Laos' Luang Prabang: the world's most relaxing destination

By Sarah Warwick, a Travel Professional

Read more on Luang Prabang.

Overall rating:4.5 out of 5 (based on 4 votes)
Enjoyable
4.75
4.8
Useful
4
4.0
Inspirational
4.25
4.3
Recommended for:
Cultural, Winter Sun, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive

With its many ancient monasteries, riverside restaurants and mountain views, the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang is gaining a reputation as a centre for languid luxury

It’s that perfect time before sunset on the banks of the Mekong and easy to see why photographers call this the ‘golden hour’. The sun’s last lazy rays buff a metallic sheen onto the river as it drifts laconically past. Long fingers of light brush the trees, burnishing each leaf with a halo of gold. And, it’s a cliché, yes, but the silence is also golden, with nothing but a bird or a ripple breaking the peace.

Across the river from where I sit nursing my cold Beer Lao, cows graze. White smoke drifts up from a local’s smallholding: the slash and burn of local agriculture underlining the fact that – while you’re theoretically in a city – this is no urban experience. This is Luang Prabang, ancient royal city of Laos and an age-old sanctuary, a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and southeast Asia’s most beautiful city.

Named for the Buddha’s ‘dispelling fear pose’ (the ‘Abhaya Mudra’), Luang Prabang's World Heritage-endorsed old city certainly lives up to its name. Positioned at the confluence of the ‘mighty’ Mekong and the unassuming Nam Khan, the city forms a peninsula in the midst of Laos’ paddy-filled landscape, where a relaxing river-view is never far away.

Home to a unique marriage of French colonial and Indochinese architectural styles, it’s easy to see why the main centre had World Heritage status conferred on it in 1995. Its twisted grid of streets is little changed from medieval times. So, seemingly, is the flow of traffic, which is more likely to be animal- than engine-powered. Serpentine-roofed temples and golden stupas abut louvre-shuttered chateaux: it’s a genteel and unexpectedly successful fusion that makes it supremely easy on the eye.

A number of colonial mansions here have been converted into hotels and restaurants, giving visitors the chance to put themselves into the picture of a simpler – if not a more frugal – era. Hotel Villa Santi (From 80USD a night (650,000LAK), Royal Sakkarine Road) is one of these stylish restorations. Perhaps its lavish attention to detail can be attributed to its royal custody (the heir to the Lao royal family apparently owns it) but, whatever the reason, it’s certainly no pretender to the title of the city’s best hotel. Its sister hotel, Villa Santi Resort (Santi Resort Road), located about 4 km from town, provides even more sumptuous facilities, including an impressive spa, with views over the mountains and paddy fields.

Another restoration success is the restaurant ‘L’Elephant’ (243,000 Kip set menu, Ban Vat Nong, Tel: 856 71 252 482, www.elephant-restau.com), a perfect fusion of French style and Laos service. Dining on the terrace here, it could be a summer evening at a Parisian café, were it not for menu delights like Luang Prabang sausages, Mekong perch or buffalo steak tartare.

For more typical Laotian cuisine – unique in southeast Asia for its use of glutinous rice as a staple ingredient - try Tamnak Lao (‘The Three Elephants’, Ban Watsene, Tel: ++856 71 252525, www.tamnaklao.net) on the main street. This café runs an excellent cookery class daily (book in advance), which incorporates a trip to the local markets, demonstration of nine key recipes and a cookbook.

Every visitor should start one day off by giving alms to the local monks. There are so many monks in Luang Prabang - more than 1,200 live here (ten percent of the city’s population) - that sometimes the whole city can seem like a monastery. Every morning, before 6am, these holy men make a procession around town to beg for alms; respectfully watching them as dawn breaks over the city is a highlight of any visit. Buy rice to offer them from local merchants and make sure you ask permission to take photographs.

Once the monks have been fed, it’s time to explore and the good news for lazy legs is that this place is as tiny as it is fascinating. As Laos’ former royal capital (before it fell to the communists in 1975) the city boasts dozens of palaces and ornate temples, but these are all spread over a small geographical area and it’s easy to explore all the main sites in a day or two. The must-see is That Chomsi, the gold stupa atop Phou Si hill, which dominates every view of the city and affords outstanding views.

If all that walking and climbing makes you feel a bit tired, why not take a load off at one of Luang Prabang’s spas. Spa Garden (Ban Phonheuang, Luang Prabang; Tel: +856-71-212325, www.spagardenlpb.com) is a great deal, with three locations in the old town and a facial for just $15. Or blow your budget on a serenity package at La Résidence Phou Vao (3 PO Box 50, Luang Prabang; Tel: (+856-71) 212194; www.residencephouvao.com). It’s the city’s first luxury spa and well worth a splurge.

Primped and primed, it’s time to take in the golden hour again and one of those 5* riverside views. Try the funky hotel bar at The Apsara (Ban Vat San, Tel: (856 71) 254 670, www.theapsara.com) or the Utopia (Ban Aphay (follow the UNESCO brick paths down towards the river). The latter is almost impossible to find but you’ll find it lives up to its name when you’re ensconced on a floating platform high above the river, hand around a cold Beer Lao – widely recognized as southeast Asia’s best beer.

There’s also a cluster of chic and cheerful bars in the shadow of Phou Si Hill, particularly two sister cafes, the friendly DJ-bar Hive and delightful bookstore-come-bar-come-independent cinema L’Etranger Books and Tea (both Th Kingkitsarat; Tel: (856 71) 537 7826). Choose the former for nightly cocktails and a tourist party, while the latter is far more of a daytime scene, where expats can often be found for coffee on a weekend morning.

Although the nightlife scene here is burgeoning, don’t expect pumping choons and discos-til-dawn: a government curfew on opening hours curbs playtime past midnight. Disappointed hedonists will be delighted by a legal loophole that exempts the local bowling alley, of all places, from the curfew so those in the know can bowl, boogie and sip unexpectedly good cocktails until the wee smalls with a young international crowd.

So there you have it: the perfect lounging destination for all flavour of tourist. A laid-back pace of life, stunning scenery and plenty of excuses – as if you needed them – to relax.

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More information on Laos' Luang Prabang: the world's most relaxing destination:

Author:
Sarah Warwick
Traveller type:
Travel Professional
Guide rating:
4.5
Average: 4.5 (4 votes)
Total views:
99
First uploaded:
28 September 2010
Last updated:
3 years 43 weeks 4 days 16 hours 46 min 49 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Winter Sun
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
heritage, mountains, massage, bowling, Buddhism, cookery

Sarah recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Villa Santi Hotel And Resort
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Community comments (5)

Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I spent a few days in Luang Prabang and loved it, as well as the rest of Laos, and this is a great intoduction to the place. You really get a flavour of being there - I can just imagine drinking a Beer Lao (it's way better than Singha Richard!) and watching the river drift by. Would second that some subheadings or a bit of bold might add to it but generally a really enjoyable guide.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I've managed to miss out on Laos on my trips to SE Asia, but your guide has really made me want to visit if I'm lucky enough to be in that neck of the woods again. I like your matter of fact statements - "the world's most relaxing destination", "SE Asia's best beer" - I look forward to trying my first Beer Lao one day while enjoying the sunsets and views. Surely it can't beat Singha?!

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Rating:
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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I read with fascination about a resort I'd love to visit, but like Murray I don't think it'll be any time soon. The writing style is immaculate but the guide would benefit from an interesting video clip, which I would have thought would be available on YouTube, or some more photos. It certainly sounds beautiful and I would love to join you for some of those sunsets Sarah, but it smacks rather of an affluence I don't currently have- I may be wrong?

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Affluence? To get there, sure, but I went while backpacking around Asia and it's easy to do on the cheap while you're there. I managed on £5 a night accommodation, plus it was 50p for a bowl of noodles and 50p for a Beer Lao. Can't say much fairer than that!

Do get there at some point if you can - pure paradise.

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

A very good read, with some rich descriptive prose that sets the scene beautifully.

It made me very curious to go there, though it's unlikely in the near future!

I think it would have helped the intro if some bold text had 'broken it up'. Maybe not, maybe it would have spoiled the flow - what do others think?

And somehow, the photos were not as good as your writing - but maybe that's just because your writing was so descriptive. A very good read, thank you for sharing your trip with us.

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