Nestling in a slim valley shaped by lofty, green mountains and cut by the swift Mekong and Khan rivers, Luang Prabang exudes tranquillity and casual grandeur. A tiny mountain kingdom for more than a thousand years and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is endowed with a legacy of ancient red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, not to mention some of the country’s most refined cuisine, its richest culture and its most sacred Buddha image, the Pha Bang.
For those familiar with Southeast Asia, the very name Luang Prabang conjures up the classic image of Laos – streets of ochre colonial houses and swaying palms, lines of saffron-robed monks gliding through the morning mist, the sonorous thump of the temple drums before dawn, and, of course, longtail boats racing down the Mekong before the river slips out of view through a seam in the mountains.
It is this heritage of Theravada Buddhist temples, French–Indochinese shop houses and royal mystique that lends Luang Prabang a pull unmatched by any other city in Laos. This is not only where the first proto-Lao nation took root, it’s also the birthplace of countless Lao rituals and the origin of a line of rulers, including the rulers of Vientiane, Champasak and Lane Xang. Luang Prabang people are tremendously proud of their pivotal role in Lao history. Indeed, they’re somewhat known for their cultured ways in the rest of the country; in Lao soap operas, the doctor or the intellectual invariably speaks with a Luang Prabang accent.
Luang Prabang’s strict building code, drawn up by UNESCO, keeps it from becoming another modern architectural nightmare without turning it into a museum. Inevitably, the city has lost some of its sleepy charm and dreamy serenity as a result of the growing influx of tourists, but exploring the side streets and dusty lanes, its not hard to feel as though you’ve stepped into the city of yesteryear. Parts of the city do already feel over touristy – indeed, on stretches of Sisavangvong Road, were it not for the unmistakable architecture, you could be anywhere else on the well-trodden Southeast Asian tourist trail – especially when you’ve come from other parts of the country where tourism is still a novelty. Though the city remains surprisingly laidback, with none of the hassle associated with other parts of Asia, an airport expansion is due in 2013, which will allow larger planes to fly in and out of Luang Prabang, meaning the small-town charms of this beautiful city could be encroached on further.
Most travellers spend only a few days here on a whistle-stop tour of Laos, part of a wider Mekong trip, though the city really demands longer – this is a destination best savoured at a leisurely pace. If time is limited, top priority should go to the old city, dubbed by the UNESCO World Heritage team as a “historic preservation zone”. In a day, you can easily tour the sights, beginning with the sunrise view from Mount Phousi and a wander around the lively morning market, before heading to the elegant Royal Palace Museum in the former Royal Palace, en route to Luang Prabang’s most impressive temple, Wat Xieng Thong. If you’re here for a second day, enjoy some of the sights around Luang Prabang by taking a boat up the Mekong River and contemplating the hundreds of Buddhas within the holy Pak Ou Caves, or travelling south through the surrounding hills to one of the area’s two major waterfalls, Kouang Si and Tad Se. But whatever you do, be sure to soak up Luang Prabang’s languid atmosphere by wandering the streets at dawn, when the town’s legion of monks receives alms and life and the city seems to have little changed from a century ago, or at dusk, when the air fills with other worldly chants wafting from the temples.
Luang Prabang’s air of serenity is disturbed only at festival time. The most famous festivals last for days and inspire a carnival atmosphere that makes it easy to forget that these complex rituals held the very structure of the kingdom in place for centuries. Lao New Year in April is perhaps the town’s biggest festival, but near the end of the monsoon, two holidays – the boat races and the Festival of Lights – also bring Luang Prabang to a festive standstill. A visit coinciding with one of these festivals would certainly enhance your stay, though the most popular time to visit remains the cooler months of December and January, when the weather is clear and dry.