A magnificent natural setting alongside the Mekong River – miles from anywhere amid the forested hills of northern Laos – lends Luang Prabang a special charm, one which combines with its historical status as the country’s royal capital to create one of the most intriguing and magical destinations in Asia. It’s a place filled with fine old temples, shaven-headed monks, the occasional handsome colonial mansion glimpsed through the bougainvillea.
In 1353 King Fa Ngum consolidated the first Lao Kingdom, Lan Xang (One Million Elephants), on the site of the present-day city and, despite shifting empires and political power moving south to Vientiane, Luang Prabang remained the royal heart of the kingdom right through to 1975, when the monarchy was abolished.
Added to Unesco’s World Heritage List in 1995, the city is home to some notable temples, including the shimmering gold 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong. Other sights include the 100-metre (330-ft) rocky outcrop Phu Si from which there are expansive views across the city and the Mekong. Down by the river there is a strip of fish restaurants with a wonderful ambience. Take a boat across to the far side to access more temples and forest trails, or journey upstream to the stunning Pak Ou caves.
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Wat Xieng Thong
On the banks of the Mekong in central Luang Prabang is the city’s most renowned temple, Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Monastery), its low sweeping roofs epitomising classical Lao temple architecture. It was built in 1560 and patronised by the monarchy right up until 1975. Inside the sim the eight thick supporting pillars, richly stencilled in gold, guide the eye to the serene golden Buddha images at the rear, and upwards to the roof which is covered in dhamma wheels. On the outside of the sim, at the back, is an elaborate mosaic of the Tree of Life set against a deep red background. Throughout, the combination of splendid gold and deep red give this temple a captivatingly regal atmosphere.
Phu Si hill
Just about every visitor to Luang Prabang climbs the long flight of steps in the centre of town to the top of Phu Si. It’s not so much a question of the stupa (and rusting anti-aircraft gun) on the summit, nor of the nearby hermit’s cave – rather it’s the magnificent view of the ancient city at sunset, with the Mekong Nam Khan Rivers encircling the historic Unesco-protected peninsula that lies at the heart of Old Luang Prabang.