As the centre of Lao culture, the former royal capital retains much of its grace and charm despite much restorative efforts, writes David Bowden
FOR archaeologists, historians and travellers, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Lao (Lao PDR or Laos) remains one of the region’s most intriguing destinations. Its former royal capital of Luang Prabang, located at the confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers, is the country’s most fascinating destination.
The architecture of Luang Prabang’s heritage centre is an amazing assemblage of local and French colonial styles and, fortunately, much of it has been retained. A combination of French and local cultural elements combine to ensure Luang Prabang retains its heritage while incorporating contemporary sophistication.
With its old Buddhist temples and adherence to Lao traditions, Luang Prabang developed as the centre of Lao culture. As an acknowledgement of its importance to global culture the town was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995. Many precincts in the old town have since benefited from detailed restorative efforts to maintain its historic urban landscape.
World Heritage protection has worked for and against Luang Prabang. It’s no longer a sleepy backwater visited by adventurous travellers. Yet, despite it now being a popular destination on many travellers’ tour of Indochina, the influx of tourists, the opening of dozens of restaurants, bars and smart boutique hotels, Luang Prabang still manages to retain much of its grace and charm.
One of the great attractions of the old town is that it is easy to explore on foot or by bicycle. During the cooler months (November to February) the climate is pleasant and the mornings are crisp and cool. Rise early and witness the age-old tradition of scores of Buddhist monks, resplendent in their saffron robes, collecting alms from the faithful. Climb the stairs to the top of Phousi Hill for panoramic views of golden chedis, shimmering temple roofs, the Mekong River and mountains enshrouded in mist.
The town has over 30 old temples, with the most magnificent being Wat Xieng Thong where the oldest temple structure dating back to 1560. There are numerous colourful mosaics, detailed architectural features and beautiful gold-stenciled artwork.
Many of the temples share a similarity in design with those in northern Thailand as the two regions were once part of the same kingdom. Low sweeping roof lines and intricate design set Luang Prabang temples apart from many others in the region.
Teak-hulled boats from China, Thailand and upriver Laos unload their cargo and await a fresh consignment before continuing either back upstream or further downstream along the mighty Mekong River. Known locally as the Mae Kong or “mother river” it is vital for the people living in the region.
The 4,880km-long Mekong provides access for adventurous travellers and for exploring sights such as Pak Ou Caves. Two hours upstream, these two cavernous limestone caves are located within a steep cliff face that rises above the Mekong. The craggy mountain scenery is impressive and the strenuous climb to see dozens of Buddha images enshrined here is worth the effort. Boats usually stop at the pottery village of Ban Xian Hai which is now better known for distilling rice whisky.
Sunset cruises on the Mekong are popular with Mekong Kingdoms offering one of the biggest and most stylish boats. It will soon introduce exclusive overnight journeys to Chiang Khang upriver in Thailand.
Many travellers come to Luang Prabang to simply relax and there is possibly no finer town in the whole of Southeast Asia to do this. Take time over coffee, shop in craft shops and dine on spicy Lao dishes.
Luang Prabang’s cuisine is distinctive and different from regions in the country and has more in common with northern Thailand than elsewhere. Rich in vegetables, the soups and curries are a healthy choice for diners.
Although the growth in tourism has brought with it a more universal selection of restaurants serving various international cuisines, the local food is what attracts most visitors.
Elephant Blanc in the Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel has a delightful open-sided poolside setting. Both the Lao and Western dishes are innovative and the surroundings are very refined — try keng som pa or sour fish soup with its subtle lemongrass flavour.
The well-established restaurant in the 3 Nagas is a popular choice beneath shady trees and on the main street.
In the not too distant past, Luang Prabang nodded off by nine in the evening but today with the influx of cafes, bars and restaurants there’s a little more life but things tend to slow down by 10pm except for a few lively backpacker bars. The evening market provides a good distraction for those seeking souvenirs.
Clustered around Thanon Sisvangvong and pushed up against the Mekong, Luang Prabang’s bars and restaurants offer alfresco dining in the pleasantly balmy climate.
Other restaurants and cafes to visit include Joma Bakery Café, Zurich Artisan Bakery, L’Elephant, Chez Matt, Cafe de Laos, Saffron, and Tam Nak Lao plus several restaurants like the Riverside Restaurant overlooking the Mekong River (great sunsets).
Good accommodation is abundant in Luang Prabang and quite cheap for the high standards offered. Budget accommodation can be obtained for as low as US$20 (RM82) in one of many guesthouses in the town centre.
Move up a little more up-market and there are some unique boutique properties such as the Angsana Maison Souvannaphoum which is managed by the well-respected Banyan Resorts.
The property was once a residence of a Lao prince and its gardens provide a tranquil retreat. Stately rooms are well appointed and the staff go the extra distance to provide friendly Lao hospitality.
The royal city of Luang Prabang may have awoken from its slumber but it still offers an opportunity to get a glimpse of a part of Southeast Asia that has changed little over the centuries.
How to get there
Arrive by air, land or river. Like many isolated destinations, travelling by air can involve a little adventure and time. Fly in style from Kuala Lumpur to Luang Prabang on SilkAir (www.silkair.com) via Singapore. The main river access is at the Huay Xai (Laos)/Chiang Khang (Thailand) crossing for boats travelling down the Mekong. Most cruises take two days with an overnight stop at Pak Beng.
Asean passport holders don’t require a visa. Most other nationalities can get 30-day visas upon arrival. This requires a passport photo and US$31 although the rate varies according to nationality.
The local currency is kip but Thai baht and US dollars are accepted in most places.
When to go
The best time to visit is the cool season from November to February. The hot season from March to May is best avoided although Luang Prabang is a mountainous destination where elevation moderates the heat. December, January and August are the peak seasons.
Who to contact
Pictures by David Bowden