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.