Phousi (Sacred Hill) is the geographical as well as spiritual centre of the city. Believed to have once harboured a powerful naga who dwelt in its bowels, the hill is also seen as a miniature Mount Meru, the Mount Olympus of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Though there is nothing to see on the hill itself, save for an ancient-looking sim at its foot, Phousi is striking from a distance. Indeed, the golden spires of That Chomsi at its summit are the first glimpse of the city that visitors get if they are arriving by boat or plane.
Likewise, the peak affords a stunning panorama of the city it crowns, and the shimmering rivers and jungle-clad mountains beyond are mesmerizing. Viewing the setting sun from the summit of Phousi has become a kind of tourist ritual, so don’t expect to enjoy the moment alone – indeed, early morning is a better time to come, when the city and the hill are more peaceful. A quieter spot from which to watch the sunset is Santi Chedi on a hill due east of Phousi, which affords a marvellous view back towards Phousi, without the crowds.
There are three approaches to the summit. The first and most straightforward is via the stairway directly opposite the main gate of the Royal Palace Museum. The second approach, on the other side of the hill, is up a zigzag stairway flanked by whitewashed naga, and can be used for descending to Phousi Road. The third and most rambling approach is via Wat Pha Phoutthabat near Phousi’s northern foot (across from the Saynamkhan Riverview Hotel).
Most people choose the first ascent, which allows you to first stop at the adjacent Wat Pa Houak. This fine little temple, overlooking Sisavangvong Road and the Royal Palace Museum, has a charmingly weathered facade, but is mainly of interest of its interior murals. Though the French art historian Henri Parmentier once describing them as “ridiculous”, they are in fact fascinating, and appear to depict Luang Prabang as a celestial city. Besides Lao characters in classical costumes, there are Chinese, Persians and Europeans in the city, but it is not clear whether they have come as visitors or invaders. After soaking up the murals it’s a steep climb through a tunnel of shady plumeria trees to the peak.