Town of Luang Prabang

 Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Province of Luang Prabang
N19 53 20.004 E102 7 59.988
Date of Inscription: 1995
Minor boundary modification inscribed year: 2013
Criteria: (ii)(iv)(v)
Property : 820 ha
Buffer zone: 12,560 ha
Ref: 479bis
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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.

Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos at the heart of a mountainous region. The town is built on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan River. Mountain ranges (in particular the PhouThao and PhouNang mountains) encircle the city in lush greenery.

Many legends are associated with the creation of the city, including one that recounts that Buddha would have smiled when he rested there during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful city. Known as Muang Sua, then Xieng Thong, from the 14th to the 16th century the town became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (Kingdom of a Million Elephants), whose wealth and influence were related to its strategic location on the Silk Route. The city was also the centre of Buddhism in the region. Luang Prabang takes its name from a statue of Buddha, the Prabang, offered by Cambodia.

After the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1893, following a period of turmoil during which the country was divided into three independent kingdoms, Luang Prabang once again became the royal and religious capital during the reign of King Sisavang Vong. It played this role until Vientiane became the administrative capital in 1946.

Luang Prabang is exceptional for both its rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the fusion of Lao traditional urban architecture with that of the colonial era. Its remarkably well-preserved townscape reflects the alliance of these two distinct cultural traditions.

The political and religious centre of Luang Prabang is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations.  The traditional urban fabric of the old villages, each with its temple, was preserved by later constructions. The colonial urban morphology, including the network of streets, overlapped harmoniously with the previous model. Formerly the town limits were defined by defensive walls.

The richness of Luang Prabang architecture reflects the mix of styles and materials. The majority of the buildings are, following tradition, wooden structures.  Only the temples are in stone, whereas one- or two-storey brick houses characterize the colonial element of the town.  The many pagodas or “Vat” in Luang Prabang, which are among the most sophisticated Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, are richly decorated (sculptures, engravings, paintings, gilding and furniture pieces).  Wat Xieng Thong, which dates from the 16th century, comprises an ensemble of the most complex structures of all the pagodas of the town. It is remarkable both from the archaeological point of view, and from the Lao iconographic and aesthetic viewpoint.

Many traditional Lao houses remain; they are built of wood using traditional techniques and materials introduced in the colonial period, such as plaited bamboo panels coated with wattle and daub.  Brick colonial buildings, often with balconies and other decorative features in wood, line the main street and the Mekong.

The built heritage of Luang Prabang is in perfect harmony in the natural environment. The sacred Mount Phousi stands at the heart of the historic town built on a peninsula delimited by the Mekong and the Nam Khan, domain of the mythical naga. Ceremonies to appease the nagas and other evil spirits, and Buddhist religious practices (Prabang procession, the monks’ morning quest) perpetuate the sanctity of the place. Natural spaces located in the heart of the city and along the riverbanks, and wetlands (a complex network of ponds used for fish farming and vegetable growing) complement this preserved natural environment.

Criterion (ii):  Luang Prabang reflects the exceptional fusion of Lao traditional architecture and 19th and 20th century European colonial style buildings.

Criterion (iv): Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble built over the centuries combining sophisticated architecture of religious buildings, vernacular constructions and colonial buildings.

Criterion (v): The unique townscape of Luang Prabang is remarkably well preserved, illustrating a key stage in the blending of two distinct cultural traditions.

Suggested Bases:

Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang is the former capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage city. Set at the confluence of two rivers that almost surround the town, and beneath a temple-topped hill, Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture, reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats (temples), decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains. Luang Prabang is a relatively small city with an atmospheric and charming personality. With UNESCO so closely involved and a largely responsible group of local business owners, the pressures of mass tourism have been held at bay, but for how much longer remains to be seen. Restaurants in the main street cater for luxury tourists. More typical Lao venues can still be found along the Mekong. Luang Prabang rose to prominence as the capital of the first Lao kingdom (Lan Xang, land of the million elephants) from 1353. [read more]

Muang Xai is the capital of the multi-ethnic Oudomxay Province, in the Nam Ko River Basin and surrounded by scenic mountains. It’s the largest city in Northern Laos and, if you’re travelling by land, you’ll probably end up here at some point. The town is formed by small villages at an important intersection between China and Vietnam, and the city has a multicultural atmosphere. A free city map can be obtained in the bus station or tourist information centre, with basic information and “things to do”. You can get maps online from the website of the Provincial Tourism Department. [read more]

Phonsavan (Phonsavanh) is the capital of Xieng Khouang Province in Central Laos. It is known primarily as the gateway to the Plain of Jars. Understand Phonsavan is the provincial capital of Xieng Khouang Province. It was built in the late 1970s and replaced the old Xieng Khouang which had been destroyed during the Second Indochina War. It is in the centre of the Plain of Jars and has a pleasant climate all year around, although it can become chilly on winter nights due to its elevation of 1,100 m. The long winding main street of Phonsavan looks like the setting of a David Lynch-inspired spaghetti western minus the tumbleweeds. As soon as you leave town the countryside is dominated by green hills and pine forests. Villages consist of colourful wooden houses. Ranching is the primary occupation. You will see more than one Hmong cowboy with brown and violet cowboy hats. During Hmong New Year there are even bullfights in Phonsavan. The best-known tourist attraction is the nearby Plain of Jars, which is to be nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. [read more]

11 replies »

  1. I would go for an architecture tour! Look at those buildings! And the view from the top! And as always I would love some street food!


  2. If you love nature, you should probably consider spending an entire day at the falls. After climbing to the top of the falls, there are trails that lead to the left (which is probably the better side to climb up anyway – then turn right to see the top of the falls or left to follow the paths). Wish we could have done it, but we were short on time. Travel well!


  3. The thing that we fell in love with in LP and all over Laos was the textiles. The hemp fabrics including the traditional natural dyes are breathtaking. We also loved the LP library as a nice place to hang out & the French Institute there. Also we fell in love with the baguette ladies and their families, especially the kids that live under the counters, as they are a big box – sometimes complete with TV & bedding ;). So much more.


  4. Luang Prabang is one of my favourite places in Asia. Laid back locals, cheap, great scenery, good architecture, a few really nice local sights… what more can you ask for. Perfect romantic getaway…


  5. There are a variety of other things to do in and around Luang Prabang. Some of the ecotourism companies like Green Discovery offer quite a good experience, albeit at a hefty price for what people accustomed to living in China would think.

    The elephant village is also worth a look. Tourists can enjoy the elephants guilt-free, since all of them have been rescued from the logging industry. Carrying tourists around, even fat ones, is much better than 700 kilogram logs, and the elephants are all well-fed and cared for.

    Laos can be reached by Vientiane as well, and Vientiane is also worth a look. It’s the sleepiest, shortest (no skyscrapers that I could see) capital city that I’ve ever seen.

    Laos is not as developed as Thailand or Vietnam, and the people are much more relaxed as well.


  6. The magic of Luang Prabang is the combination of French colonial architecture sitting alongside buddhist temples.


  7. Climb the stairs up Mount Phousi for a spectacular sunset view of the city and countryside. One of my favorite sights is Wat Xieng Thong temple lit up at dusk with the colorful market at its’ borders.


  8. Starting at daybreak, devotees line the streets for the alms-giving ritual where they offer food to Buddhist monks in orange saffron robes. This ritual is the source of their only meal. As this is a sacred Buddhist tradition of Laos, observe the ritual from a distance and use non-flash photography when taking photos of the ceremony.


  9. Every evening, the main Sisavangvong Road (which is the main road that runs through the historical peninsula of Luang Prabang) closes to motor vehicles, and a walking street market sets up.

    At the market, find an abundance of all this Laos, especially souvenir type of things like baggy elephant print comfy pants, bracelets, and ethnic tribal shoulder bags. There’s so much available, and so many stalls you’ll be amazed – and plenty of vendors sell pretty much the same thing.

    Even if not interested in shopping, the Luang Prabang night market is still a perfect place to take an evening stroll. Additionally, can always grab a fruit shake at the front of the market.


  10. We loved Luang Prabang so much we ended up staying nearly 2 weeks! Our initial plan was a few days. We just loved the relaxed vibe, the friendly people and the beautiful views of the Mekong! However, as a result, we didn’t visit any more of Laos… however, we decided we’d just have to go back and explore more! But we’d definitely be going back to Luang Prabang!


  11. The thing that we fell in love with in LP and all over Laos was the textiles. The hemp fabrics including the traditional natural dyes are breathtaking. We also loved the LP library as a nice place to hang out & the French Institute there.


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