Luang Prabang is a riddle that photographs can solve. It is a town popular with tourists and a World Heritage site, but it rarely feels overrun. It is like a sprawling resort in places, with a commerce given over to foreign comforts, but it is not a colony on the Banana Pancake Trail. Instead, Luang Prabang is tranquil. The Mekong and its bubbling tributary, the Nam Khan, wrap around the historic district and meet at its eastern tip, punctuating time with the river sounds of Southeast Asia – with the hum of motorboats and squeals of swimming children, with the plop of hand nets and sploosh of oars. Bamboo groves and palm trees arch over its riverbanks, and the jungle has not yet been banished by urban sprawl; it covers the town protectively, and looking down from the limestone hills that surround the town, nothing but the golden tips of Buddhist stupas remain visible above the green fecundity of trees.
Luang Prabang is a riddle because it has no single wonder to leave you awestruck, but the town pries its way into your imagination all the same. It has the elegant temples of Southeast Asia, with roofs tiered like loose skin on the arch of a dragon’s back, but in and of themselves, its temples are not especially remarkable. It has novice monks moving between the duties of a carefully structured day, in ochre and saffron robes set off by the browns of teak, brick and rust, but monks are a part of life across the region. Its architecture is a blend of indigenous and French styles, with elements borrowed from Laos’ neighbours, but its mixture of timber and brick, shuttered windows and ornamental eaves can be found throughout old Indochina. Its animals are remarkable, especially its dogs; they are left to take themselves on walks, but stay friendly, greedily chasing after a stroke. There are cats too, with broken tails, and chickens clucking and pecking in vegetable patches on the river banks. Luang Prabang is not wholly urban, nor is it rural: it is a town of distinct parts and mingled pasts that has held onto its soul, and with photographs you can frame the elements of its heritage individually and start to unravel the riddle.
A space for the town was cut out of the jungle in the seventh century, by the eldest son of mythical king Khun Boron. It was a purpose-built capital, with a palace compound, temple endowments and a layout imitating Buddhism’s divine geography. A town of tradesmen and merchants did not spring up to supply the palace court. Instead, Luang Prabang remained rural: the villages at its outskirts or nearby, nestled between its temples, specialised in pottery or weaving or iron working, but kept their shape, with narrow lanes connecting homes of timber and woven bamboo set on silts, allowing animals and people to take shelter underneath. Its position on the Mekong put it on the southern Silk Road and made the town a locus of Southeast Asian power. It was fought over by the Khmers, Thais, Mongols, Burmese, Black Flag Zhuang and French, amongst others; occasionally it was razed. In 1560, the Lao King Setthathirath moved his capital to Vientiane, to put malarial jungle between his administration and the expanding Burmese, but in 1707 the Lao kingdom fell apart. Until the French incorporated it into their Indochinese protectorate in 1890, Luang Prabang was the capital of its own small territory, and all that remained of independent Laos.
The French gave it something of the structure of a European town, as well as solid houses with construction dates embossed in Arabic numbers on their pediments. The 1920s and 30s were a busy time in Luang Prabang, if these dates are to be believed, but the on the whole, France didn’t dig itself deeply into Laos. In 1940, there were just 600 French citizens in the country, and most of them were in Vientiane. When Luang Prabang was made a World Heritage site in 1995, UNESCO’s statement confirmed how slight France’s influence had been:
The trajectory of development of Luang Prabang differs in a number of particulars from that of others in Southeast Asia. Its most important quality is the way in which it has preserved almost intact the evidence of its pre-colonial, non-European urban structure, which is masked in most of the other towns of the region.
The statement also emphasised the overlapping parts that make Luang Prabang original:
Luang Prabang is outstanding by virtue of both its rich architectural and artistic heritage and also its special urban development, first on traditional oriental lines and then in conjunction with European colonial influences. This is uniquely expressed in the overall urban fabric of the town. It may therefore be considered to be a unique combination of a diversity of communities – rural and urban, royal and religious – within a defined geographical area.
It is not just the historical interplay between these parts that gives Luang Prabang its individual magic. It is the delicate balance in which they now exist. The historic district is not an open air museum yet; it is a functioning ecosystem, but there are plans for an airstrip long enough to accommodate jumbo jets and a high-speed train line through Laos, connecting Singapore to Beijing. Chinese tourists are learning of Luang Prabang’s charms, and because it is small enough, some amuse themselves by wandering through the town centre with walkie-talkies, in radio contact with other members of their party. Like any ecosystem, Luang Prabang cannot sustain the total dominance of a single species, and in a 2007 report, UNESCO suggested that it would soon need to place the town on its World Heritage in Danger list.
Landscape: Jungle and River Junction
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Religious Architecture: Glittering Wats and Mouldering Chedis
Lanes: A Vestige of Village Life
Secular Architecture: Bamboo, Teak and Brick
A Slice of Luang Prabang Life
Luang Prabang’s Little Details
Finally, can anybody identify this?
If you enjoyed Luang Prabang: The Elements of Heritage, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.