Visit Luang Prabang to learn and understand why UNESCO included it in the list of World Heritage Sites. The old town center has a unique characteristic of fused traditional Lao architecture and urban structure with that of 19th and 20th century European colonial influence – a fine example of a remarkably preserved blend of two distinct elements reflected across the old town center thru its temples, palaces and buildings.
Allow one day of your Luang Prabang trip to wander in the old town and appreciate the charm of this former royal and religious capital of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Luang Prabang traces back to 14th-16th century as a powerful and strategic place in the Silk Route.
The Key Places to visit and experience in the old town are the following:
1. Wat Xieng Thong
2. Royale Palace Museum
3. Mt. Phousi
4. Wat Mai
5. Tak Bat
Wat Xieng Thong
The premier temple complex to visit in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong. It is almost 500 yrs old, having built in the 1560s in a Lane Xang Arts architectural style at the northern part of the Luang Prabang peninsula at section where the Nam Khan river joins the Mekong.
Wat Xieng Thong
It is called the Golden City or the Golden Tree Monastery. Within the complex aside from the main wat, there are structures such as shrines, pavilions, sim and funeral chapel in lao style architecture. Spot gardens are also placed within the monastery.
The chapel that house the royal funeral carriage
Surrounding the Wat
Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important monasteries of Laos. As they say, it symbolizes the spirit of Luang Prabang’s Buddhism, Royalty and the traditional style. The wat is the finest example of the classic Luang Prabang style. Its walls are decorated with Lao mosaics, wooden doors and windows with reliefs in black and gold and at altar of the main hall sits a big image of Buddha.
Buddha at the main temple
Mosaics and murals of Wat Xieng Thong
Aside from it exceptional architecture, Wat Xieng Thong’s historical importance spans more than 450 years from the time it was ordered built by King Setthathilatt to the time when it was under royalty patronage and events in between like the invasion of Chinese marauders in the 1880s that spared this monastery from destruction.
In 1995, the town of Luang Prabang was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, anchored by the Wat Xieng Thong complex and a string of structures of architectural, cultural and historical significance.
Entrance ticket to Wat Xieng Thong is LAK 20,000.
Royal Palace Museum
A few minute walk or a brief tuktuk ride down Sisavangvong Road just before Wat Mai is the Royal Palace (Haw Kham). The palace was built for King Sisavang Vong in 1904 during the French colonial period. This palace was built for the royal family as place for the reception after getting off from their river voyages. Embarking/disembarking point behind the Royal Palace now serves as a jump-off point for the Mekong River Cruise and the visit to Pak Ou Caves.
When the monarchy was overthrown by the Communists in 1975, the palace was vacated and eventually converted into a national museum.
Tree-lined street to the Palace Museum
Marble steps leading to the Main Entrance
The Royal Palace architecture is said to be a mix of traditional Lao and French Beaux-Art (fine art) style. The sides of the main road leading to the front steps of the palace are lined with tall palm trees. Huge steps lead to the entrance of the Palace Museum. Entrance fee is LAK 30,000. Take note that visitors must have to be dressed appropriately before entering the museum. You have to take off your shoes and leave your bags or things at the conference hall. Lockers are provided there. Visitors are only allowed to bring a small bag. Taking photos inside the museum is prohibited.
So what is there to see inside the museum? The palace has several halls, each hall has different subject and displays. For example, there’s a King’s Reception Room with walls covered with murals about the traditional Lao lifestyle. The room is decorated with Ramayana screens and busts of Lao monarchs.
There is a room which showcased the prized Phra Bang which is a Buddha cast in gold, silver and bronze alloy. The image was made in the 1st century AD from Sri Lanka and was transferred several times from one king’s hand to another, brought from Luang Prabang to Thailand and back until it was finally returned to Laos by King Mongkut.
There’s a Throne Room which displays the Crown Jewels of Laos. These are the metal work and jewelries used during the coronation of a monarch as well as some important occasions.
An interesting item is on display at the Secretary’s Reception Room. This area is filled with diplomatic gifts from countries such as China, Thailand, Russia etc. USA presented and donated a moon rock taken from one of the Apollo missions to the moon.
Other rooms include the Queen’s Reception room, the Royal Family bedrooms and living quarters, and the dining hall. The Royal Palace museum can be explored in less then an hour. I would recommend that you visit the palace in the morning when it is not so hot and humid inside. They said that the palace was designed in a way that sunlight enters different rooms at certain parts of the day. The light could dramatically strike the murals and arts on the walls and are in their best display when well lit.
Take the time as well to explore the palace ground. Within the Royal Palace complex are the following:
1. The Conference Hall / Theatre Hall
2. Statue of King Sisavang Vong
3. The Lotus Pond
4. The Kitchen and Storage Quarter
5. Haw Pha Bang
The Statue of King Sisavang Vong
King Sisavang Vong life was colorful and interesting. He had 15 wives and 50 children. Having been schooled in Paris, he was a strong supporter of the French colonial rule in Laos. His reign as king was the longest in Asia, second only to Thailand’s King Bhumibol. His statue at the Royal Palace ground in front of the Theatre depicts him bestowing the constitution to his people.
The Lotus Pond
Back section of the palace with French details
Haw Pha Bang
This is one of the most attractive temples in Luang Prabang. Found inside the palace complex, Haw Pha Bang is one of the main draw for visitors. This is an new structure built in the traditional Lao design and was done to enshrine the Phra Bang Buddha image. The Phra Bang Buddha is currently on display at the Royal Palace Museum.
To be continued…