The gently atmosphere and its relatively small size make it ideal to explore on foot or by bicycle. Luang Prabang is also a gateway for exploring outer regions of the north visiting hill tribe villages and cruising on the Mekong river.
Most Luang Phabang's architecture of merit – temple monasteries, Asian shophouses and French-influenced mansions – is highly concentrated in the old city. Aside from its main attractions of the Royal Palace Museum, Mount Phou Si and Wat Xiang Thong, there are a dozen historic temples as well as hundreds of French colonial shophouses and mansions. Outside the old city, you may find some places of interest on and beyond Setthathilat Road including over twenty temples, several markets, and a choice of scenic walks. The most historically important of the temples are Wat That, Wat Visoun and Wat Aham, although a trip to the opposite banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers will reward you with many other venerable riverside temples, as well as a relaxed rural ambience and good views back over the old city.
Indeed, there is no urban city in Laos like Luang Prabang where ethnic Lao are in the majority. The Lao character is particularly stamped on the backstreets and cobblestoned lanes, which have a distinctly village-like feel, in marked contrast to the shophouses and commercial scenes that you find on the streets of other Lao cities. One of the joys of a stay in Louang Phabang is simply strolling these lanes and absorbing the unhurried rhythms of traditional Lao culture.
Especially, Luang Phabang'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 Phabang 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.
The city attractions:
A. The old city
1. The National Museum, formerly the Royal Palace.
Constructed as a palace between 1904 and 1909 A.D., during the reign of King Sisavangvong, now turned into a National Museum, it houses the Royal throne of Lan Xang kingdom in its original splendor, and many other regalia and religious treasures.
Located on the bank of the Mekong River, facing Mount Phusi, the former Royal Palace is now a museum preserving the trappings and paraphernalia of Laos's recently extinguished monarchy. The palace, at the end of a long drive lined with stately palms, was constructed in 1904 by the French and replaced an older, smaller palace of teak and rosewood. The new palace was supposed to be crowned by a European-style steeple, but King Sisavang Vong insisted on modifications, and the graceful stupa-like spire that you see today was substituted, resulting in a tasteful fusion of European and Lao design. Another striking feature is the pediment over the main entrance adorned with a gilt rendition of the symbol of the Lao monarchy: Airavata, the three-headed elephant, being sheltered by the sacred white parasol. This is surrounded by the intertwining bodies of the fifteen guardian naga of Louang Phabang.
At the far end of the gallery to the right of the main entrance is a small, barred room that once served as the king's personal shrine room. It is here that the Pha Bang, the most sacred Buddha image in Laos, is being kept until the completion of the Haw Pha Bang – the temple in the eastern corner of the palace compound. Flanking the Pha Bang are numerous other Buddha images, including ancient Khmer stone images and several pairs of mounted elephant tusks. One pair, deeply incised with rows of Buddhas, was noted by Francis Garnier on the altar of Wat Visoun in the 1860s. Displayed nearby in richly carved wooden frames are silk panels embroidered with gold and silver thread that depict yet more images of the Buddha.
On entering the palace, visitors are directed through the entry hall to the king's reception room, full of huge Gauguinesque canvases portraying what appears to be "a day in the life of old Louang Phabang", with scenes of the city as it appeared in the early twentieth century. The paintings, executed by Alex de Fautereau in 1930, are meant to be viewed at different hours of the day when the light from outside is supposed to illuminate the panels depicting the corresponding time of day. In practice the lack of sunlight entering this room renders the effect less than stunning.
More impressive is the Throne Hall, located just beyond the entry hall. Its high walls spangled with mosaics of multicolored mirrors set in a crimson background, the throne hall dazzles even in the dim light. These mosaics, along with others at Wat Xiang Thong, were created in the mid-fifties to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the historic Buddha's passing into Nirvana. On display in this room are rare articles of royal regalia: swords with hilts and scabbards of hammered silver and gold, an elaborately decorated fly-whisk and even the king's own howdah (elephant saddle). Also on show is a cache of small crystal, silver and bronze Buddha images taken from the inner chamber of the "Watermelon Stupa" at Wat Visoun. Somehow these treasures escaped the plundering gangs of "Black Flag" Chinese who, led by a White Tai warlord, sacked Louang Phabang in 1887. The stupa was destroyed, rebuilt in 1898, but collapsed in 1914. It was then that the Buddhas were discovered inside.
Leaving the Throne Hall via the door on the right, you come to the royallibrary, which is almost exclusively made up of official archives of the Ming and Ching dynasties, a gift from China during the Cultural Revolution. Succeeding rooms are the queen's bedchamber, with a very retro collection of Sixties furniture, and another room filled with glass cabinets containing Royal Lao Government awards, seals and decorations. In a third room is a display of theatrical masks, headdresses and musical instruments used by the royal dance troupe in their performances of the Lao version of the ever-popular classical Indian legend, the Ramayana.
King Sisavang Vong's bedchamber, located at the very back of the palace, is surprisingly modest. The only thing that looks especially regal is the massive hardwood bed, the headboard of which sports the king's initials and a carved Buddha sheltered by a seven-headed naga. The footboard bears a rendition of the royal emblem of Laos, this time with a two-tiered parasol. The curious arrangement of tall lamps at each of the bed's four corners makes you wonder if reading in bed was a royal pastime. Above the bed is a frame for suspending a mosquito net.
Exiting through the throne hall and into the entry hall, you'll find a final set of displays located in the rooms to your right. The near room houses diplomatic gifts presented to the people of Laos by a handful of nations, as well as the rather tatty-looking flag of the Kingdom of Laos that was given a symbolic ride up into space and back on one of the Apollo missions. Not long afterwards, the Kingdom of Laos ceased to exist. In the far room hang larger-than-life portraits of King Sisavang Vattana, his wife Queen Kham Phoui and their son Prince Vong Savang. These are the only officially displayed portraits of the last members of the 600-year-old dynasty anywhere in Laos. Had they not been painted by a Soviet artist they almost certainly would not have survived the years following the revolution. The same goes for the bronze sculpture of King Sisavang Vong in the museum grounds near the front gate. This statue may look familiar if you have already passed through Vientiane, where a larger version stands in the park adjacent to Wat Simuang.
The artefacts on public view are but a small portion of the royal relics in storage here, many of which have been packed away and forgotten about since the revolution. The price of admission also includes a peek into the garage housing the late king's motorpool; here, among other dust-covered classics, you'll see an ivory-coloured 1960 Ford Edsel convertible with royal red upholstery.
2. Wat Xieng Thong:
Situated on the bank of the Mekong River, on the wedge of land formed where the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet, Vat Xiengthong is the most historic and enchanting among all monasteries of Luang Prabang and represents the typical Lao art style. Many old and beautiful religious artifacts of the period between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries, and some ancient masterpieces of Lao art, for a valuable collection of cultural heritage.
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important temples in the country of Laos. The word "wat" in Lao means temple, in this case, the Temple of the Golden City. Wat Xieng Thong is very old, built around 1560 by King Setthathirat, a patron of Buddhism, who ruled Laos from 1548 to 1571. The temple is located in a beautiful garden on the bank of the Mekong River where the Nam Khan, a smaller river runs into it.
Getting inside, you will see the ornate carved and gilded funeral vehicle of the former king which is kept in one of the buildings in the temple grounds. It is well worth visiting and paying your respects to this temple while in Luang Prabang.
This temple was used to organize the highest royal ceremonies and houses the bones of King Sisavangvong. The intricate golden facades, colorful murals, glass mosaics and unique three-layered roof make this one of the most beautiful temples in Asia.
From afar distance, the roof is very outstanding with elegant lines which curve and overlap, sweeping nearly to the ground, and evokes a bird with outstretched wings or, as the locals say, a mother hen sheltering her brood. The walls of the temple are decorated inside and out with stenciled gold motifs on a black or maroon background. As you enter the dimly lit temple and your eyes adjust to the lack of light, the gold-leaf patterns seem to float on the blackened walls.
Besides stylized floral designs, the motifs depict a variety of tales, including the Lao version of the Ramayana, scenes from the Jataka and stories about the lives of the Buddha, as well as graphic scenes of punishments doled out in the many levels of Buddhist hell. Such depictions were meant to give a basic education in religion to illiterate laypeople.
In the rafters above and to the right of the main entrance runs a long wooden aqueduct or trough in the shape of a mythical serpent. During Lao New Year, lustral water is poured into a receptacle in the serpent's tail and spouts from its mouth, bathing a Buddha image housed in a wooden pagoda-like structure situated near the altar. A drain in the floor of the pagoda channels the water through pipes under the floor of the temple and the water then pours from the mouth of a mirror-spangled elephant's head located on the exterior wall. The water is considered to be highly sacred and the faithful use it to anoint themselves or to ritually bathe household Buddhas. Covering the exterior of the back wall of the temple is a mosaic, said to depict a legendary flame tree that stood on the site when the city was founded. This particular composition is especially beautiful during the Festival of Lights, when the sim is decked out with khom fai dao, star-shaped lanterns constructed of bamboo and mulberry paper. The flickering candlelight illuminates the tree and animals in the mosaic, making them twinkle magically.
To the left of the temple, as you face it, stands a small brick-and-stucco shrine containing a standing Buddha image. The purple and gold mirrored mosaics on the pediments of the structure are especially intricate and probably the country's finest example of this kind of ornamentation, which is thought to have originated in Thailand and spread to Myanmar as well.
Directly behind the shrine is a larger structure known to French art historians as "La Chapelle Rouge", the Red Chapel. The red- and gold-coloured reliefs covering this building look modern and uninspiring, but the reclining Buddha image enshrined within is one of Laos's greatest sculptures in bronze. Thought to date from the sixteenth century, it was taken to Europe in 1931 and put on display at the Colonial Exposition in Paris, alongside treasures from Angkor and other sites in France's Indochinese colonies. Adorning the walls of this shrine are countless clay votive tablets stamped with Buddhas.
3. Phou Si
Phou Si (Sacred Hill) is the geographical as well as spiritual centre of the city. Believed to have once harbored a powerful naga who dwelt in its bowels, the hill is also seen as a miniature Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Though there is nothing to see on the hill itself, save for an ancient-looking sim at its foot, and it's not particularly picturesque up close in any case, Phou Si is striking from a distance. Indeed, the golden spires of That Chomsi at its summit are the first glimpse of the city that visitors get if they are arriving by boat. Likewise, the peak affords a stunning panorama of the city it crowns, and the shimmering rivers beyond, jungle-clad mountains and moody skies are mesmerizing. Viewing the setting sun from the summit of Phou Si has become a kind of tourist ritual, so don't expect to enjoy the moment alone. A quieter spot from which to watch the sunset is Santi Chedi on a hill due east of Phou Si, which affords a marvelous view back towards Phou Si, without the crowds.
Vat Mai, constructed in 1821 A.D., during the reign of king Manthatourath, was once the residence of Phra Sangkharaj (the Patriarch of the Buddhist clergy). The five-tiered roof of the wooden Sim is the traditional Luang Prabang style.
That Chomsi of Luang Prabang was constructed on top of the Phusi hill in 1804 A.D. during the reign of king Anurut. It is an impressive structure, fully renovated in 1994. It is a meaningful symbol as it stand in the center of the twon. At mid-slope, and at the foot of the hill, are several religious sites including caves, Buddha footprints, and templates. Drumming on top of Phusi was once a tradition of the Luang Prabang people. The sound of the drum, every three hours could be heard for miles around.
5. Ban Jek
The neighborhood just north of the former Royal Palace is still known to locals as "Ban Jek" or Chinatown, as the rows of shophouses along Sisavang Vong Road were once mostly owned by ethnic Chinese shopkeepers. Here you'll find some fine examples of Louang Phabang shophouse architecture, a hybrid of French and Lao features superimposed on the basic South China style that was once the standard throughout urban Southeast Asia. Downstairs was a shop or other place of business, while upstairs the residents lived under a roof of fired-clay shingles supported by brick and stucco walls. This combination kept interior temperatures cool during the hot season and warm during the chilly early morning hours of Louang Phabang's "winter". Shuttered windows, introduced by the French, were coupled with transoms of filigreed wood above doors and windows. This allows air to circulate even when doors and windows are bolted shut.
Many of the shops here are now rented out to entrepreneurs from Vientiane, but even with their inevitable conversion to souvenir and tourist outlets, the streets which they line retain much of the charm they exuded before the outbreak of World Heritage fever.
B. Outside the old city
6. Wat That
Wat That officially known as Wat Pha Mahathat, is situated on a low hill to the west of Phou Si Hill and is reached via a stairway flanked by some impressive and undulating seven-headed naga spewing from the mouths of snaggle-toothed makara. At the top of the stairs is the most photographed window in all of Louang Phabang, a blend of Lao, Chinese and Khmer design framed in ornately carved teak. Other elements of the wat suggest influence from northern Thailand, namely the gold-topped that after which the monastery was named. The graceful stupa is very similar to examples found in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This monastery is also the resting place of Prince Phetsarath and his younger brother Prince Souvanna Phouma; their ashes are interred in a family stupa here.
7. Wat Visoun
Vat Visoun was built between 1500/1520 during the reign of King Visounarat. The phrabang, the fine gold Buddha image, the religious symbol of the Kingdom, was enshrined here from 1504 to 1715 A.D., and from 1866 to 1874 A.D. In 1942, it was turned into a Museum of Religious Arts, and housed collections of Buddha images and religious artifacts from the fourteenth century. Within its precincts stands the gigantic That Makmo (watermelon stupa), originally known as That Patum or Lotus Stupa, constructed in 1503 A.D.
8. Wat Aham
Wat Aham features a delightfully diminutive sim and a couple of mould-blackened that, one with a picturesque slant. This wat is associated with Phu Nyoe and Nya Nyoe, the shaggy, red-faced spirits that are believed to be the founders and protectors of Luang Phabang. Effigies of the two deities head the parade during the Lao New Year festivities in April, and they are believed to inhabit the two venerable banyan trees whose shade-giving canopies make this a pleasant place to linger.
Around Luang Prabang:
1. Ban Phanom Royal Weaving Village
Ban Lu or Lu village of Ban Phanom, only 2.5 km from the center of Luang Prabang town is famous for cotton and silk weaving, and some beautifully hand-crafted souvenirs. The Lu people of Ban Phanom came originally from Sip Song Panna in the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, having been invited by King Kitsarath.
2. Pak Ou Caves
The cool limestone caves are located on the steep rock cliff rising vertically from the waters of the Mekong River, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers. The craggy mountains scenery is breathtaking with overhanging cliffs above the swift flowing river.
The best attractions here are the two caves full of Buddha images of varying styles, ages and sizes. The lower cave called Tham Ting, or Tham Leusi contains a hermit of Leusi statue. The other noteworthy cave is called Tham Theung (upper cave), or Tham Prakachay. The caves can be reached by a 2 hours boat trip, upstream from Luang Prabang.
3. Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village
Near Pak Ou caves, downriver towards Luang Prabang is the village of Ban Xang Hai, famous for its manufacture of rice whiskey. The villagers carry water from the Mekong and use it to soak rice in large jars which sit for several days. The fermented rice yields alcohol which can be drunk as a cloudy liquid, or distilled to make fire water.
4. Kouangsy Waterfall
The spectacular Kouangsy Waterfall is located in an ideal area deep in the forest, away from human habitation. It is perfect for rest and relaxation. On the way to the falls, quaint villages with their traditional hydro-rice mills can be also visited.
One of the best day-trips from Luang Phabang is Kouang Si waterfall, a picturesque, multi-level affair that tumbles 60m before spilling through a series of crystal-blue pools. The spray from the falls keeps the surrounding grounds cool even at midday. It's a great spot for a picnic and a refreshing swim – there are picnic tables and changing rooms at the site. The upper pool has a nice view of the falls, though swimming is only allowed at the lower pool, which lacks a direct view. If you didn't pack lunch, pay a visit to the vendors nearby selling tam màk hung, fruit and drinks.
If you're up for some exercise, the steep path on the opposite side of the falls leads to the top and a grassy meadow filled with brilliantly colored butterflies. Tread carefully though, as the path can get quite slippery; more than a few barefoot trampers have slipped and broken a leg here.