Luang Prabang (LP) is located on the east bank of the Mekong River, about 500 km/300 miles upriver from Vientiane and 200 m/600 feet above sea level. It is the oldest Laotian town still in existence. This is the capital of Luang Prabang Province, as well as being the ancient capital city of the Lan Xang Kingdom.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos for about 200 years, beginning with the rule of Fa Ngoum (or Ngum), the king of Lan Xang (Kingdom of a million elephants…which by the way, have long since disappeared, as visitors will quickly see). When Fa Ngoum chose this area as his capital around 1354, it had already been the capital of local rulers for at least the previous 600 years.
According to legend, the town was first named Muang Swa (Sua), after King Khun Xua around the eighth century and was later known as Xieng Dong and Xieng Thong. During the reign of King Fa Ngum between 1354 and 1372 the town was renamed Luang Prabang after the golden image of Buddha, the Phrabang.
Luang Prabang was an important religious and cultural center. During its original heyday Buddhism became the main religion. There used to be as many as 65 or 70 wats in LP but now there are only about 30 left – quite a few, considering the “city” has only about 10,000 residents. Luang Prabang was a great prize, fought over repeatedly. As a result, virtually every wooden building has been destroyed, but the wats remain.
Luang Prabang remained the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom until 1545 when King Photisarat moved it to Wieng Chan, now called Vientiane, and the importance of LP as an administrative center diminished greatly over the next 300 or so years. Nonetheless, LP remained the seat of the royal family until the communists took over in 1975, when the monarchy was finally dissolved.
Luang Prabang was a major trade center with people from upper Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, southern China and Burma but there was little contact with non-Asian countries until the French arrived in the mid-19th century. The French had primary control over Laos from about 1886 until the 1950s, although they continued to have some influence until the monarchy fell. The end result is remnants of French influence – in the coffee, bread, and pastries, at least.
Today Luang Prabang is both a port on the Mekong River and a trade center for agricultural products and handicrafts of silk, wood, and silver. It is also developing as a massage/spa center. The entire village is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1995). The city is almost overrun with beautiful temples and historical monuments, and is well worth several days of your time. It’s also a good place to arrange tours in other cities or to the hill tribe areas, arrange flights, and plan onward itineraries if this is close to your last stop in Laos.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
There are literally dozens of reasonably-priced bed and breakfast accommodations within walking distance of Mount Phousi and the sights in LP.
In addition, there are hotels of all sizes and standards, although none come close to four-star.
Where to Eat
The River Road and Phothisarat are lined with dozens of restaurants, and the quality varies greatly. You can get a beer, a baguette sandwich, pizza, a few Lao specialties, French dishes, or any number ofSoutheast Asian options at most places.
In addition, there are wonderful seafood offerings in the River Road places. I have never had a bad meal in Luang Prabang. For quality Lao/French foods, your best choices are the better hotels or the places along the main street.
Getting Around Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang is made for walking and biking. It is a compact town with a few hills and almost all the local attractions are within a few km of the center of town.
Bicycle: You can rent bikes at almost any guesthouse, travel operation, or independent rental shop in LP. Expect to pay $3-$5 per day, depending on the quality of the bike. High-end hotels will likely charge more, but the equipment may not be any better.
Motorbikes: There are places up and down the main street that rent scooters.
Tuk-Tuks: These are everywhere. You can hire one for a short ride or for the day to go to outlying temples. Prices are fluid, so bargaining is required.
Boats: If you go down to the river behind the Royal Palace/ Museum you will find several places that hire boats for short trips or longer ones to the Pak Ou Caves and local villages. A boat for several hours will cost about $15-$20.
Van/Mini-Bus: This is the means the travel/tour operators generally use. As long as you don’t mind organized tours and are in a small group, this can be the best way to see the local sites.
Getting to Luang Prabang
What to do & see in Luang Prabang
Day trips from Luang Prabang
Adventures in Northern Laos
Adventures in Northern Laos (part 2)
Laos travel guide homepage
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