Luang Prabang was founded on Mount Phousi – a small rocky hill with leafy slopes – and has been a mountain kingdom for over 1000 years. Anchored at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the former royal capital is home to a spellbinding array of gilded temples, weathered French colonial shop fronts and art deco shop houses. Despite a few welcome concessions to modern life, including great food, internet cafés, electricity and the occasional car, Luang Prabang still oozes the magic of bygone days.
In the 18th century there were more than 65 wats in the city; many have been destroyed over the years but over 30 remain intact, including the former royal Wat Xieng Thong; Wat Visoun, built in 1513 and the oldest operational temple in Luang Prabang; That Pathum (Lotus Stupa), noted for its odd watermelon-like shape, and Wat Aham, formerly the seat of the Lao Supreme Patriarch. The continuing splendour and historical significance of the town led UNESCO to designate Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site in 1995 and declare it the best-preserved traditional city in Southeast Asia.
Yet for all its magnificent temples, this royal ‘city’ feels more like an easy-going provincial town: in the early evening children play in the streets, while women cook, old men lounge in wicker chairs and young boys play takraw. The town’s timelessness can be observed by simply walking the ancient cobbled paths. Popular excursions from Luang Prabang include the sacred Pak Ou caves, which are studded with Buddha images; the weaving village of Ban Phanom, and the scenic waterfalls of Tad Kuang Si.