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Royal Palace (Haw Kham)
The former Royal Palace, a mixture of French and Lao architecture, is now a museum preserving the possessions of the monarchy and has one of the most golden and glitzy interiors you're ever likely to see. Above the entrance is a three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol, the symbol of the Lao monarchy. The most impressive room is the Throne Hall, a dazzling interior of mosaics and mirrors, with displays of royal regalia including glittering swords and the former King's own elephant saddle. The museum's most prized possession, the Pha Bang, a golden image of the Buddha, is housed in a small barred room that was the King's personal shrine. It is the most sacred image in the country, believed to have been crafted in the heavens, and containing miraculous powers of protection over the country. The museum has information in Lao and English but it is worth visiting with a local guide to really bring the place to life and hear all about the myths and legends as well as the history. Shoes and bags must be left at the entrance (there are lockers) and, despite the many images which have made their way onto tourist review sites, photography is not allowed.
Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple)
The most enchanting monastery in the country, and probably its most talked-about tourist attraction, is the magnificent Golden City Temple at the tip of Laos' peninsula. The graceful, sweeping tiled roof of the main temple is its most impressive feature and the walls are decorated with stenciled gold designs depicting many different traditional tales and, at the rear, there is a splendid coloured glass mosaic illustrating the 'tree of life'. In the peaceful atmosphere of the compound garden are several shelters, housing rare Buddha images and the gilded royal funerary carriage. If you visit too many temples in Laos you may get tired of them as many of them are very similar; it is best to visit only a few and only the best and general consensus is that if you only explore one temple in Laos it should be this one. Bring a guide book or hire a local guide so that you get an idea of the significance of what you are seeing. In the evening, the light reflects beautifully off the glass and gold of the walls and the monks are called in to prayer by drums. In early 2013 some restoration work is in progress but this doesn't really hamper the experience; in fact, if you are lucky, you can watch the monks delicately restoring the art work on some of the buildings.
Plain of Jars (Phonsavan)
The mysterious Plain of Jars in the Xiang Khouang province is an unusual sight, and a must-visit tourist attraction for travellers to Luang Prabang. Hundreds of huge solid stone jars lie scattered about the landscape, some weighing up to six tonnes and measuring about 6 feet (2m) in length. They are believed to be over 2,000 years of age, although their origin and function is unknown. Numerous theories and legends have been fashioned - one such legend states that they were made to ferment rice wine to celebrate a victorious battle against a wicked chieftain in the 6th Century; while other theories claim they were used as sarcophagi, or funerary urns. They are divided into five major groups, with Thong Hai, or Site 1, the largest and most easily accessible site. The jars lie amid thousands of unexploded mines left behind by the war, and as a result only Sites 1, 2 and 3 are open to visitors; the rest are considered too dangerous, and visitors should heed warning signs and keep to well-worn paths. Many guesthouses in the town of Phonsavan offer tours to the sites. While you're in Phonsavan be sure to visit the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) to learn about the clearing of unexploded bombs in the area and throughout Laos.
Pak Ou Caves
About two hours by boat from Luang Prabang lie the Pak Ou Caves, which are only accessible from water. This attraction has visitors rather divided: some find it an intriguing place of spiritual power and others don't understand what the fuss is about. Most agree, however, that the scenic boat trip to reach the caves is fun and worthwhile. A lower and upper cave contain an impressive collection of mostly wooden Buddha statues assembled over the centuries by locals and pilgrims. Each year, hundreds of pilgrims come to these caves to add a statue to the growing collection. The assortment of Buddhas - some in hard to reach places - is very interesting and there are some quite unusual specimens on display; anyone interested in religious icons will find the place fascinating. The upper cave (Tham Theung) is reached by means of a flight of stairs and requires the use of a flashlight, while the lower cave (Tham Thing) is visible from the river. If you want to explore the more mysterious upper cave then be sure to bring your own torch, or money to buy one at the entrance. Photos are permitted and you can light candles as a tribute. The trip to the caves is often combined with visits to villages on the river banks or activities like elephant riding.
Kuang Si Falls
Frequently the top-rated attraction in Luang Prabang according to tourists, the beautiful multi-tiered Kuang Si falls are worth a trip for their refreshing beauty and serenity. Turquoise-green water tumbles over a series of limestone terraces and collects in lovely pools that are surrounded by lush greenery. Walkways lead around the base and to the summit, about 200 feet (61m) up, and there are numerous places to picnic. There are also things like rope swings, branches and rocks to jump off and the swimming is glorious so be sure to bring your swimwear. It is best to get to the falls as early as possible before the crowds arrive to really appreciate the natural splendour and get good photographs. The falls are about 18 miles (29km) south of Luang Prabang. Located right opposite the Kuang Si Falls is the Bear Rescue Centre, which is a worthwhile attraction and a good excursion to combine with the trek to the falls. The centre houses endangered Asiatic Black Bears rescued from poachers. Asiatic Black Bears are affectionately known as 'Moon Bears' because of the yellow crescent markings on their chests and they are very entertaining animals. The centre does important work and is a must-see for animal lovers.
Phou Si is a hill near the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers, filled with temples. It is visible all over town and as such acts as a navigation landmark for visitors. The views of Luang Prabhang from the top of the hill are worth the steep walk of 355 individual steps. The lower slopes of the hill are dotted with the city's oldest temples, but the best is the golden of That Chomsi at the top, built in 1804. Visit this wonderful attraction in the early morning, when it is cool and the temples are at their most active, or in the evening for the epic sunsets. Note, however, that sunset is the most popular time to climb the hill and during the peak tourism season it gets very crowded. If you want to experience the beauty and serenity of the place without the crowds the early morning is a better option. The climb is a bit easier from the back of the hill, where a trail winds gradually upwards and you only have to climb about a hundred steps. Some of the most interesting Buddha statues can be found via this back entrance. It's ideal to climb up one way and down the other so that you see all the views and sights. There is a night market in the road in front of the Old Palace, at the foot of Phou Si, which is worth strolling around if you are there in the evening.