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Embraced by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers and surrounded by dense jungle, the Laotian town of Luang Prabang is one of Asia’s best kept secrets. A town small and quiet enough to be relaxing, it is packed with great places to stay, eat and discover.
Most of the town’s attractions are within walking distance and strolling is the best way to soak up Luang Prabang’s laid back ambiance. Little streets are lined with buildings that mix traditional Lao architecture with French colonial styles. After Laos became a French Protectorate in 1893, authorities built government buildings in Luang Prabang in a mixed Lao-French style meant to symbolize the solidarity between the two peoples.
A prime example is the Royal Palace Museum, which mixes Lao design with the French Beaux Arts style. Built in 1904, the palace housed the country’s royal family until they were deposed in 1975. Much more modest than the royal palace in Bangkok, this site is charming nonetheless and is a great place to beat the mid-afternoon heat. Especially lovely is the king’s reception room, which features murals of traditional Lao scenes painted by the French artist Alix de Fautereau in the 1930s, and several lacquer screens depicting the Lao Ramayana by local artist Thit Tanh.
The French also built more modest two-story brick villas to house colonial administrators, modifying European designs to suit local conditions. Wealthy locals built villas and shop-houses in similar mixed styles, creating a vibrant architectural legacy. Today, many of these colonial-era houses contain tempting cafes, bakeries and boutiques – it is hard not to snack and shop as you explore the UNESCO-certified Old Town.
Across from the Royal Palace stands Mount Phousi, the sacred heart of Luang Prabang. Pilgrims climb 300 steps through sweet-smelling frangipani trees and past other temples to reach Wat That Chomsi, which was built in 1804 during the reign of King Anourouth. Half way up the hill, a big-bellied Buddha statue is nestled into a grotto. At the top, visitors are rewarded with a stunning 360 degree view of the town and rivers below. This hilltop is especially magical at sunset.
As well as having been Laos’ royal capital, Luang Prabang has long been its religious centre. Before the Black Flag invasions of 1887, this little town was home to more than 60 pagodas. Today, 34 remain, housing around 1,000 monks. Many visitors like to get up early and watch the saffron-robed monks collect alms from local housewives at dawn. The monks’ bright robes combined with the morning mist give this scene an ethereal beauty.
With so many pagodas to choose from, where should you start? Built in 1560 by King Setthathirat, Wat Xieng Thong is the religious icon of Luang Prabang and one of the most sacred sites in the country. With its low-hanging double-tiered roof (which has three tiers at the front), it’s also a perfect example of classic Luang Prabang religious architecture. Set on an embankment above the Mekong near the juncture with the Nam Khan River, this pagoda once served as a gateway into town. It was also the place where Lao’s kings were crowned. Other standout pagodas include Wat Mai, the town’s biggest pagoda, and Wat Sene Souk Haram, whose name translates as “Temple of One-Hundred-Thousand Treasures.”
If you want to bring home some treasures of your own, head for the bustling night market, which takes place every night from 5 to 11p.m., starting in front of Wat Mai and continuing along Sisavangvong Road to the town centre. The street is closed to vehicles, making this the perfect place to haggle over ethnic fabrics, ceramics, paper lanterns, trinkets and t-shirts. Be sure to engage in some good-natured bargaining. The market is also a fun place to people-watch.
When you’ve had your fill of shopping, eating and touring pagodas, it’s time to head further afield. Luang Prabang offers wonderful options for excursions. First on your list should be the Kuang Si Falls, a waterfall complex with a number of falls and pools where you can swim. There are many falls on this hillside so it’s easy to get off the main path and avoid the crowds.
Near the falls’ main entrance lies a bear sanctuary that is home to 23 Asiatic Black Bears rescued from cruel bear farms and wildlife traffickers. If you’re traveling with kids this place is a must: they’ll love seeing the rescued bears hanging out in hammocks.
Also near the falls’ entrance and equally popular with kids is the Butterfly Park, a beautiful garden and cafe run by a friendly Dutch couple. Home to dozens of species of butterflies, this park also features pretty plants and its own little waterfall.
The old name of Laos was Lan Xang, which means “Land of a million elephants.” While numbers have sadly dwindled, you can visit some of Laos’ surviving elephants at the Elephant Village, a sanctuary about forty-five minutes out of town that rescues mistreated elephants from logging operations. Surrounded by lush greenery, you can ride an elephant into a river and learn about these majestic animals.
Finally, be sure to take a boat trip on the Mekong River. The Pak Ou Caves lie about 45 minutes upstream and house hundreds of small wooden Buddha images, many in states of decay. While the little caves are atmospheric, as the old saying goes, “It’s the journey, not the destination.” Witnessing the local river life is something you’ll remember.