UNESCO's Lifeline for Laos

As Luang Prabang, Laos' former royal capital of South East Asia becomes the latest addition to UNESCO world heritage sites, Cherry Barnett explores its significance.

A welcome blow for conservation has just been struck in South East Asia as Luang Prabang, Laos' former royal capital, becomes the latest addition to UNESCO's list of protected World Heritage Sites.

This means, amongst other things, that a total of thirty-four Wats (monasteries), and 111 civil buildings have been listed for preservation. In Luang Prabang these ancient Wats, dating back to the sixteenth century, exist alongside aristocratic buildings and more modest dwellings. Many are in the older part of the city, which occupies a peninsula dominated by Phousi Hill and runs parallel to the Mekong River – still the main transportation artery in this mountainous and landlocked country.

Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, and the administrative buildings of that era form an axis perpendicular to the Mekong and south-east of Phousi Hill. The French influence on local buildings is reflected in the sometimes unharmonious hybrid of architectural styles that characterise some buildings. But, more than this, it was another 'modernising' influence that gave a sense of urgency to the general concern for the city's future that had grown up in recent years.

An early 1990s plan for a road from the modern capital, Vientiane, to the Chinese border would have passed right through Luang Prabang's old town. Although an alternative ring-road plan was later adopted, the prospect of what could have happened had the plan gone ahead led to moves to ensure the city's preservation.

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