking of the city in 1478 by the Vietnamese proved a catalyst for the ushering in of the city’s golden age: striking temples, including the sim of Wat Xieng Thong, were built, epic poems composed and sacred texts were copied. In 1512, King Visoun brought the Pha Bang, a sacred Buddha image, to Xieng Dong Xieng Thong, a distinguishing event for the identity of the Lao people and the city itself, and a sign that Theravada Buddhism was flourishing.
Wary of encroaching Burmese, King Setthathilat, Visoun’s grandson, moved the capital to Vientiane in 1563, leaving the Pha Bang behind and renaming the city after the revered image. The Pha Bang may have been known for its protective properties, but they were no match for the might of the Burmese, and Luang Prabang was engulfed by the chaos of successive Burmese invasions.
From then on, the city had a roller-coaster ride. With the disintegration of Lane Xang at the turn of the eighteenth century, Kingkitsalat became the first king of an independent Luang Prabang. When French explorers Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier arrived in 1867, they found a busy market and port town of wooden homes, a town that Garnier called “the most eminent Laotian centre in Indochina”. With Luang Prabang firmly in Siam’s orbit, the explorers’ suggestion that the kingdom would be better off French was scoffed at by King Oun Kham, but the explorers were proved right two decades later when the Siamese left the town virtually undefended and the city was set ablaze by a group of marauding Haw. During the siege, French vice-consul Auguste Pavie plucked the ageing Lao king from his burning palace and brought him downriver to safety. From that moment, the king offered tribute to France.
Almost everything was lost during the sacking of the city, but the event provided Pavie with the ammunition he needed to “conquer the hearts” of the Lao and usher in Luang Prabang’s French period. The town was quickly rebuilt, with the French counting ten thousand people and more than a thousand homes a year after the town’s destruction. Within time, the French hired Vietnamese workers to build the homes that lend the city its classic French–Indochinese character, a trend quickly followed by Lao nobility. The city remained remote however: even in 1930 it took longer to travel by river from Saigon to Luang Prabang than it did to travel from Saigon to France.
During the two Indochina wars, Luang Prabang fared better than most towns in Laos, though while the city itself remained intact during the fighting that consumed the country over the next two decades, the Second Indochina War ultimately took its toll on Luang Prabang’s ceremonial life, which lost its regal heart when the Pathet Lao ended the royal line by forcing King Sisavang Vatthana to abdicate in 1975. Two years later, Luang Prabang and Laos lost the king himself, as the new communist government, fearful that he might become a rallying point for a rebellion, allegedly exiled him to a Hoa Phan cave, a journey from which he and his family never returned.
In 1995, the city was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of it’s unique mix of traditional Lao architecture and old colonial buildings.