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Luang Prabang

Houses
Photo: Houses along the street of Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang, by the banks of the Mekong, some 500 kilometres upriver from Vientiane and 300 metres above sea level, is Laos' oldest town still in existence. For the most part of her history the town was the seat of kings. In 1563 King Setthathirat moved his government to Vientiane; but by then, Luang Prabang had already been capital for some 800 years.

True, the kingdoms ruled from Luang Prabang had not been large for the first 600 years of her history. Only Prince Fa Ngoum made Luang Prabang the capital of a kingdom of significant size.

The small town (about 20,000 inhabitants today) is beautifully located at the foot of a high, rocky mountain - Mount Phousi - by the banks of the Mekong river, and the town has a romantic atmosphere even though most buildings are not very old (despite the town's history of many centuries). The reason: surrounded by almost infinite forests the town's inhabitants always used as building material what they had, in abundance, at their disposal: wood.

In the course of its long history the town had often been conquered and burnt down. The last time this happened in the 80's of the 19th century at the hands of the Chinese. The town had also been a frequent target of hostile visits by Thais and Vietnamese.

After invasions, many destroyed structures were rebuilt, some of them again and again, roughly the same as they have existed before an invasion. Though physically no longer present, architecture dating back many centuries shapes the town and contributes to Luang Prabang's unquestioned charm. To this, the numerous Wats in and around the town provide a spiritual component.

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Laos / Attractions in Luang Prabang / The National Museum

Museum
Photo: The National Museum

Until the communist takeover in 1975 this building directly opposite the town rock was the king's palace. The building itself is not very old. Its construction, consuming 20 years, was begun only in 1904. But it contains spectacular objects of art. However, the museum's most important piece of art can only be admired as a copy: a small Buddha statue by the name Pra Bang. The name of the town derives from the name of that statue: Luang stands short for Nakhon Luang = capital, Pra = holy. Luang Prabang may well be translated as Capital of Holy Bang.

The original statue is from 80 % gold. It is 83 centimetres high and weighs 50 kilograms. Allegedly, it was made in Ceylon in the first century of Christian reckoning. In the 11th century it was kept in Angkor until it was brought to Luang Prabang by the Laotian King Fa Ngoum, after he had married a Khmer princess. When King Setthathirat made Vientiane the capital of Laos, he took the statue there. In 1779 it was robbed by the Siamese, but was returned in 1839. The statue is the most important holy object of Laotian Buddhism.

For security reasons the original statue is said to be kept in a bank safe.