Laos, for most outsiders looking in, is an empty page. Until recently, one of the least visited countries in South-East Asia, the least industrialised, one of the poorest, with a communist government that has kept it isolated. Having been entirely skipped over by Western chains and commercial interests, it is slowly and quietly become a sought after exotic travel destination. It is, as it has been for a very long time, a country shrouded in mystery. – Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations: Laos, 2008)
With its well-preserved French colonial villas, mountainous surrounds and stunning location on a peninsula formed by the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, you would be hard-pressed finding a town as beautiful as Luang Prabang. It appears that UNESCO tend to agree, declaring it a World Heritage site in 1995.
I am only one of many visitors to have passed through and fallen in love with this tiny place. Its verdant river banks, grand temples, bamboo bridges, saffron-clad monks and mist-cloaked mountains that surround it. Everything comes together to create an atmosphere of absolute calm and, despite the growing number of tourists, Luang Prabang maintains a traditional disposition quite unlike anywhere else. Laos is also the only place I have ventured within this subregion where I am 100% left to my own enjoyment. No one pushes to sell, no one asks for money. It is beautifully peaceful.
Having seen how quickly things can change in this part of the world, it was with great hesitation that I returned in 2014. I need not have worried: Luang Prabang stood, as it always has, defiantly unchanged. However, I was dismayed to hear there are plans to construct a high speed rail network, linking Beijing to Bangkok and passing through Luang Prabang. I hate to think what may happen once this relatively hard-to-reach destination is opened up to China, inevitably changing it forever.
As much as it pains me to give up this South-East Asian gem and actually push people to go and visit, I simply don’t want anyone to miss out on the opportunity to experience it as it currently stands.
If you are after a party scene much like that offered by the likes of Thailand, you’re probably not going to find it here. The inner town remains a spiritual centre and 11:30PM curfews are enforced (one rogue bowling alley aside…). However, you will find a wealth of wonderful bars to while away the hours. I sure did! My favourite is Utopia, hidden on the banks of the Nam Khan River. An afternoon spent reclining under the thatched riverside decking is an afternoon well spent.
Speaking of time well spent, there is a wealth of fantastic cooking schools on offer, each of which provide a great starting point to the ins-and-outs of Laotian cuisine. I particularly recommend Tamarind. The day-long course starts with a trip to the local market for provisions and continues to a beautiful lakeside pavilion for a hands-on cooking opportunity across a range of traditional Laos dishes. And of course you get to eat whatever is made afterwards!
Anyone who has spent several months bouncing around South-East Asia will relish the availability of good coffee. It is a rarity within the region that should be embraced. Perhaps this is the French influence? All I know is caffeine hits are easy to come by, as are delicious pastries. Try Le Banneton for the best croissants you will find in Laos (if that is even a thing).
If you are looking to escape the town centre for a spell, make your way to the nearby Kuang Si Falls to witness unbelievably turquoise water cascading down the heavily-forested mountainside in several tiers. There is also a bear rescue centre on site, which houses a number of Paddington look-alikes that have been rescued from poachers. The easiest way to get to the falls is by shared tuk-tuk. On my first visit, I chose to cycle – a mistake you only make once.
Back in town, take the time to wind down in one of the many day spas. My go-to is L’Hibiscus for an essential hot oil massage coupled with aromatherapy. By the end of your stay, you will be working one a day into your non-existent schedule.
I could go on – there is so much more to see and do, from the famed wats to the night markets. But doing things aside, this is such a great place to simply wander and soak up the surrounds. That is what is so special about Luang Prabang and the primary reason you need to run to the nearest plane as fast as you can. It is the beauty of being there for no particular reason other than to be there. Don’t show up to the party too late.
Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang
Sakhaline Road, Luang Prabang
Th Sakkarin, Luang Prabang