Located on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers in the north of Laos, Luang Prabang is the nation's oldest continually occupied city. Its present population is about 20,000.
Luang Prabang's recorded history begins in the fourteenth century, when it became the original capital of Lan Xang (Kingdom of a Thousand Elephants). Founded by Fa Ngum (1316-1374), Lan Xang was the first unified Lao kingdom. Fa Ngum sought to unify the diverse ethnic groups who populated the kingdom by promoting Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia. In 1358, he asked the Khmer king to send a Buddhist mission consisting of elders, scholars, and artisans to the city, then known as Muang Sua. They brought with them the sacred Pra Bang image of the Buddha, which remains the city's palladium, as well as a symbol of the authority of the Buddhist Sangha.
In 1563, in response to threats from Burma, Settathirath I (r. 1548-71) moved the capital from Muang Sua to Vientiane and renamed it Luang Prabang (Royal City of the Pra Bang) in the Pra Bang's honor. After the transfer, Luang Prabang's political importance receded. In the late seventeenth century, the kingdom's end approached. In 1707, the northern provinces became the separate kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. In 1713, the southern provinces became the Champassak kingdom.
After Lan Xang's demise, Luang Prabang sought to maintain its independence in response to threats from Siam and Burma. Taking advantage of the division of the Lao kingdoms, Burma attacked Luang Prabang in 1753 and 1771. In 1778, Siam declared it a dependency. After subduing Vientiane in 1828, Siam began to exert greater influence over Luang Prabang, which ceremoniously reaffirmed its allegiance in 1836. During this period, the city also suffered from frequent disastrous fires that destroyed much of its architectural heritage.
In the late nineteenth century, France began to extend its imperial ambitions in Indochina to the Lao territories. Siam signed a treaty with France in 1893 in which it reluctantly renounced sovereignty over all Lao territories east of the Mekong. This treaty opened the way for France to establish a protectorate over Luang Prabang, direct colonial administration over central and southern Laos east of the Mekong, and control of the Mekong itself. In 1904 and 1907, further agreements effected the transfer of two Lao provinces west of the Mekong. France now controlled about half the territories of the former Lan Xang.
Throughout the period of French control, the Lao territories remained France's least important possessions in Indochina. When France selected Vientiane as the seat of colonial administration, Vientiane usurped Luang Prabang's status as the Lao territories' center of political power. The Luang Prabang king increasingly became a figurehead who executed his duties in parallel with the French administrators.
Following the Geneva Conference of 1954, France withdrew from Indochina. A constitutional monarchy that restored Buddhism to the position of official state religion, which inspired a Buddhist revival, was established. In the 1950s and 1960s, a period of political instability, rightists, neutralists, and communists struggled for control of the government.
In the 1960s, the Vietnam War escalated, and the United States bombed eastern Laos. Luang Prabang, however, was spared from destruction. In 1975, Sisavong Vatthana (r. 1959-75), the last king, abdicated, and the Lao PDR, to be governed by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, was established.
The Lao PDR has attempted to establish socialism "with Lao characteristics." The king's removal was accompanied by Buddhism's rejection as the official state religion. But in the 1990s, the state turned to Buddhism in a search for a reformulated Lao nationalism and promoted the Sangha as the national culture's caretakers. The nomination of Luang Prabang as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a status it achieved in 1995, exemplified this tendency.
Luang Prabang Architecture
The following text is reprinted from Tourism and Heritage Site Management in the World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (Bangkok: Office of the Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO Bangkok and School of Travel Industry Management, University of Hawa'i, 2004), pp. 27-28.
The early dwellings in the Luang Prabang area, similar to vernacular houses throughout Lane Xang and neighbouring kingdoms, were built from wood and bamboo, and raised on piles. A lightweight framework of wood or bamboo was constructed, with panels of woven bamboo strips used for infill. Thatched roofing provided protection against the elements and could be easily replaced as necessary. Later, a plaster finish made from lime, straw, sand, palm sugar and boiled buffalo skin was introduced by the Tai Dum, a Tai-speaking group whose homeland is in northern Viet Nam. These construction techniques and materials are still predominant in the villages surrounding Luang Prabang and in some areas of the town itself.
The construction technique of vernacular dwellings is consistent throughout different levels of society. Higher status is revealed only through location, larger size and better quality of construction materials. As such, a village chief's house was, traditionally, stylistically identical to the house of an ordinary resident.
New secular building styles were introduced between 1893 and 1907 as the French gradually assumed administrative control of Laos. In constructing administrative buildings and houses the French introduced European construction techniques and materials. For instance, the restriction on the use of bricks, which were previously used only for temples, was lifted. The French, however, did not merely transplant European styles into Luang Prabang. Instead, they employed styles developed in Viet Nam and produced designs inspired by vernacular temple architecture and secular wooden structures that were better suited to the warm and humid Laotian climate.
As a result, a new Laotian architectural style emerged, based on indigenous domestic architecture but freely incorporating French and Vietnamese design elements along with European and Chinese technical innovations. The Laotian royalty and aristocracy, who had previously lived in wooden houses, had their new masonry residences constructed in this style. The former Royal Palace, which today houses the Luang Prabang National Museum, was built between 1904 and 1909 and serves as a fine example of the French-inspired architecture that was popular at that time.
The French introduced some elements of Chinese architecture and urbanism indirectly. To execute French public works, skilled Vietnamese labourers were imported. These labourers settled near the foot of the peninsula and built their own commercial quarters which were brick, Chinese-style shop houses in rows that faced directly onto the street, with living accommodations on the upper floors. All of these architectural styles can still be seen today in Luang Prabang.