For a relaxing break you can't top the peaceful sanctuary of Laos' spiritual capital. Mingle with a multitude of resident monks, wonder at ancient Buddhist temples and witness a glorious Mekong sunset
Laos, home of America's secret war during the Vietnam conflict and one of the poorest nations on earth, is now a must see - get there now before the whole world wakes up to its unspoilt charm and unconditional friendliness.
World Heritage City
Compact Luang Prabang, affectionately known as LP, is its undoubted jewel. A throw-back to a bygone age of innocence and harmony and probably the most peaceful place in South-East Asia - apart that is from the strutting cockerels that freely roam the streets!
You can even arrive peacefully - cross the border from northern Thailand at Huay Xai and float serenely down the Mekong River past stunning scenery, stopping off at traditional villages along the way. The unhurried journey takes around three days but is an unforgettable experience and well worth the time. For those of you on a shorter stint, there are three daily flights from Bangkok with Air Laos (www.laoair.com) or Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com). LP can also be accessed easily from Vietnam or Cambodia.
LP sits astride two rivers, the mighty Mekong and slow-moving Nam Khan and is surrounded by mountainous peaks adorned with pretty bright-green rice terraces. The best time to visit is October - March when the rains are absent, day-time temperatures hit the mid-late twenties and the wonderful purple and crimson flora is in full bloom.
It is a superb destination for those that prefer 'inactivity' holidays but would rather shun the beach. Start at sunrise to witness the surreal daily happening as scores of amber-robed monks walk barefoot along LP's main thoroughfares in total silence as they collect alms from old ladies, impeccably behaved children and the odd tourist.
The alms consist of sticky rice, fruit, bread and flowers, all destined for sharing at the breakfast table, whilst sparing a little for Buddha too of course!
Enjoy your own repast on one of several riverside terrace restaurants as you watch the boatmen and fishermen start their daily business. A wonderfully light and fluffy banana pancake, fresh papaya and strong Lao coffee sets you up nicely for you next activity.
Perhaps a leisurely boat trip to see the fascinating Pak Ou caves, a 90-minute picturesque journey away and brimming full with Buddhas of all shapes, sizes and materials or maybe a 30km tuk tuk ride to Tai Kuang Si waterfall and its turquoise pools seemingly tailor-made for swimming.
You could spend days wondering around the 30+ temples (or wats as they are known) about town. For an extra special experience, engage with the novice monks who are very keen to practice their English speaking skills.
Learn about their meal rituals (breakfast and lunch only), their morning lessons (spirituality, English, maths and science), their meditation sessions as they search for the ultimate peace and understanding (Nirvana) and their love of football (an English Premier League game viewed as a group every Saturday at 10pm is a particular treat!)
If you see only one wat, make it Wat Xieng Thong. Classic Laos design with roofs that sweep low to the ground. Magnificent multi-coloured mosaics, gold stencilled ceilings and ornately decorated columns. The wat also houses a majestic reclining Buddha. The whole complex is tranquillity personified. Go at full light when the mosaics and artwork glisten like jewels in the sunshine.
As sundown approaches, time for another amazing experience. Monks fill the temples for afternoon prayers and chanting. Kneel at the back and just let the occasion wash over you - stunning! After all that effort, time for a one hour oil massage. At 50,000 Kip (about $5) a pop, this is likely to become a daily experience.
The massages are top quality too - I tried at several around town, the best of a good bunch was Khmo Spa on Sisavangvong Road. Ask for Tip, a tiny young girl with a vice-like grip and the ability to clamber all over you in the name of a fantastic massage.
Visit the central night market, predictably Asia's most hassle-free version. Barter for exceptionally priced and top quality silks, intricate hand painted posters made from elephant dung paper and vibrantly coloured textiles.
Dinner is also a memorable experience. Lao cuisine is less spicy than its Thai counter-part but the flavours of coconut, ginger, banana flower and lime are just sensational.
My favourite restaurants are both on Sakkarin Road - sit on the first floor balcony of French colonial style Villa Santi (85671 252157), for a lamp-lit feast - enjoy the view and the traditional dancing girl who also brings you sweet smelling orchids to adorn your table.
Alternatively try Un Petit Nid (85671 260686), and watch the chefs prepare your meal in the open-plan kitchen. Both restaurants offer outstanding value for money (main about $5) and the opportunity to sample superb local fare washed down with fabulous Beer Lao - consistently voted as Asia's finest brew.
For a truly memorable Lao meal, you can do a daytime or evening cookery school. Visit the local food market to buy the ingredients you need, watch the experts to see how it is done and then wok away! I did the daytime class where we prepared four dishes - two for lunch and two for dinner. This cost $30 with Tamnak Lao (85671 212239; www.tamnaklao.net) on Sakkarin Road.
Many of the hotels hire bikes for $2 per day and although they are pretty basic, the flat terrain makes it easy going. 4km out of town brings you to the lovely village of Ban Xang Khong where you can see silk woven and paper made - and of course buy a myriad of products formed out of the materials.
One of the trip highlights is the short trip to an elephant camp 15km away. We stayed for one night in a forest lodge and had several elephant rides on one of the seven females that have been rescued from the extreme hard labour of the logging industry.
You will learn to ride the elephant like a mahout (keeper) - this means not on a big wooden seat but sitting on its neck with your knees wedged behind the ears! On the morning of day you will experience riding your elly into the Nam Khan River for bathing. As the beasts squirt each other, your job is to scrub the head, neck and ears. Not your normal Monday morning! Be prepared for a ducking as your mounts will be in a playful mood!
Finish the experience by feeding the sweet toothed creatures a bucket full of sugar cane. The camp is called Elephant Village and the $96 is money really well spent - you have a great time and help the animals too. The booking office is at Tiger Trails on Sisavangvong Road or visit www.laos-adventure.com.
There are loads of choices - we stayed at two hotels, Ammata Guest House is basic but clean and great value at $40 a night for the room and has free internet and tea/coffee. We also stayed at Lao Wooden House, slightly pricier at $50 but includes breakfast and the room is bigger and smarter with dark wood everywhere as the name would suggest.
I also checked out other hotels for future reference - Alounsavath Guesthouse overlooks the Mekong with rooms starting at $40 inc. breakfast or $50 for a river view and the rooms looked very clean and comfortable. For something a little more luxurious try Mekong Riverview - each room is luxurious and every room has a balcony over-looking the Mekong and the mountains. $120 for double/twin with breakfast.