Are you looking for somewhere different for an Asian holiday? Perhaps a place that is peaceful and operates at a slower pace than the rest of the world? Look no further than Luang Prabang, the popular yet “undiscovered” destination for travellers in Laos.
Flying into Luang Prabang provides an insight into what to expect: the aircraft flies past low mountains, while the town can be seen on a small sliver of land between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s not so much low-rise as no-rise, with traditional two-storey houses dominating the landscape.
The drive from the airport to the hotel is a real surprise — sedate, with lots of consideration to other drivers and we barely exceed a top speed of 40 km/h. After the Bangkok and Saigon, a restful drive is a welcome surprise.
The beautiful setting is merely a backdrop to the town itself. While the 50,000-resident city sprawls over what was once 60 villages, the entire heart of Luang Prabang is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkable architectural, cultural, and religious heritage that has been very well preserved.
Before dawn on our first morning, we take our places on mats along Sakkaline Road, the town’s main street, near the Buddhist monastery of Vat Sensoukharam. Our hotel has provided a substantial bowl of rice to dole out to some 100 monks on their morning collection of alms. Soon, processions of monks — perhaps half a dozen from one monastery, 20 or more from another — file past and take our offerings.
This morning ritual is a unique highlight of Luang Prabang and scores of tourists are joined by many locals. I note each monk’s bowl is filled to the brim — that’s good as they rely on these donations and are not permitted to eat after noon.
While Luang Prabang has some of the atmosphere of Bali back in the ’70s, it caters very much for today’s sensibilities. So, once the monks have moved on, a visitor’s breakfast is likely to include “artisan bread made of natural yeast and unbleached flour”. And yes, there’s even kale and smashed avocado.
When choosing our accommodation, we decide to embrace the area’s heritage. The Sofitel Luang Prabang opened recently, in 2016. Originally built a century ago as the French governor’s residence, it’s a compound with buildings on all sides, surrounding expansive gardens, lawns, ponds, and a large swimming pool. The governor clearly didn’t skimp on home comforts.
The Sofitel buildings would have been new when French writer Marthe Bassene came here in 1909 and wrote, “Oh! What a delightful paradise of idleness this little country protects, by the fierce barrier of the stream, against progress and ambitions for which it has no need! Will Luang Prabang be, in our century of exact sciences, of quick profits, of victory by money, the refuge of the last dreamers, the last loved ones, the last troubadours?”
The comfort of our Sofitel suite (every room is a suite with outdoor gazebo and bath, netted bed and comfortable lounge area), the tented Governor’s Grill, and poolside lounges certainly place this as “the refuge of the last dreamers”. Most delightful, the Sofitel’s library with a large collection of books to browse or swap as you like. The pace of life here is perfectly attuned to catch up on some reading.
One of the two main excursions from town is up the Mekong to the “thousand Buddhas” of Pak Ou Caves, where there are indeed innumerable Buddha images ranging from just a few centimetres high to life-sized. The other is to Kuang Si Waterfall in the other direction, a very pretty cascade best seen after rain.
However, it’s also tempting to slow to the very relaxed local pace, and hardly move at all. There are enough shops to spend a few hours wandering, and the streetscape, temples, and the riverside buildings reward a day of photography. We explore on the hotel’s bicycles and that’s just the right pace. Again, I’m amazed that cars politely give way to bikes here — don’t try that in Kuta or Bangkok.
Just as dawn is the time of the monks, sunset is the time to walk up the steps to the summit of Mount Phousi, right in the heart of town, opposite the Royal Palace – now a museum. Unfortunately, the views are to the south and west, and the prime view would be towards the heart of town in the northwest.
The big event in town is the night market and it runs for hundreds of metres along the main road. Even if there’s nothing you need to buy (and who doesn’t need natural iPhone “speakers” made from bamboo?), it’s quite a show.
Laotian food has contributed a lot to what we think of as Thai cuisine. Larb (called “larp” here) is an obvious example. Luang Prabang has a great reputation for the quality of its cuisine and there are several restaurants that are worth seeking out. The Sofitel’s sister property in the heart of town, the 3 Nagas, offers two degustation menus that include the local sticky rice and the local speciality of crispy Mekong riverweed. The buildings (built in 1898 and 1903, respectively) are beautiful but it’s hard to look past the 1952 Citroen parked out front.
Good food and feel-good come together at the inexpensive Khaiphaen Restaurant near the Mekong. This is part of a group of restaurants across Southeast Asia where disadvantaged youths are given training in hospitality as they produce and serve your food.
Sadly, we had to cancel our booking for the very well-regarded Laotian cooking class at Tamarind Restaurant but we did manage to get there for dinner. Again, it proudly promotes Laotian cuisine in a pretty setting overlooking the Nam Khan. There are all the expected dishes but it also offers an Adventurous Lao Gourmet degustation menu that can be tailored depending how adventurous you wish to be.
For many Australians, Laos is the forgotten country of Southeast Asia. It has managed to stay in a time warp in many ways and it certainly operates at a more leisurely pace than most of Asia. Growth projections suggest that will probably change soon. To find out more about Laos generally, and Luang Prabang specifically, visit Tourism Laos.