Photo: Pak Ou caves.

Luang Prabang escape

Luang Prabang's charms, its French colonial architecture and Buddhist heritage are legendary. Add a tropical setting, and the appeal can't be denied. It's an enchanting place for a weekend away, with plenty to see and do.

Guesthouses and hotels range in price from a few dollars for a budget room, to luxurious resorts with all the trimmings. Gems include Thong Bay's charming wooden bungalows on the Nam Khan from US$14 to $18, and the rooms at the more centrally-located Rattana for $8-15.

Kick your weekend off with a drink on the banks of the Mekong. Restaurants in this prime position all have outdoor seating where you can sit and sample the excellent Beerlao, while watching the sun set over distant mountains and the golden rays reflect in the waters of the river. The food is tasty and cheap, the view priceless.

After dinner, check out the night market which stretches along the main street. Colourful ethnic tribespeople come from villages all around to sell their woven silks, distinctive embroideries, bags, hand-made paper wares and a myriad of desirable souvenirs.

Always make sure you arrive in Luang Prabang with a half empty pack -- you will need the space

Wind up the evening in one of the town's increasing range of bars and pubs. For a quiet drink in sophisticated surroundings, stop in at Lemongrass down by the Mekong, or for a more high energy vibe, go to popular Hive at the back of Mount Phousi.

Luang Prabang has an 11.30pm curfew, which is a lifesaver as you'll want an early start the next morning to get up and watch the monks collecting alms at dawn. Monks and novices from the many wats file silently through the town, barefoot and dressed only in their ubiquitous orange robes. You can take photos, but obviously a respectful distance and appropriate clothing are required.

In the heat of the day, head out of town to Kwang Si Waterfall. A songthaew will take a small group for $12-15, wait a few hours while you explore, then bring you back. Alternatively, you can either make your way there independently by boat down the Mekong, or energetic types can trek from a Hmong village to the top of the falls through rice fields and teak forests, over mountains and past meandering streams.

Taking a leap into one of the pools at Kwang Si Waterfall

On your way in, visit Phet the tiger. Rescued from poachers when she was just six weeks old, she is now fully grown and living in her own jungle enclosure at the falls. Behind her compound are a couple of Asiatic Black Bears that have also been spared the poachers' net.

You can head up the falls to stunning views of the local countryside or follow the water flowing down to a cascading collection of turquoise pools. The water is bracingly cold, but perhaps the inviting colour and a swinging rope from a large tree will entice you in.

If you're not too tired after all that activity, just before sunset is a great time to climb Mount Phousi. As the heat starts to wane, make your way up the steep steps to be rewarded with panoramic views of the whole town. The sun takes its time to dip, but the cool that comes with it is a blessing, and you've well earned your next Beerlao.

To get a real feel for how Lao food differs from Thai, stop in at Tamnak Lao: Three Elephants Cafe on the main street. Try steamed fish in banana leaves or their take on the traditional Luang Prabang salad.

If you're keen to indulge in a little more shopping the next morning, wander through the many shops selling beautiful silks and weavings, lanterns and paper products. The Blue House has products representing all the major textile and craft makers in Laos, ranging from The Design Centre's unique silver jewellery to OckPopTock's combination of traditional and contemporary ikat woven textiles.

Schools out and it is time to go tubing

Spend the afternoon exploring the old quarter of Luang Prabang, where many of the most beautiful wats can be found. The narrow lanes are paved in brick, but lined with buildings influenced by French colonialists and longer standing Lao tradition. Those that have been renovated have kept their old world charm, thanks to a UNESCO heritage listing and its restrictions. This living museum is buzzing with activity, and strolling through offers a glimpse into Lao daily life.

Chat to the novice monks, who loiter cheekily by the fences of their wats calling out to any passers-by who look game. They want to practise their English, and find out more about the western world.

Wind up the weekend with dinner at one of the town's premier restaurants. L'Elephant serves French and Lao food in an elegant setting, while Apsara, down by the Nam Khan does a fusion of Lao and European tastes.

While the legend stretches back into the past, Luang Prabang still offers charms aplenty today.

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Last updated on 14th May, 2015.

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