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5th June 2023
Laos enchants with timeless scenes of classic Asia, an ancient culture and a tropical backwater ambience – there are plenty of visitors but it doesn’t feel frenetic or overrun. One of the easiest destinations in Laos to fall in love with is UNESCO listed Luang Prabang, which has a magical setting at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, surrounded by forested hills and untouched natural beauty. It sits in the north of the country, and although it is one of the major hubs for transport in the nation, it feels like an overgrown village with a languid and unhurried air.
As one of the oldest settlements in Laos, Luang Prabang wears its history with pride. Evidence suggests that there have been people living here for over a millennium, but it was in the mid-14th century that the town came to prominence when it became the ‘Lane Xang Hom Khao’ kingdom – Land of a Million Elephants and the White Parasol. It was founded by Fa Ngum, a notorious warrior who really enhanced the cultural standing of the town, establishing monasteries, a legal system and the artisanal tradition which endures to this day. As a centre of learning, Luang Prabang was of great importance in the whole of Indochina, serving as a training centre for Buddhist scholars and as an important focal point for general education. The town was renamed Luang Prabang after the Pha Bang Buddha image, which is one of the most sacred Buddhist relics in the nation, given to Laos by the rulers of Angkor. The 83 centimetre high statue is cast in bronze, gold and silver, and remains in Luang Prabang even though the capital was moved to Vientiane in the 16th century. To see it, visit the Royal Palace Museum which is located near the Mekong river. The Prabang is still today an image of great significance in the Buddhist world.
Religion plays an important role in the daily life of Luang Prabang, the spiritual and cultural heart of Laos. Rise early to witness the humbling ritual of alms-giving, where the local people give generously to the brightly robed monks who process along the main street of the town. The ceremony begins daily at 5.30am, and it’s a memorable way to understand how deeply some religious traditions are ingrained in society here. There are several impressive wats, or temples, in Luang Prabang which it would be madness to miss while you are exploring, as they are testament to the centuries old devotional heritage in the town. One of the most exquisitely decorated temples is Wat Xieng Thong, where the colourful glass mosaics on the exterior of the shrines and carriage house around the central temple are sumptuous. The sweeping layered roofs of the central temple were originally built in the 16th century, and protect the gleaming golden designs on the pillars and panels below. Up above the leafy town squats the golden stupa of the Wat Chomsi Stupa atop the Phousi Hill, from where the views over the town, the Mekong and the hills beyond are spellbinding.
There are a wealth of beautiful sights within easy striking distance of Luang Prabang, making it the perfect base for a few days exploration of the surroundings. Venture onto the Mekong for a boat trip to one of many local waterfalls or the Pak Ou caves, or lace up those hiking boots and take a hike into the hills around the town, where small villages dot the landscape, each with a different reason to visit. Some are centres for weaving, and sell their fabrics directly. Others are known for distilling Lao whisky, and others still produce handicrafts which make great souvenirs direct from the artisans. Along the Mekong, small settlements tucked into the trees are given away by their attendant rows of boats along the riverbank. Some of these villages see very few outsiders, and are connected only by the river, no roads penetrate these dense forests. Life is very simple, lived in stilted homes where the livelihood revolves around fishing and growing crops in the fertile silt of the riverbank. Back in the town itself, why not sign up for a cookery class, where you can shop for and cook some authentic Lao dishes under the guidance of a knowledgeable local cook. Take a bike tour around the town and nearby countryside to see rural life in full swing, or to explore lesser corners of the historic streets of the city. Central Luang Prabang hosts a buzzing night market every evening, and it’s a great place to browse and shop for souvenirs, many of which are locally made handicrafts.
Borrowing from near neighbours Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, the cuisine of Luang Prabang is aromatic and light but often spicy. Rice and fish are staples, alongside locally abundant vegetables and fruit. Take a stroll through the morning market to get a feel for the exotic produce that is often so fresh it’s still clucking or flapping. Vendors pile up their goods in piles under parasols on the promenade by the river, often just selling one or two different foods. Bristly pink dragon fruits jostle with every kind of leafy greens you can imagine, and when you leave the riverside and head into the town centre for a bite to eat, look out for khao niaw or sticky rice, served in little baskets with lids. Sticky rice is usually served with a spicy meat or fish curry, or with grilled meat meat or fish. Chicken and duck are popular, as are pork and water buffalo meat. Most meals will come with a side of veg and often fresh herbs alongside. Laas is another speciality, made from minced meat flavoured with chilli, garlic, onion and fish sauce. It is often served raw but you can ask for it to be served cooked if you prefer. While you are shopping in the morning market or the famous night market, you can grab some street food, such as tam mak hoong – spicy papaya salad, or a crunchy baguette sandwich, a throwback to the French colonial influence.
Make it happen
Luang Prabang captivates on all fronts, so why not include some time here on your next Asian trip? TravelLocal’s trusted local experts are old hands at creating itineraries according to the specific requirements of their clients. Get in touch and let them take the strain out of planning your trip. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.