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Languid and lovely Luang Prabang is one of the most alluring places in Southeast Asia. Nowhere else can lay claim to the city's old-world romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine. It's a unique place where time seems to stand still amid the breakneck pace of the surrounding region.
This Unesco-protected gem, which sits at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), has rightfully gained mythical status as a travellers' Shangri La, and since its airport opened a decade ago the town has seen a flood of investment, with once-leprous French villas being revived as fabulous – though affordable – boutique hotels.
Beyond the evident history and heritage of the old town are aquamarine waterfalls, top trekking opportunities, meandering mountain bike trails, elephant camps, kayaking trips, river cruises and outstanding natural beauty, the whole ensemble encircled by hazy green mountains.
Sights in Luang Prabang
Dominating the old city centre and a favourite with sunset junkies, the abrupt 100m-tall hill of Phu Si is crowned by a 24m gilded stupa called That Chomsi . Viewed from a distance, especially when floodlit at night, the structure seems to float in the hazy air. From the summit, however, the main attraction is the series of city views. Beside a flagpole on the same summit there's a small remnant anti-aircraft cannon left from the war years.
Ascending Phu Si from the north side (329 steps), stop at the decaying Wat Pa Huak , one of the few city temples not to have been colourfully (over) renovated. It has a splendid carved wood Buddha riding Airavata, the three-headed elephant from Hindu mythology that featured on Laos' national flag until 1975. The gilded and carved front doors are often locked, but during the day there's usually an attendant nearby who will open the doors for a tip of a few thousand kip. Inside, the original 19th-century murals have excellent colour, considering the lack of any restoration. The murals show historic scenes along the Mekong River, including visits by Chinese diplomats and warriors arriving by river and horse caravans. Three large seated Buddhas and several smaller standing and seated images date from the same time as the murals or possibly earlier
Reaching That Chomsi is also possible from the south and east sides. Two such paths climb through large Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam to a curious miniature shrine that protects a Buddha Footprint . If this really is his rocky imprint, then the Buddha must have been the size of a brontosaurus. Directly southwest of here a series of new gilded Buddhas are nestled into rocky clefts and niches around Wat Thammothayalan . The monastery is free to visit if you don't climb beyond to That Chomsi.
Royal Palace Museum
Evoking traditional Lao and French beaux-arts styles, the former Royal Palace was built in 1904 and was home to King Sisavang Vong (r 1905–59), whose statue stands outside. Within are tasteful, decidedly sober residential quarters, with some rooms preserved much as they were when the king was captured in 1975.
Separate outbuildings display the Floating Buddha collection of meditation photographs and the five-piece Royal Palace Car Collection .
No single treasure in Laos is more historically resonant than the Pha Bang , an 83cm-tall gold-alloy buddha. To find it, walk east along the palace's exterior south terrace and peep in between the bars at the eastern end. In the southeast corner of the palace gardens, Wat Ho Pha Bang was built to house the Pha Bang buddha.
Footwear cannot be worn inside the museum, no photography is permitted and you must leave bags in a locker room to the left-hand side of the main entrance.
Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang's best-known monastery is centred on a 1560 sǐm . Its roofs sweep low to the ground and there's a stunning 'tree of life' mosaic set on its west exterior wall. Close by are several stupas and three compact little chapel halls called hŏr . Hŏr Ɖąi , shaped like a tall tomb, now houses a standing buddha. The Hŏr Ɖąi Pha Sai-nyàat , dubbed La Chapelle Rouge – Red Chapel – by the French, contains a rare reclining Buddha.
Fronted in lavish gilt work, the Hóhng Kép Mîen stores a ceremonial carriage, festooned with red-tongued naga (river snakes) designed to carry the golden funeral urns of the Lao royalty.
Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham
Beside the palace, Wat Mai is one of the city's most sumptuous monasteries. Its wooden sǐm (ordination hall) has a five-tiered roof in archetypal Luang Prabang style, while the unusually roofed front verandah features detailed golden reliefs depicting scenes from village life, the Ramayana and Buddha's penultimate birth.
When built in 1821 to replace a 1796 original, this was the mai (new) monastery. The name has stuck. It was spared destruction in 1887 by the Haw gangs who reportedly found it too beautiful to harm. Since 1894 it has been home to the Sangharat, the head of Lao Buddhism.