You can even stay in 100-year-old French colonial buildings converted into accommodation. In the Lane Xang Kingdom’s ancient capital, heritage and Buddhism merge to present one encompassing heritage site.
Luang Prabangs’ UNESCO World Heritage
Explore Luang Prabang’s outstanding example of preserving the fusion of traditional and French colonial architecture, and meet the people who have called it home for centuries. Discover how a small community at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers evolved into the capital of the Lane Xang Kingdom and centre for regional Buddhism. Learn how Luang Prabang preserved its rich heritage.
Legends surround the establishment of Luang Prabang, much like the forested Phou Thao and Phou Nang mountains encircle the city. One story claimed Buddha rested there during his travels, and foretold that the site would become a rich and powerful city.
Luang Prabang was established more than 1,000 years ago as a Tai principality. At the start of the 2nd millennia, the Champa Kingdom seized control and renamed the town, Xieng Thong, which became the capital of the newly founded Lane Xang Kingdom in the 14th century. Shortly after, the Angkor King presented the Phra Bang – an 83 cm-high standing Buddha with palms facing forward and cast of bronze, gold, and silver (thong) – to his son-in-law, Fa Ngum, the first Lang Xang King. Luang Prabang takes its name from this Buddha image.
The city was also the centre of Buddhism in the region, and gained wealth and influence due to its strategic Silk Route location. The Lane Xang capital moved to Vientiane in the 16th century, but Luang Prabang regained its status as the capital of its own independent kingdom in 1707, when Lane Xang became divided. When the French began colonizing Laos, they regarded Luang Prabang as the country’s royal and religious capital during the reign of King Sisavangvong. The city eventually regained its role as administrative centre in 1946.
This background paved the way for UNESCO to inscribe Luang Prabang with world heritage status in 1995. UNESCO’s decision focussed on the city’s “rich architectural and artistic heritage that reflects the blending 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.”
This can most easily be experienced on The Peninsula, which, as the political and religious centre of Luang Prabang, displays royal residences and ancient religious sites. The traditional “urban fabric” of the old villages – which continue to sit shoulder-to- shoulder to comprise the greater Luang Prabang City – each has its own temple, which have all been well-preserved. The colonial street network harmoniously overlaps with the ancient urban model, in which the town was surrounded by fortification walls.
Luang Prabang architecture reflects the mix of styles and materials. Most buildings are traditional wooden structures and only the temples are constructed of stone. The one- and two-storey brick houses characterize the town’s colonial component. Luang Prabang’s Buddhist temples and stupas are among the most sophisticated in Southeast Asia, and are decorated with sculptures, engravings, paintings, and gilded ornamentation.
UNESCO also notes that 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.” Monks still perform tak bat, the daily morning collection of alms from devoted Buddhist laypeople. Natural spaces in the city and along the riverbanks include wetlands featuring a complex network of ponds used for fish farming and growing vegetables.
Luang Prabang’s integrity as an inscribed site “is linked to an architectural and cultural heritage set in a natural landscape that reflects its Outstanding Universal Value,” alongside the well-preserved structures and traditions. This contributes to the city’s authenticity, which has yet to be disturbed by major construction. Religious sites are maintained; elders teach the youth about restoration techniques, and the devout Buddhists continue to diligently follow the traditions and culture of their beliefs.
Luang Prabang heritage is more than the sum of its physical attractions. The “whole” also accounts for a well-preserved lifestyle.
Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre