Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.
The town is situated on a peninsula formed by the Mekong River and its tributaries in a clay basin surrounded by limestone hills that dominate the landscape. According to legend, the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city. Another legend attributes the choice of the site to two hermits, attracted by its natural beauty, who gave it the name of Xieng Dong (or perhaps Xieng Thong).
It was known under this name at the end of the 13th century AD. A few decades later it became the capital of the powerful kingdom of Lan Xang, whose wealth and influence can be attributed to the location of its capital at a crossroads on the Silk Route, as well as the centre of Buddhism in the region. It remained the capital until 1560, when this title passed to Vientiane. It was at this time that it received a new name, Luang Prabang, the name of the famous Buddha image brought earlier from Cambodia. The towns in Laos conformed with the European urban of defended royal administrative complexes with adjacent temples and monasteries. Around them clustered a number of distinct village communities, supplying their needs but not integrated into a single administrative entity. The villages acted as commercial centres, not the town as such, which did not have the large mercantile communities to be found at the time in Thailand or Cambodia.
On the death of King Sourigna Vongsa at the end of the 17th century a serious political crisis ensued. The Lan Xang kingdom was divided first into two independent realms, those of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and then into three, with the creation of the kingdom of Champasak. Luang Prabang retained its role as the royal capital until 1946, when Vientiane took over as administrative centre.
The political and religious centre of the town is the peninsula, with its royal and noble residences and religious foundations. This is defined by a defensive wall built from one river bank to the other, sealing off the peninsula at its base. The majority of the buildings are, following traditions, built from wood (part of the temples are in stone). The colonial element of the town is characterized by one- or two-storey terraced houses built from brick: they often have balconies and other decorative features in wood.
The commercial buildings are grouped along the Mekong, interspersed with private houses. The temples and royal residences line one side of Avenue Pavie, which runs the length of the peninsula, the other side being occupied by traditional and colonial houses. The administrative buildings are for the most part at the crossroads with Rue Gernier. The monasteries generally consist of: the cult buildings (shrine, chapel, library, stupa, stone post), ancillary buildings and buildings for inhabitants or visitors (monastic communal buildings, cells, refectory, etc.). Most are simple shrines with three aisles and a single porch. Their interior furnishings comprise a pedestal or throne for the main Buddha image, a pulpit, a terrace and a lamp. Most are elaborately decorated with carved motifs but the wall paintings are relatively simple. The Luang Prabang chapels are simple structures for housing images; they may be open or walled.
The traditional Lao wooden houses are basically divided into spaces: the private rooms and the public terraces. They are usually raised on wooden piles, giving a space beneath for working and for shelter for both men and animals. Walling may be of planks or plaited bamboo on a wooden frame. A developed form of this house makes use of brick, following the French introduction of this material, but conserving the general layout and appearance of the traditional house. Finally there are the administrative buildings, which more or less successfully blend traditional elements with European materials, techniques and uses.