LUANG PRABANG: Ask anyone for their bucket-list of die-die-must-go places, and chances are Luang Prabang won’t be on it. Which is a pity, especially since the Laotian city boasts an unbeatable mix of ancient Buddhist temples, hipster cafés and boutiques, and lively local markets, all of which is overlaid with a genuine old-world charm. It also helps that the city’s traditional and colonial architecture, courtesy of Lao’s tenure as a French colony between 1893 and 1953, remains remarkably intact given its status as UNESCO-heritage site.
Happily, too, the lack of a single defining tourist attraction means that Luang Prabang has also largely avoided the chaotic street scenes and gridlock of giant tour-buses that have bedeviled more popular destinations like Siem Reap and Yogyakarta.
The result is a bijou jewel of a town that feels bewitchingly timeless. Especially if you come during the low summer season when Luang Prabang feels particularly drowsy and even the novitiate monks bang the giant temple drums twice a day, once at dawn and again in the late afternoon, with short-lived bursts of manic energy.
Here, the days pass quietly, even if you’re fully occupied discussing the finer points of indigo dyes and fingering gorgeously made raw silk scarves at the retro-chic Le Pavillon de Jade. Or you could be soaking in a stone-lined Jacuzzi in the comfortable gloom of the spa at the legendary Amantaka resort; or lazily practising your backstrokes in the icy cool natural pools at Kuang Si waterfalls, a leisurely forty-minute drive away through vast rice-fields and thick jungle foliage. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to be seduced by the Lao dark honey smothered ice-cream at the in-house restaurant of the newly opened Azerai hotel; or even debate which of the handspun ethnic textiles at Ock Pop Tok (79 Sakkaline Rd, Luang Prabang, tel: +856 71 212 597) you should buy yourself as a special treat.
Meanwhile, the city’s visual treats have much to commend them, not least the golden swooped curves of the temple roofs, the dawn processions of alms-seeking monks, and the panorama of the city from the top of holy Mount Phousi.
In particular, the mighty Mekong river, stained yellow by deforestation upstream, bends around Luang Prabang like an elbow, enfolding the city with cool evening breezes.
On the far side, the terrain rises gently to low-slung hills that are blanketed with thick emerald-green foliage. Fifteen minutes away by motorised long-boat lies the former royal hunting lodge which has been reimagined as Pha Tad Ke Botanic Garden. This wondrous Eden of organic plants, lily ponds, ancient figs, landscaped pools and shaded pavilions opened last November and, thanks to an unambitious PR programme, no one knows about it, which means invariably, the grounds are yours to wander like a private estate.
And that’s the thing about Luang Prabang. Every random turn in a still palm-lined street, every temple complex you step into (and there are over 30), every purchase of handwoven multi-hued sarongs you make at one of the hundreds of stalls that line the night market each evening outside the National Museum, and every chance discovery of a small unobtrusive shop selling antiques of outrageously good quality… it all feels fresh, as if you were, despite the clear presence of other tourists drifting along on the pavements, the first one there and experiencing it for the very first time.
And that’s always a good reason to put something on your bucket list.
Amantaka (55/3 Kingkitsarath Road Ban Thongchaleun Luang Prabang, tel: +856 71 860 333) is a glorious homage to old Laos. Its 24 high-ceilinged villas (16 of which feature private pools) are dressed in acres of slate, stone and timber, whilst its crack corps of attentive staff conspire to make you feel as the sole purpose of their existence is to make you happy. The afternoon tea of fresh cake in the library is a local institution. If you’re not a guest, come anyway for an incredibly romantic candlelit dinner by the pool.
Manda de Laos (Unit 1 Ban That Luang, 10 Norrassan Road, Luang Prabang, tel: +856 71 253 923) may be stunningly set around a UNESCO-listed lotus pond, but the star attraction, we think, is its menu of traditional Laotian cuisine. Think coconut-scented curries, roasted birds, and big piles of tartly sauced salads.
Le Pavillon de Jade (45 Sakarin Road) is one of those blink-and-miss-it shops. The neat piles of hand-spun, hand-dyed scarves are instantly covetable, so beautifully made are they. Ask nicely, and its urbane French-Laotian owner Patrice Bleton may be persuaded to bring you upstairs to view his knock-out collection of Chinese and Indo-Chinese antiques.
During the Vietnam War era, over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos. Up to 30 per cent did not explode and these still cover a third of the country, of which less than one percent has been cleared. Consider supporting Legacies of War, which lobbies Washington DC for long-term funding to disable these bombs. www.legaciesofwar.org