Think of an untouched, untapped, mystical place hidden up amidst the clouds and you would think of…Tibet? Yeah, sorry, meant to be Laos, but that is the beauty of this place: it is under the radar for quite a number of people, it feels untouched, but for the most determined. Well, at least for now.
By The River Bend
The approach in to Luang Prabang, especially if you take morning flights, is truly magical. Low clouds hug the highlands, an endless expanse of green amidst the meandering Mekong River, the quaint, semi-rural life of a country idyll. There, amidst the rolling green, you spot the city, at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River, a glittering jewel with the gold-plated stupas.
As it is in the Laotian Highlands, the weather is pretty mild by Southeast Asian standards, which makes cycling around the town and countryside quite pleasant. While the southern end of the Luang Prabang peninsula has a small village feel, with an iron bridge or a bamboo bridge being the main crossings in this quiet part of town, the northern side of the peninsula is where most of the stunning architectural gems and cultural icons are at.
A Secluded Retreat
Luang Prabang is one of those destinations where you can easily relax and chill by the river, doing absolutely nothing. At the northern tip of the peninsula, there is a stunning river terrace and bar, the appropriately named ‘View Point Café,’ when you can enjoy a few drinks and a meal, watching daily life unfurl and indifferent to you being there.
Proceeding along the northern embankment, you start to see a change from the quaint, calmness emanating from the UNESCO offices and numerous monasteries, to the smart French-inspired boutique hotels and attached river terraces (The Belle Rive is my personal favourite) to the main commercial areas where the markets and larger hotels are.
One physical marker for the city which you can easily identify, and also an ideal spot to hide away from it all (if you are there early enough), is Pousi Hill. The entire hill is a religious site, with numerous shrines, wats, monasteries and monk’s cells dotting the green hill. Up at the top, after climbing up windings steps, the quaint town and its environs as far as the eye can see will capture you, giving you the urgency to both explore this relatively uncommercialized city, but also to do absolutely nothing.
Culturally, there is quite a lot to do. Apart from the daily morning alms ceremony (avoid the main street, follow a cat and you will find a quieter, less touristy spot to observe the ceremony, and always remember: you are a guest, do not jostle for a camera spot), the Ock Pop Tock, home to the Village Weaver Project is one of my favourite sites, and a good Community Enterprise effort to help local communities market their traditional weaving and skills to the world, and create high value products. There are 2 galleries in town, with a quaint workshop and ‘destination centre’ at the outskirts, where you can watch and commission in-situ weavers to make a beautiful work of art for you, or learn how these things are made and try it for yourself.
The beauty of Luang Prabang is both in her cultural, historical, architectural and definitely natural assets. While the town itself is stunning, a quick one hour ride away in the countryside will bring you to stunning parks, waterfalls and hikes, that whisk you away to a different world.
If you are pressed for time, then a half day kayaking trip will easily bring you to the sights and sounds of Laos. The kayaking trip I took brought me through dirt roads, winding terrain, quaint villages and stunning cliffs: and this was just the ride to the start point.
The kayaking trip will bring you along the Mekong River, and would include a hike through quaint, Laotian tribal villages, rural roads and sub-tropical jungle. We meandered along the Mekong, stopping at two stunning waterfalls, one a major tourist site, another a back door to a less commercial but more beautiful site, the Tat Sae. I would happily do it again, if only to test my waterproof casing.
Wining and Dining
Being a former French colony, the culinary traditions of France permeate through Indochina, and especially this quaint spot. While I have had some of the best French delicacies outside France in Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, Luang Prabang is in a class of her own: from fresh pastries to fancy baguettes to coq au vin, for a town the size of Luang Prabang, she puts larger cosmopolitan metropolises in Asia to shame with her sheer quality.
L’Elephant, located in a quiet corner near the Mekong in the upper city, away from the main market and commercial area, looks more at home in the 17th arrondissement than the Laotian highlands. The price they charge is well worth the quality of the dishes they serve, and the contingent of French, both tourists and expats, dining regardless of the time of day or hour, says something, especially when I found this place by accident.
A quaint little patisserie, Le Banneton, along the eastern end of Sakkaline St, in front of a few monasteries, is an ideal spot for a snack, breakfast, or just to be chic with a pain au chocolate paired with a thé. Pricing is reasonable, atmosphere is divine, and when the weather is cool enough, you would think you were in a small village in Provence that just happens to have a Buddhist monastery next door.
Otherwise, the night markets that lead from the old city to the new-ish city, at the main street in between Pousi Hill and the Royal Palace, has a wide array of random knick nacks and snacks, though a particular café at the western end, near the Azeraai Hotel smells and tastes divine. Yes, Luang Prabang is a pastry heaven.
Speaking of the Azeraai, legendary hotelier Adrian Zecker opened his new venture, Azeraai Hotels, with his first property in Luang Prabang. By sheer chance, or might I say luck, I was there as they were setting up for their big launch, and I must say, he delivers, with his target market of Gen Y-Millenials and the private-yacht cabin inside the rooms.
Of course, just down the road, Adrian Zecker’s other project, the Amantaka, is simply divine. Heavenly. Perfect. The rooms are well-appointed, the public spaces elegant, the surroundings private. Best of all, both are within yet set apart from the main town.
For something a bit more touristy but equally stunning, the Mekong River Cruises are worth the hassle and perception of being a ‘tourist trap.’ The river cruises are perfect for an early evening cruise along the Mekong, as communities wind down for the day, and the sun sets behind the hills, giving Luang Prabang a truly heavenly, mystical feel.
As you cruise down the river, you will get a 5 course dinner, a drinkable wine selection and a show, but it is the view of the Mekong River and Luang Prabang from the boat, as you cruise down with traditional Laotian music in the background providing a soundtrack for the evening.
A neat secret?
Laos and Luang Prabang have been on the backpacker route for years, and has been under the radar for quite a long while, at least until recently when more international flights connect this beautiful gem to major Southeast Asian hubs.
You would assume this is a cheap place, but unless you go local all the way, the guest houses, bed and breakfasts and hotels are priced higher than other regional destinations. Cheap food? Sure, if you go local, but even then, it is not as cheap as you would expect when compared to other locations, but is it value for your buck? Oh yes.
Flights: international connections via Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Siem Reap and Bangkok, from full service (Vietnam Airlines, SilkAir, Bangkok Airways) to budget (AirAsia)
Out and About: Rent a bicycle or walk: the inner town is easily navigable. For ventures further afield, it is best to rent a van.
Stay: La Belle Rive is a quaint boutique hotel, very nice. The Azeraai Luang Prabang is sufficiently hip, while the Amantaka is the pinnace of escapism.
Best time: Late autumn to winter, around late November to early January. The weather is particularly conducive and agreeable to walk around, explore and escape from the humidity of the major sites of Southeast Asia.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.