When talking of Luang Prabang it is hard not to employ superlatives, and pretty much everyone who has spent time in the town does. It is a place where history, atmosphere, and terrain combine to create something of astonishing beauty. Set in the northern mountains where the Nam Khan tributary joins the Mekong, the surrounding hills are rugged, jungle clad, and spectacular. The town itself is a magical mixture of some of the most ancient and exquisite Buddhist temples in the region combined with the sort of intimate French colonial architecture that often makes towns in Indochina so atmospheric.
Start your day at dawn, when the temple drums break the early morning silence and saffron-clad monks walk the misty streets to receive rice from the townspeople for their daily meal. Buddhists believe that by giving rice in this life ("making merit"), they are ensuring that they will not go hungry in their next life. Tourists can also participate in this ancient tradition, but should understand that although it has become an attraction of sorts, it is still a sacred ritual.
The rest of the day can be spent seeing the sights or relaxing and soaking in the atmosphere. The town itself is the main attraction, though, and the timeworn streets will undoubtedly reveal hidden gems and memorable encounters, whether it's a store selling the perfect antique or a temple housing monks anxious to practice their English. Add into this mix of perfect architectural yin and yang the fact that the streets are not crowded with traffic (buses and lorries are not allowed) so noise levels are low and stress levels even lower. Even with all the development of facilities purely designed for tourism, the soul of Luang Prabang is intact and the feel of the city has remained unaltered over the last 15 years. The massive increase in restaurants and the introduction of a Thailand-style night market are part of inevitable changes as the city becomes ever more established on the Indochina tourist circuit. Unlike Siem Reap in Cambodia, Luang Prabang accommodates the changes without some of the circus like aspects that have become part and parcel of a visit to Angkor. In Luang Prabang the views remain the same and they are absolutely superb.
For centuries before Luang Prabang was founded, several Thai-Lao principalities flourished in the area around it, in the valleys of the Mekong. It used to be called Muang Sua before it was conquered by a Tai Prince called Khun Lo in A.D. 698. From the 11th to the 14th centuries, there was a city called Xieng Dong Xieng Thong on this site. From 1185 to 1191, Xieng Dong Xieng Thong came under the rule of the mighty Khmer god-king Jayavarman VII.
King Fa Ngum created the first truly Lao Kingdom, called Lan Xang, or Kingdom of One Million Elephants in 1353. At this time, the city was known as Xaxa. In 1357 the name was changed to Meuang Xieng Thong, or Gold City District. After that, King Fa Ngum's successor, King Visoun, received from his Khmer overlords a gift of a Sinhalese Buddha image called Pha Bang. It is from this image that the name Luang Prabang is derived.
In 1545 King Phothisarat moved the capital of the kingdom to Vientiane although Luang Prabang continued to thrive. The kingdom of Lan Xang fractured into three separate entities in 1694 on the death of the heirless King Vongsa. Luang Prabang declined under the grandson of the Vongsa. It didn't get better as time went on. Burmese, Chinese, and Vietnamese marauders imposed their will at various times. In 1887 Chinese "Haw" bandits attacked the city and the Luang Prabang administration invited the French to take the city under its colonial wing. The town developed quite fast under the French, not least because they, like tourists today, took an immediate fancy to the place. They allowed the monarchy to continue and knowingly prettified the already very beautiful city. Through the Japanese ascendancy of World War II and the wars of independence against the French, Luang Prabang was thankfully spared damage. After the 1975 Pathet Lao victory the last Luang Prabang monarch, Sisavang Vatthana, and his family were sent to a remote incarceration where they succumbed to hunger and lack of medical care.
In 1989 after the Vietnamese declared doi moi, or their own form of perestroika, Luang Prabang began to emerge from the dilapidation visited upon it by the harsh years of collectivization and a planned economy that drained the city of its entrepreneurs and educated elite. Over the next decade the city rapidly blossomed as the old French colonial buildings were restored, flourishing businesses came into being, and tourists enthusiastically flooded in to enjoy this jewel of Indochina.