Early Thai-Lao meuang (city-states) established themselves in the high river valleys along the Mekong River and its major tributaries, the Nam Khan, the Nam Ou and the Nam Seuang, sometime between the 8th and 13th centuries. During the ascendance of the Chenla kingdom, centred in southern Laos and northern Cambodia between the 6th and 8th centuries, Luang Prabang became known as Muang Sawa, the Lao rendering of ‘Java’. It is likely this name referred to Javanese sponsorship in Chenla. The Khmer-supported conqueror Fa Ngum consolidated the first Lao kingdom, Lan Xang Hom Khao (Million Elephants, White Parasol), here in 1353.
Four years later the name was changed to Xiang Dong Xiang Thong (City of Gold), and under Fa Ngum’s son, King Samsenthai, the kingdom flourished. In 1512 his successor, King Visoun, accepted a celebrated Buddha image – the Pha Bang – as a gift from the Khmer monarchy, and the city-state became known as Luang (Great or Royal) Phabang (Prabang). Luang Prabang remained the capital of Lan Xang until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545.
Even after the capital moved to Vientiane, Luang Prabang remained the main source of monarchical power throughout the Lan Xang period. When Lan Xang broke up following the death of King Suriya Vongsa in 1694, one of Suriya’s grandsons set up an independent kingdom in Luang Prabang, which competed with kingdoms in Vientiane and Champasak.
From then on, the Luang Prabang monarchy was so weak that it was forced to pay tribute at various times to the Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese. After a destructive attack by the Black Flag wing of the Chinese Haw in 1887, the Luang Prabang kingdom chose to accept French protection, and a French commissariat was established in the royal capital.
The French allowed Laos to retain the Luang Prabang monarchy and imported Vietnamese workers to erect the brick-and-stucco offices and villas that give the city its faded colonial atmosphere. Luang Prabang quickly became a favourite post for French colonials seeking a refuge as far away from Paris as possible – even during French Indochina’s last years, prior to WWII, a river trip from Saigon to Luang Prabang took longer than a steamship voyage from Saigon to France.
The Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia during WWII weakened France’s grip on Luang Prabang, and in 1945 Laos declared its independence from France. France, for its part, stubbornly insisted that Laos remained part of the French Union, and they did until the 1954 Vietnamese triumph over the French at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.
When the penultimate Luang Prabang king, Sisavang Vong, died in 1959, his son Crown Prince Sisavang Vatthana was scheduled to ascend the throne. According to official Pathet Lao (PL) history, the 1975 revolution prevented the prince’s actual coronation, though many Lao and foreign diplomats insist he was crowned before the PL deposed him. At any rate, after two years as ‘Supreme Adviser to the President’, King (or Crown Prince?) Sisavang Vatthana and his wife were exiled to Hua Phan Province, where they were imprisoned and died, one by one, from lack of adequate food and medical care between 1977 and 1981. The Lao PDR government has yet to issue a full report on the royal family’s whereabouts following the Revolution.
By the time Laos finally reopened to tourism in 1989, after the fall of the USSR and Soviet bloc governments, Luang Prabang had become a ghost of its former self due to collectivisation of the economy and the resulting exodus of nearly 100,000 businesspeople, aristocracy and intelligentsia. Over the next decade, however, as the Lao government legalised private enterprise, long-closed shops reopened and dilapidated villas were converted into hotels and guesthouses. Restaurants, handicraft shops and art galleries sprang up on practically every corner of the formerly comatose city.
The placing of the city on Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1995 has played a major role in preserving and enhancing historic architecture, and in raising the city’s international profile.