The Jewel of Laos

A Cultural Renaissance in Old Luang Prabang
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The streets of Luang Prabang are a blend of both Lao and French styles.
The streets of Luang Prabang are a blend of both Lao and French styles.
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It has been likened to Shangri-La, this old provincial capital of Laos. Early in the mornings, the cloud mist collects on your skin as you walk past still-active Buddhist monasteries built 400 years ago.

Along the way, you can stop in a refurbished restaurant, once a whitewashed French colonial administration building, and sit under the wide veranda, feeling the cool breeze of high ceiling fans. Watch children park their bikes at the bakery on their way to school, or old men sipping strong coffee in the cafis. Teak houses line the quiet roads, or are perched high on stilts along the Mekong River. Many have easy-sloping roofs, with intricate carvings above the doors to let in light, and shutters that swing open above hardwood floors.

If nearly every building in Luang Prabang seems a historical landmark, that's because many of them are. In 1995, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the town a World Heritage Site, and in conjunction with local authorities has steadily been restoring traditional Lao and French colonial architecture.

"In 1990, all we planned was the partial restoration of the old royal palace and the city's finest pagodas," says Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, director of museums and archaeology in the national capital, Vientiane. "Gradually we realized that the beauty of Luang Prabang was something to be seen as a whole—not just the religious buildings but also the houses around them, and then nature itself, the jewel of it all."

Luang Prabang is at the center of a long history, and the buildings tell the tale. Once the capital of Lan Xang, the 14th century Kingdom of the Million Elephants, Luang Prabang was the seat of an empire that stretched across much of South East Asia. In 1694, the Kingdom split into Luang Pabang in the north, Vientaine in the center and Champassok in the south.

Luang Prabang came under Chinese, then Burmese, and eventually Siamese control. Then, in 1893, in order to maintain their own sovereignty, Siam gave the region of Luang Prabang to the French, who hoped to open trade routes to Vietnam.

Repairing a Cultural Heirloom
Although it has a history of kings and was the center of an empire that once extended into present-day Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the old provincial capital fell into disrepair with the 1975 revolution, which abolished the ancient monarchy and set up the Communist People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

A good deal of the province was also destroyed by U.S. saturation bombing during the Vietnam War. Shops were closed, pagodas deserted or burned, and centuries-old traditions faded, including the skills of builders. Until recently very few tourists were allowed in the country, and not many bothered to visit what had become a ghost-town.

With the current government's liberalizing of external relations and the easing of travel restrictions, the cultural heirloom of Luang Prabang is being brought out of storage for display. Over 600 buildings are currently classified as historical, and the refurbishing includes a resurrection of traditional building techniques, which the UNESCO team had to learn anew.

Two stonemasons, aged 75 and 85, provided the recipe for traditional Laotian mortar: stew buffalo-hide for nine hours, add crushed yang bong bark, tamarind seeds, chopped rice straw (soaked in water for two days), some markfen leaves, khi bi resin, and a measure of sugar-cane juice. Pour them all together into a mix of lime and Mekong sand, and stir.

Luang Prabang is undergoing a renaissance, a rebirth, and that alone makes it a great time to visit. Monks' dwellings, or Koutis, have been restored to their original form or rebuilt using local materials.

Several of the many pagodas have also been refurbished, and are now providing secondary education for children of poor families—the saffron-robed novices you see around town. Even the Buddhist clergy are helping to preserve Luang Prabang's heritage by reviving traditional art skills such as stencil painting, enameling, giltwork and religious sculpture.

Luang Prabang has an extraordinarily high number of well-preserved, active temples, which attests to the spirituality of the people living in the area. Thirty-two of the original 66 monasteries built before the French arrived are still standing.

In addition, you can explore secular buildings of traditional Lao and French colonial design. The entire town can be seen in two days on foot or one day by bike. Start early and break for a long lunch, as the sun and jungle heat can become severe.

By five in the evening, the shadows are long and you can resume your touring, perhaps walking to the top of Phousi, the hill in the center of town, to watch the sun push behind the mountains, exhaling a slow breath of orange light across the Mekong River.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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