The Town of Luang Prabang

The Town of Luang Prabang

Nestled among the northern mountains of Laos, Luang Prabang is like a treasured jewel, unique among the villages and towns of Asia. Its setting is what gives it its enchanting aura. It is encircled by peaks and rivers, covered by lush foliage and towering palms, brightened by splashes of color from fuschia, orange, red, and yellow flowers, and enrichened by glowing, golden-spired temples and stupas. The town’s cultural and historic heart is on a peninsula that measures 1 km. in length and 250 m. in width where the Mekong and Khan rivers converge. That is the quarter where the majority of the Buddhist temples are situated, as well as charming, old wooden houses that mélange the French and Lao architectural styles. At the heart of this area is Mount Phousi, a rocky outcrop whose forested slopes are dotted with sacred shrines and temples, and even Buddha’s footprint. The whole scene is made even more colorful and lively by the many diverse ethnic groups who come to town for the Night Market.

Luang Prabang is the jewel of the Mekong, the pride and joy of Laos. The slow way of life that has prevailed here for centuries continues to prevail to this day. It is almost as if Luang Prabang has been spared by the rush of modernity, cut off for centuries by the impassable mountains and rivers. Aside from the installation of electricity (with underground wires) and the growing number of motorbikes, the town has not yet changed its essential character or been much touched by the modern world. It is its isolation that has helped to preserve its natural and cultural beauty; although it flourished as a trading post among the peoples of upper Laos and other Southeast Asian countries, there was little contact with non-Asian countries until the French arrived in the mid-19th century.

New roads have been built in the past several years, though, connecting Luang Prabang to Vientiane and the Chinese border, and for the first time in the country’s history, it is possible to travel to and from the capital in only one day. Along with the new airport, the small town was in danger of experiencing rapid expansion and transformation.

Therefore, the town’s inclusion onto the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in December 1995 (officially ranking it alongside of the world’s other architectural and cultural treasures) could not have been more timely. It has helped to preserve what the UNESCO has cited as Southeast Asia’s best-preserved traditional town. Hopefully with the protection and oversight of the organization, it will remain so. It is a sort of outdoor museum.

The UNESCO committee considered Luang Prabang as worthy of becoming a World Heritage site because it corresponded to three of the organization’s ten selection criteria: (1) “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design”; (2) “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”; and (3) “to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change.”

Still according to the UNESCO, it “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.” Thirty-three temples and 111 historic Lao-French buildings have been identified for specific restoration.

A major challenge is how to maintain Luang Prabang as a World Heritage Site and yet accommodate the greater number of tourists that such a designation will attract. A greater number of tourists visit Luang Prabang each year, following the opening of the country to tourism in the late 1990’s. Many come to see its numerous ancient temples, of which 32 out of 66 dating from before the French colonization are still standing. In addition to its monasteries, there are also the old Lao-French buildings, a fine Museum of the Royal Palace, and of course, the charm of the town’s natural setting.

Luang Prabang is a former royal capital, and there is a high concentration of temples and monks in this religious town. Out of a population of 15,000 residents, over 500 are monks. Every morning, at the crack of dawn, the monks in their saffron-colored robes file out of the monasteries and make their way barefoot through the streets, bearing wooden alms bowls with which to receive their daily meals. Locals wait along the route to present sticky rice and other food to the monks – thereby earning spiritual credit by performing this meritorious deed. After the monks have received their offerings, they disappear once again into the temples.

Buddhist temples were, and still are, the center of the Lao universe, and are treasure-troves of mural-painting, sculpture, and Lao architecture. Temples in Luang Prabang date from the 16th century, and the best-preserved and most lavish are found in the oldest part of the peninsula, where royalty and nobility once resided. Temples have always been associated with royalty, because it was the royalty and nobility who were traditionally the patrons of temple-building. Until the French arrived, they were the only structures allowed to be constructed of brick. There is a particular style of temple architecture that is unique to Luang Prabang, in which the slanting roofs sweep almost to the ground.

Luang Prabang’s temples are magnificent. Among the most striking and notable are those of Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Mai, and Wat Choumkhoun. The most sumptuous is that of Wat Xieng Thong, which is gorgeous inside and out and seems to come right out of a fairytale. The main temple’s glazed-tile roofs descend to the ground, in the purest Luang Prabang style. Interior gold-stenciled wooden pillars support a ceiling decorated with dharma wheels, while the back exterior wall is adorned with a colored glass mosaic representing the “tree of life.” Smaller chapels on the premises have pretty pink or purple walls that are covered in colored mirrors in the forms of animals. One houses a rare bronze reclining Buddha, while another shelters a 36-ft. high gilded wooden funeral chariot. Lanterns hang from the roofs of the chapels and monastery. The temples’ gold-leaf-overlaid figures and colored glass mosaics literally glow. The banyan and palm trees shade the gardens, forming a tranquil harmony of elements.

Wat Mai is next to the royal palace. Its gorgeous exterior walls bear magnificent gold stucco bas-reliefs recounting the legend of Pavet, the last incarnation of the historic Buddha, amid diverse village scenes. We visited the temple during the Lao New Year, when the Pha Bang was brought here in an elaborate religious ceremony. The spiritual protector of Luang Prabang, the 43-cm. high statue is brought out only once a year, when the devoted come to pray before it and sprinkle it with water and lotus petals.

One of my favorite temples was that of Wat Choumkhoun. The temple itself is not so large, but magnificent, and the well-kept grounds and manicured gardens are a haven of luxury and relaxation. Gorgeous pink flowering trees form a canopy of shade over golden Buddhas and the walkways are lined with potted flowers. Monks relax in the gardens or on the steps of the temple, and the devoted come to pray in front of the golden Buddha and sprinkle him with water and lotus petals during the New Year. In the late afternoon, the golden Buddhas reflect the glow of the setting sun, while in the evening, carved ceramic lanterns and hanging paper lanterns give off a warm glow that is absolutely magical.

Luang Prabang’s temples are being painstakingly restored under World Heritage Site plans. Particular attention is being paid to artwork damaged by monsoon rains and tropical humidity. A new traditional-style pavilion has recently been constructed on the Palace grounds to house the Pra Bang, the standing Buddha image that gives Luang Prabang its name. The 83-cm-high statue, thought to be 90 percent gold, was reputedly made in the first century AD, and is a source of spiritual protection for Laos.

As for the unique architecture of Luang Prabang’s buildings, there are colonial houses made of brick and stucco and neo-colonial houses that mélange the Laotian and French styles, with brick and plaster walls on the ground level and wooden walls on the upper level. Although a few French administrative buildings were built between 1909 and 1920, most of the colonial residences still visible were constructed between 1920 and 1925.

The French gained effective control over Laos between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the controlling Siamese ceded territory to the French and the Lao king was reduced to a figurehead. The French built little infrastructure in Laos; the country was too mountainous for plantations, the Mekong was not suitable for commercial navigation, and there was little in the way of mining. The main export was opium. Only a few hundred French resided in Laos, leaving the running of the country to Vietnamese civil servants. The king was allowed to remain in Luang Prabang.

A period of colonial building in Luang Prabang lasted from 1907 to 1925. The French used styles developed in Vietnam, but adapted designs better suited to the climate instead of simply transplanting European architectural design. This translated into wooden houses with internal corridors that provided cool air circulation. Some styles are inspired by temple architecture.

The former Royal Palace, now a museum, is an excellent example of the hybrid architectural styles unique to Luang Prabang. Although intended for occupation by the Lao king, the palace was commissioned by the French colonial administration, thus explaining the mélange of styles. The idea was to cement the relationship between the two countries through an intentional mixing of design. At the front entrance is a crest of Erawan, the three-headed elephant that symbolizes the three kingdoms of Laos. Just below, the pillars bear French fleur-de-lys emblems. Inside are French mirrors and Czech chandeliers alongside of traditional Lao gilded furniture.

The UNESCO employs seven full-time architects to take care of the site. They have so far identified over 700 historical structures in the town and have classified them according to their manner of construction and the material used. Besides the safeguard and restoration of the buildings of local architecture, the UNESCO program calls for a detailed examination and evaluation of new construction projects, in addition to the rehabilitation and the upkeep of the natural swampland situated in the perimeter of the city. Laos has not yet established any conservation laws.

The UNESCO has done a lot to preserve the traditional character of Luang Prabang. With the newly-paved roads that have completed construction, Luang Prabang is set to become a crossroads for commerce between China, Laos, and Thailand. The organization has helped to ensure that traffic does not travel directly through the town. Also, the old metallic bridge in the heart of the town was closed to car and truck traffic. Zoning laws restrict advertising billboards and decree that no out-of-character buildings can be constructed. That means no fast-food outlets or other tourist attractions or eyesores. Power and telephone lines must be buried. New hotels are not to be built; the idea, rather, is to modify existing mansions or buildings for use as hotels. In Luang Prabang’s old quarter, all new hotels must have fewer than 15 rooms. This has led to the opening of family-run guesthouses.

Under the UNESCO plan, there are three zones for preservation: the old quarter, a peripheral building zone, and natural zones along the Mekong River banks. Outside the fully-protected zone, larger hotels may be constructed, but are subject to design approval. One of the projects that the UNESCO is currently working on is the creation of a Regional Park for Luang Prabang. The World Heritage Center and its partners have developed a series of initiatives and have been involved in the implementation of projects, workshops, seminars and training courses, all in the effort to support World Heritage conservation.

If the UNESCO is successful at preserving the charm of the town of Luang Prabang, they will have contributed to the management of the largest influx of tourists in Laos and to the conservation of one of the rare sites in Asia that are still well preserved.

Luang Prabang’s World Heritage status is doing a lot more than preserving the town: it is helping to preserve a traditional way of life by boosting pride in Lao culture and traditional ways.