Mount Phousi with the Temple Wat Tham Phousi on top by Asienreisender

Mount Phousi with the temple Wat Tham Phousi on top. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Classical Laotion Music Instrument by Asienreisender

A classical Laotian music instrument. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A traditional House around Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A traditional house around Luang Prabang. They were everywhere just a couple of years ago, but now disappear and getting replaced by faceless concrete buildings. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Monks on their way to Wat Xieng Thong by Asienreisender

Sketched monks on their way to Wat Xieng Thong. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Laotian Market Woman by Asienreisender

Sketch of a Laotian market woman. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Cyclist in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A cyclist in Luang Prabang. Just a very few years ago there were many, sometimes masses of cyclists on the road. Meanwhile the bicycle is another extinct animal. The locals drive at least a motorbike, if they can anyhow afford better a fat pickup. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Elephants at the Mekong River by Asienreisender

An sketch of elephants enjoying the Mekong River. That's also very seldom to see nowadays. They degenerated from first free animals to working slaves and then, next step down, to merely tourist attractions. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Fishermen and women at the Mekong River by Asienreisender

Fishermen and women at the Mekong River. That's also soon history, for the Mekong River is under severe destruction. A devastating impact will be done by the already ongoing construction of the dam at Sanyabury. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Face at a Temple in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A face in a ballustrade at one of the many temples in Luang Prabang. Looks rather south American, for my guess. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

An Old Mercedes Benz in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

These old kind of cucumbers are sometimes to see in Luang Prabang. A bit like in Havanna, but only a very little bit... Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A royal Laotian Princess by Asienreisender

A painting of a royal Laotian princess. Looks a bit unhappy, it seems... Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Pighead by Asienreisender

Curious things appear on the markets in Laos. Here: a pighead. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Traffic Sign in Luang Prabang

The local adaptation of a common traffic sign. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

A Police Office near Luang Prabang

A small police office outside of Luang Prabang. Inside there is quite a mess of pots, cutlery, other kitchen stuff and paperwork. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Temple Painting at Vat Xieng Thong by Asienreisender

A temple painting in Vat Xieng Thong. A unique style. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Luang Prabang at night by Asienreisender

Luang Prabang at night. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Sunset over the Mekong River at Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A sunset over the Mekong River in December 2006. The air was clean and chilly. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

The Night Market of Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The night market of Luang Prabang. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Girl weaving in a textile village around Luang Prabang

A sixteen years old girl is weaving in one of the textile producing villages around Luang Prabang. Soon after she would go to school, she told me. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Chanting Monks in a temple in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

Chanting monks in a temple in Luang Prabang around sunset. Image by Asienreisender, 2006

Luang Prabang / Laos



Luang Prabang

The legendary town of Luang Prabang in the north of Laos is a centerpiece of the country for it's cultural heritage and it's attraction to international tourists. The historical Laotion architecture here consists of a number of temples, of whom only one is really old (Vat Xieng Thong Ratsavoravikanh, 16th century); the others were all destroyed in the 19th century and later rebuilt.

Luang Prabang, aerial view by Asienreisender

An aerial view on Luang Prabang. The place is situated on a peninsula; on the right side is the mighty Mekong River, left is the Khan River, joining the Mekong at this point. Well to see is also the straight main road. Photograph seen in a hotel in Luang Prabang. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Luang Prabang is situated in the mountains on an altitude of some 700m above seal level at the confluence of the Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River.

The town of Luang Prabang was the capital of the old, medieval kingdom Lan Chang, the 'Land of the Million Elephants'. There is a Royal Palace left in Luang Prabang, which houses today a national museum. Opposite of the entrance to the king's palace is Phousi Mountain situated. Climbing the mountain leads to a number of temple buildings, some stairways and on the very top of the mountain is Wat Tham Phousi. From there one has a great view over the wider surroundings of Luang Prabang. That's, however, not so between February/March and the beginning of the rainy season in May/June for the heavy air pollution (see below and check the article on air pollution in the Golden Triangle).

Painting of Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

Some of the rarities of Luang Prabang. Painting seen in a hotel in Luang Prabang. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Of all the temples Vat Xieng Thong Ratsavoravikanh is the most famous and precious. It represents a typical Luang Prabang architectonical style with it's big, unique roofs.

Another tourist attraction is the daily night market on the main road, where a great deal of local products are sold. Most of it are textile products, wooden art and some antiques of questionable quality.

Additionally there are several buildings left in the place who were built by the French in the colonial era, giving Luang Prabang a special flair.

For a more detailed introduction into Luang Prabang's sights check the link.

Luang Prabang, Sakkaline Road by Asienreisender

The eastern part of Luang Prabang's main road 'Sakkaline Road'. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Nowadays Luang Prabang has some 50,000 inhabitants. It is connected to Vientiane via Vang Vieng by national road 13; to the north it's connected to Udomxai, the hub for the traffic in northern Laos. From there are connections to Thailand, Vietnam and China. Coming from north Thailand via Chiang Khong/Huayxai it's possible to reach Luang Prabang by boat on the Mekong River. There are no slowboats going further down to Vientiane. They ceased service some five years ago. But it's possible to go on the Nam Khan (Khan River) and Nam Ou (Ou River) upwards to Nong Keaw/Muang Noi.

Besides there is a small airport near Luang Prabang. There are planes to and from Vientiane, Bangkok and Siem Reap.

Monks in the morning streets of Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

Buddhist monks and novices around sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang. They go for collecting alms (mostly food, sometimes clothes, amulets and also money). Image by Asienreisender, 2006


A really short History of Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang has a long history, dating back to the 7th century AD. It was known under a number of names until it finally got named 'Luang Prabang'.

When the neighbouring Kingdom of Lanna emerged, fighting off the Kublai Khan's Mongolian armees coming from China, Luang Prabang came for a few decades under Mongolian control in the mid 13th century.

War Elephant Painting in Vatphonxai Sanasongkham by Asienreisender

Centuries of war passed over the region. The early empires, the Mongolians, the Burmese, the Siamese... but there was almost no technological progress. It was mostly about who had the most men, weapons and elephants. The mighty war elephant is a 'classic' in Southeastasian warfare of former centuries. Image by Asienreisender in Vatphonxai Sanasongkham, Luang Prabang, 2013

After the decline of the Kingdom of Sukothai there was space in the northern regions for another kingdom, called Lan Chang ('Land of a Million Elephants', officially founded in 1365 AD), neighbouring Lanna. The first big name of the new kingdom was Fa Ngum. He started, as many of the early Tai (Thai) kingdoms of the time, as a vassal king of the mighty Angkor Empire. Fa Ngum got a certain Buddha statue from Angkor, called Phra Bang, granted as a present at his inauguration. Luang Prabang became the capitol of the new kingdom and the Phra Bang statue was placed here and became a target for pilgrimage for the Buddhists around.

A number of temples (wat's) were founded in Luang Prabang in the 16th century, and basically that's what the cultural heritage means for a great part. There are no grand cathedrals here like in Europe or big ruins as the Khmer Empire left; the wat's are smaller, modest places with limited space inside. The cultural heritage is all but bombastic. There is also little literature coming from this era, and the bit is all centered on religious issues. Literature in general almost didn't develop until today. Have you ever heared of a meaningful Laotian writer, in history of contemporary? There is none.

King Sisavangvong by Asienreisender

King Sisavangvong (*1885 - 1959) was the King of Luang Prabang and from 1904 on the King of Laos. He was a lifelong supporter of the French rule. In his hand he holds a constitution for Laos. How delicious! The memorial is placed on the grounds of the Royal Palace. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

In the second half of the 16th century the kingdom was under permanent threat of Burmese attacks (see also the history of Lanna, Sukothai and Ayutthaya, who shared the same fate). As a respond to this King Setthatirath shifted the capital to Vientiane in 1560. Despite to the resulting loss of political power Luang Prabang remained the cultural center of the country. For centuries it was in the focus of Burmese conquest and reconquest and got destroyed several times. Around 1700 Lang Chang fell apart in three parts: Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak.

That was the time then for the European interventions. The first European explorers in Luang Prabang were Henri Mouhot (1861), Louis Delaporte (1867) and Auguste Pavie (1886). France and Britain became ambitious to overtake the north of Laos. France above all was interested in the Mekong River, in hope it would allow to transport goods from inner China to the South China Sea and vice versa. But the Mekong wasn't passable for ships over it's whole length. Nevertheless took the French advantage of the situation in north Laos in the late 1880, when Chinese gangs raided the area inclusive Luang Prabang (1887) and declared the whole region a protectorat. The French also pushed the Siamese out of the region, who claimed it being part of the Kingdom of Siam. The nowadays border between Laos and north Thailand is exactly the same border established between French Indochina and the Kingdom of Siam in 1893. Luang Prabang became the capital of the Laotian part in French Indochina.

Despite France's strong ambition to extend it's Indochinese borders deep inside Laos and Siam the region never was of economic importance for France. Though, there was a significant cultural influence left by the western colonialists.

Little known is that in the 'Franco-Thai War' in 1942 Thailand occupied Luang Prabang, but had to give it back after it lost the Second World War on the side of the axis powers (Tokio - Berlin - Rome) in 1945.

Laos became independent from France in 1953, one year before the decisive French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam.

In the American Vietnam War north Laos was heavily bombed by the US Air Force. Luang Prabang, though, remained untouched. At the end of the war in 1975 it was overtaken by the communist forces of the Pathet Lao.

French Architecture in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

French colonial architecture in Luang Prabang. As in so many places there is now a restaurant inside. Image by Asienreisender, 2010

The Americans didn't bomb Luang Prabang, because it was in the hands of the loyal last Laotian King Sisavang Vatthana until 1975. After the capture of the place by the Phatet Lao the king, the queen and the crown prince were deported into a political 'reeducation camp'. There they died supposedly in 1984.

Since the economic reforms of 1986 and the privatization of tourism in 1991 Laos became slowly a tourist destination. In 1995 Luang Prabang already got the status of a 'UNESCO Cultural World Heritage'. Massive restauration of traditional architecture was invented and the city planning of the historical part of the town is under very restriction. A great number of buildings in the heritage are under monumental protection. In the last years the number of international visitors raised massively.


The Sights of Luang Prabang

Sights of Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The painting shows the main sights in and around Luang Prabang: Vat Xieng Thong, the Royal Palace, Wat Visoun, Wat Tham Phousi (Phousi Mountain), Pak Ou Cave, a traditional village house, a waterfall and the Mekong River. Painting seen in a hotel in Luang Prabang. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The richest sight in Luang Prabang is doubtlessly the Royal Palace. It's on the biggest block in the towns street net which houses a theatre, the palace building, a viharn (a Buddhist temple building, build in traditional Luang Prabang style), a statue of King Sisavangvong (1904 - 1959), a garage for the palace cars (in a very rotten state now, rather a neglected building site) and a fish pond (lotus pond). Between these items is a garden arrangement. There is also a royal barge shelter on the ground. The palace is closest to the main pier of Luang Prabang.

The Royal Palace is not an old palace, but a new one, built for King Sisavangvong in 1904 by the French, to who the king was loyal. That's also the main reason why he could be king under French administration. Share and rule...

Nowadays the Royal Palace serves as a National Museum (30,000 Kip entrance, that's now, after the last devaluation of the Euro 3 Euros). In the museum are many pieces of furniture to see, e.g. beds, beds and more beds, couches, couches and more couches. Most impressive for me were the wall paintings. They are clearly among the best what I have seen in Southeast Asia. Many of them depict rural scenes in Laos. They are from the French artist Alix de Fauntereau, made in 1930. Unfortunately it's strictly forbidden to make photos inside. And the control is strict. That's really a pity.

The Royal Palace, East Wing, Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The east wing of the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang. It's an architectonical mixture between European/French design and Laotion elements. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Beside that there are many requisites of the royal family, like ancestor busts, crockery, cutlery, old weapons and so on.

In the museum is also the above mentioned Phra Bang, allegedly a 2,000 years old Buddha statue, coming from Sri Lanka. Rumors say it's not the original - who knows...?!

There is another room filled with diplomatic gifts from other countries, many paintings among them. Hell, why can one not make some photos here...!? There is even a stone from the surface of the moon among the pieces, given by the USA. Funny thing that the presents are sorted by if the source was a capitalist or communistic country.

Painting of the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

A painting of the Royal Palace, as verymost of the pictures showing the classical front view. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Further on there is a dining room and a throne room, where the crown jewels of Laos are to see.

Outside, behind the palace building there is a side building which houses at the moment (March 2013) a Buddha exhibition (named 'The floated Buddha'). It's one hall with photos of monks in meditation. Remarkable for Laos that the entrance is free. Some booklets with photos are to buy there, made by a Hans Georg Berger. Though, not very impressive.

Among all of the temples in Luang Prabang the most precious is Vat Xieng Thong Ratsavoravikanh. It's built in 1560 at the confluence of the Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River. It's one, if not the most important of all the Laotian temples and monasteries. It represents a typical Luang Prabang architectonical style and the whole temple ground consists of twenty different buildings.

The kings of Luang Prabang and partially the kings of Laos were crowned at Vat Xieng Thong. Therefore it was under royal patronage until the end of the monarchy in Laos, 1975.

In the main building there are various stories of Buddhas life. The style is clearly different from other styles I saw at countless temples.

Vat Xient Thong, Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

Vat Xieng Thong twice, once as a painting as seen in a guesthouse or a gallery and as original. Built in 1560 it's the oldest remained building in Luang Prabang. Images and composition by Asienreisender, 2013

Particularly remarkable is that Vat Xieng Thong is the only temple in Luang Prabang which was never destroyed by all the many conquests of Burmese and later Chinese invaders (1887). The temple was several times under restoration in the 20th century.

Mount Phousi and Wat Chom Si in Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

Mount Phousi with Wat Chom Si and the approach from the southern side. Most important is to meet the ticket box (20,000 Kip). Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Wat Tham Phousi (Wat Chom Si) is worth to have a look for, mostly because of the overview of the landscapes around Luang Prabang. If the above mentioned air pollution allows that...

Around Luang Prabang are numerous more places to visit. The most famous might be the Pak Ou Cave, some 25km outside of the town, where the Nam Ou (Ou River) joins the Mekong. The view is pretty great, and inside are hundreds of Buddha statues collected. It's actually a cave temple, or better two. It's one of the main attractions near Luang Prabang and highly promoted by all the tuk-tuk drivers in town. When coming down on the slowboat from Chiang Khong/Huayxai one is passing by the caves and can have a glance on them from outside.

There are waterfalls outside town, some villages where traditional silk weaving is still done with wooden looms, there are hiking possibilities and elephant riding places, and, last but not least, the tomb of the French explorer Henri Mouhot is placed 10km east of town. Mouhot died in 1861 near Luang Prabang due to malaria. His grave was lost and rediscovered in 1990.

If you go up early in the morning you can watch long lines of monks collecting alms in the streets. The place is kind of famous for it, although it happens everywhere in Laos and also Thailand.

You can listen to two pieces of chantings held in two different temples in Luang Prabang and a classical piece of music played in the theatre of the Royal Palace in the Laos' Culture chapter.


Another Touristic Place

Arriving in Luang Prabang in March 2013 again, makes a big difference to the two arrivals in 2011, the arrivals in 2010, in 2009, 2006... Luang Prabang is in a dynamic change, as Southeast Asia in general. Within a few month many things change. That means above all: the number of arrivals and the prices.

Luang Prabang Sights by Asienreisender

A typical 'Welcome to Luang Prabang' painting in a restaurant at the banks of Nam Khan. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

Checking the old, known guesthouses means finding out that the prices just doubled.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage, so the most tourists are prepared to pay a certain price. They might come in a package tour and don't see anyway what the details of the journey costs them.

Despite to all liberal theories from Adam Smith down to Friedrich Wilhelm Hayek and Milton Freedman on free competition on free, self-regulating markets via the 'invisible hand' the competition is quite limited. The local guesthouses and hotels are mostly family business. The families know each other partially since generations. They don't compete against each other. They help each other. They talk about their experiences with the tourists and when one guesthouse get's a lot of money out of some, the others cheer to the experience and follow the example. They make up price agreements of minimal prices they would charge, and they will deny a guest for a proper price even when they know they will get no other one this day and tomorrow. That's a similar thing with the 'tuk-tuk' drivers, by the way.

So, Luang Prabang get's more and more expensive. Laos receives masses of more tourists every year, the numbers of arrivals are galloping. Most of the new guests are Chinese, followed by Koreans. They use to carry big wallets with them.


Air Pollution

Being in the north of Laos in the time from mid February to the start of the rainy season means suffering heavy air pollution. Particularly from March on the smog is so dense, that the sight is partially not clear of a distance of a few meters already. Landscapes disappear behind a wall of smoke. That's due to heavy slash and burn activities committed by the peasants all around in the area, including north Thailand, bigger parts of south China and Burma/Myanmar. The eyes might burn, the nose dries out, my lungs feel stifling as treated with glue and the general well-being is affected; the whole surroundings look pretty apocalyptic. It's most unhealthy here in these month. Even some locals confess that there is a problem, but the vast majority of the local people don't take it serious and continue burning forest, bushes, harvested rice fields and litter of all kind, including plastic. Once I saw a burning car tyre in a neighbourhood in Vang Vieng, a huge pillar of black smog rising up and creeping all around in the neigbouring gardens and houses, where the children played and people were around, where food was displayed and laundry on the clothesline.

The Mekong River in smog and air pollution at Luang Prabang by Asienreisender

The Mekong River at Luang Prabang. The other side is not clearly to see, due to heavy air pollution. Eyes and nose are burning, walking is no good thing to do. On the other side there is recently a new settlement created, including a monastery (the white building above). All the way along the Mekong River between the Golden Triangle and here I observed permanent and growing massive construction activities. The landscapes get all covered in concrete and asphalt. Image by Asienreisender, 2013

The situation is worsened due to the massive traffic increase. In Luang Prabang's protected old part of town there is too much traffic, but outside this small place traffic is meanwhile murderous. Masses of mostly brandnew motorbikes and above all big pickups like in Thailand are on the roads. The smog they emit and all the dirty dust they make up have another heavy impact on the air quality. The many bicycles who were to see here just a very few years ago are almost completely disappeared.

I personally like walking much, also over longer distances, let's say five to ten kilometers, sometimes more. That is basically very fine and healthy, but when there is no alternative than to walk along roads with heavy traffic in the dense smog it's no more healthy; besides it's very dangerous for there is nowhere a decent sidewalk and all the vehicles, small and big, pass by closely. Additionally the traffic is extremely noisy, what is another source of heavy pollution.

The verymost people in Southeast Asia have no consciousness about a healthy environment or personal health care. But ignorance is no protection from suffering and getting sick. It is in these cultures here not accepted to criticize other people for their behaviour. One can not complain to wrongdoers.

That's the situation in the 'Jewel of the Mekong' (official tourist slogan of Laos). The political culture is in a structure which does not allow learning and the society is fixed in dogma and ignorance.

By the way: Asians only walk if there is really no possibility to drive. They would never walk a step if they could avoid it. Westerners are not much better. If I remember correct, the last time I met people walking some twelve, fifteen kilometers, that was nine month ago a Czech couple in the Tengger National Park around Mount Bromo.

Asienreisender Up to the top!

Published on March 28th, 2013


Last update on May, 1st, 2013