The northern province of Luang Prabang and its eponymous capital are among the most atmospheric and popular destinations in Laos. The charming city of Luang Prabang, once the capital of Laos and still considered to be its spiritual heart, breathes a rich meld of French Indochinese architecture, Theravada Buddhist temples and a magical atmosphere.
Luang Prabang is strikingly situated on a peninsula formed by the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Khan. Its palm-lined riverbanks, terracotta roofs, golden stupas and saffron-robed monks all come together to form a picture postcard increasingly difficult to find in Southeast Asia. Somnambulant and languid, its peaceful feel masks a history of conquest and recapture, and only hints at the intricate culture and traditional rituals that still take place here every day.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as "an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions."
The city has been considered one of Southeast Asia's must sees for nearly two decades now, so untouched it's certainly not. However, the city has a newfound popularity with older travellers and families seeking an exotic yet safe holiday, and prices are on the rise. With an international airport and daily connections to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, many people fly in and fly out and see nothing more of Laos. This means more foreign visitors per temple than perhaps anywhere else in the region (except Angkor Wat), so rein in any expectations of having the place to yourself.
With the influx of tourists, local families have en-masse converted their family homes into guesthouses. House after house on street after street have found new lives as guesthouses and while this is a boon for those wanting a comfortable stay in Luang Prabang, it also threatens the very thing that made Luang Prabang so charming in the first place. In some parts of the town, it can feel a little bit like Disneyland, with tourist-focused shops, hordes of camera-toting tourists and a certain fabricated feel that some won't notice and others will despise.
A simple walk about town illustrates Luang Prabang's charms. It's picturesque, with all the charm of a quaint European town mixed with the wonderful, woodsy spice of Asia. A popular pastime is simply lounging in a quiet cafe with a baguette and coffee (Laotians drink the real stuff, not espresso) and watching local life pass by.
With an outstanding range of restaurants, guesthouses, luxury resorts and hotels, a gorgeous location and friendly people, Luang Prabang has a reputation for wrecking tightly planned itineraries. Be sure to allow at least a few days to really take this wonderful town in.
Sleepy much of the year, Luang Prabang bursts with life during Pimai Lao, Lao New Year. If you're planning on visiting at this time, be sure to book a room well in advance.
With the capital at its centre, Luang Prabang province stretches north to Phongsali and the Vietnamese frontier, east to Hua Phan and Xieng Khuang, south to Vientiane and west to Udomxai and Sainyabuli.
The east of the province in particular is a vast, mountainous swathe of real estate with next to nothing in the way of development, but to the north you'll find the villages of Nong Kiaow and Muang Ngoi, laidback, stunning riverside spots attracting a steady backpacker trade and increasingly tour groups heading out of Luang Prabang. Both can be reached by road and if you plan on striking north to Phongsali, you'll definitely want to set aside a day or two in one or the other, or both.
By Cindy Fan.