The Royal Palace Museum, also known as Haw Kham or the “golden hall” is located pretty much in the center of town and a good starting point for your exploration of old Luang Prabang. Built by King Sisavang Vong as his official residence between 1904 and 1909, after the previous palace was destroyed in 1887 by invaders, the Royal Palace is an aesthetic fusion of Lao and French styles.
You don’t have to be an architecture aficionado to appreciate the beauty and the layout of this building (a cruciform on a multi-tiered platform)—its aestheticism is in the blend of traditional Lao motifs and French beaux-arts styles. As you walk up the Italian marble steps look above at the entrance (if you haven’t done so already) to get a glimpse of a three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol, the symbol of the Lao monarchy.
Upon entering the palace (after having first paid the entrance fee, taken off your shoes, and stowed your bags and cameras in lockers in a small room on the left side of the building) the first room you are in is a large entry hall that has a number of royal religious objects. From there visitors are directed to the king’s reception room which among other artifacts on display includes Gauguinesque paintings depicting what appears to be daily life in Old Luang Prabang.
After leaving the king’s reception room you enter the Throne Room noted for its high walls spangled with intricate multi-colored mosaics (it’s too bad photography is not allowed inside because these mosaics which were created in the 1950’s to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s passing into nirvana are quite awesome).
In contrast, as you move to the rear of the palace, the banquet hall and Royal bedrooms are simply decorated in white with teak wood furnishings.
In addition to a collection of rare Buddha images made from crystal and gold in glass cases, there are plenty of royal treasures to admire. The collection of royal regalia includes swords with hilts and scabbards of hammered silver and gold as well as the king’s own elephant saddle.
The most important item at the Royal Palace Museum is the Pha Bang Buddha image. This is the Buddha statue that gave its name to Luang Prabang. This statue is only 83 cm high, but is made from almost pure gold weighing between 43 to 54 kg of gold. According to legend, the statue was made in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD, and was presented to the Khmers of Angkor. The King of Angkor, Jayavarman Paramesvara, gave it to his son-in-law, the great warrior Chao Fa Ngum, who founded the first Laotian Kingdom of Lan Xang. The Pha Bang Buddha was housed at Wat Wisunalat between 1513 to 1707, when King Phothisalat moved the capital to Vientiane.
On your way out of the museum you pass through a reception room that contains gifts from nations including—perhaps one of the more interesting gifts presented by then U.S. President Richard Nixon—some pieces of moon rocks from the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Also worth noting the gifts from grouped by “socialist” and “capitalist” countries.
Before leaving the Royal Palace Museum most everyone stops at Haw Pha Bang, the Royal Palace Chapel that is supposed to house the Pha Bang Buddha one day. Construction of this chapel had started in 1963, but due to numerous upheavals, it was just completed two years ago in 2006.
It features a spectacular red and gold-mirrored interior; with some Khmer influence in the windows, doors and figures. The focal point is an immense altar with gilded eagles and a pair of Nagas facing the door. The wood doors were pivoted at two points top and bottom with the central panel bearing a close similarity to the ones seen in stone on many of the temples in Cambodia.
Despite the chapel’s modern appearance it reflects the Khmer influence in Laos’s art and architecture (Laos was part of The Khmer Empire from the 10th to 14th centuries).