Luang Prabang, in northern Laos, is the country's ancient capital and a very different proposition to the Plain of Jars. Its UNESCO World heritage listing describes it as Southeast Asia's ‘best preserved ancient city’ – it is definitely one of Indochina's ‘must-see’ destinations.
The population is tiny – it has yet to top 20,000, and the impact of the modern world has been minimal. It’s located on a 250-hectare peninsula protruding the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers surrounded by attractive scenery.
It became the capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom in the middle of the 12th century and remained so for nearly three hundred years. Its attraction is a remarkable concentration of Wats and other temples in such a small area, making it an easy place to stroll around.
Probably the best place to begin is the Royal Palace Museum, built as a royal residence facing the Mekong River to receive dignitaries and other official visitors. It’s an elegantly designed combination of traditional Lao and French architecture.
The museum has an excellent art object collection, including the Prabang, an ancient standing Buddha cast in bronze, silver and gold that gave its name to the town. Apart housing other collections of, for example, artifacts, votive objects and musical instruments, most of the palace rooms have been preserved as they were when the King departed.
Wat Xieng Thong
The most magnificent and significant wat in Luang Prabang was built in 1560. It consists of a tranquil compound filled with intricate carvings and mosaics, detailed paintings, and low, wide, tiled roofs. The sim is an excellent example of classic Luang Prabang temple architecture, with a series of elegant roofs sweeping downwards almost to the ground. Its rear wall has an impressive mosaic, and the interior walls and ceiling are decorated with beautiful frescoes and dharma wheels.
Like Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai is also an exemplar of the Luang Prabang style of religious architecture after 70 years of construction. The five-tiered roof protects walls of golden bas-relief relating the story of the Buddha's incarnation and depicting scenes of village life.
Inside, the central beam is carved with the Hindu epic of Ravanna and Hanuaman. This wat once housed the golden Prabang: each year, the statue is returned here for its ritual cleansing.
There are too many wats in Luang Prabang to describe here. Although they are all built on similar lines, each one has enough distinctive features to stave off ‘temple fatigue’, and there are plenty of good Laotian and international restaurants, coffee shops and bars to visit en-route.
Other things to do in Luang Prabang
After a day among the wats and the museum, a gentle climb up Mount Phuosi to enjoy the sunset and the spectacular view of the town and river, is a delight. A boat cruise on the Mekong, or hiking to the abandoned wats and caves on the opposite bank, are other attractions. For the more active, cycling and rafting are possibilities.