The first time I visited Luang Prabang, I hitched my way down the Mekong on a rice barge. It was 1993. My boyfriend and I had no idea where we were going, but we knew it would be an adventure. We played cards with boatmen on the barge’s roof, occasionally waving at people on the banks from the rare villages we cruised past. We spent a night at some illegal logging camp being wined and dined by a gun-toting Thai mafia logger. We were appalled the next day when we saw a dead body floating down the river. “Leave it,” said our erstwhile captain. “It could have come from China, Burma, Thailand or Laos, what are we going to do with it?”
To echo the title of author Jon Swain’s novel (written after he took the same trip just a few weeks before we did) we were travelling down a River of Time. The people, the landscape, the sounds and the smells were all familiar, but to float down the river felt like meandering backwards through history.
Eventually we arrived at the sleepy – no, comatose – little town of Luang Prabang. We couldn’t afford the recently opened and wonderfully opulent Villa Santi Hotel, instead settling for a charming but dilapidated little guesthouse that cost only a couple of dollars a night.
The temples were exquisite, the Mekong seemingly ceaseless, the people charming as they walked or peddled to the markets in their traditional clothes, and the street food effortlessly sublime: a fusion of fresh and crusty baguettes with spicy pork sausages and croissants dipped in hot noodle soups. We spent days, weeks, just lazing, walking, watching the sunset and absorbing the atmosphere of this peaceful old relic of the past.
Fast forward twenty years, and I am delighted to find that Luang Prabang is about the only city I have been to in Asia which has ripened, matured and improved with age. With the tutelage and under the rigid guidelines of UNESCO, this World Heritage City has sprung to life. Crumbling old buildings have been restored, era-faithful accents such as tiles have been gifted to businesses to authenticate their premises, and architects, designers, planners and engineers have been descending upon the unsuspecting town since 1995 when it was granted World Heritage City status, to help turn this ghost of history into a vibrant and utterly charming town dotted with restaurants, cafes, bakeries, boutiques, art galleries and wine bars.
Luang Prabang is an easy one hour flight from Chiang Mai and is speckled with over 200 hotels and guesthouses ranging from sumptuously luxurious resorts to basic backpacker holes, with most sitting happily in between – old colonial French buildings converted into charming high-ceilinged, generous balconied and stylish accommodations.
The street baguettes are hard to find, but modern eateries and bars catering to all tastes have flourished, most of them enveloped in charm and nostalgia.
Spend your days walking or riding a bicycle around the old town, stopping off at antique shops, art galleries, and roadside craft stalls, or visit the modest palace museum and stunning temples with intricate murals. For a day of natural beauty, hire a tuk tuk and head to the turquoise-coloured Kuang Si Waterfall.
The Mekong is the raison d’etre for Luang Prabang, and some sort of river trip is a must for any visitor. Whether this entails joining a group on a cruise upstream to visit the Pak Ou caves, grabbing a basket filled with wine, a baguette and some cheese and hiring a long-tail boat for a sunset cruise, or sipping a chilled Beer Lao at any one of the dozens of adorable riverside bars and restaurants while watching twilight being swallowed by the night, the Mekong – muddy, brown meandering mass that it is – is the icing on this pretty little town’s pretty little cake.
Shutters close at 11 p.m. nightly, and as I walked past the odd tourists heading home to their beds, a few glimmering streetlights shining the way, sleeping dogs guarding temple gates and empty streets populated only by a handful of bicycles, I felt a deep sense of déjà vu from 1993. At the same time, I felt like a voyeur of a moment from 1913.
Luang Prabang is a special destination I hope to return to for many decades to come, and the good news is that I am sure it will only get better.
You can walk everywhere in Luang Prabang, so it is easy to explore and discover. Here are just a few spots to get you started…
An old royal residence was converted in 1992 into this classic hotel complete with high ceilings, antique furniture and a colonial era restaurant. Right in the heart of the town, Villa Santi Hotel guests can be shuttled for free to the hotel’s sister resort on the outskirts of town to use the spa and pool facilities.
The Mekong Riverview Hotel is a Swedish-owned mainstay with fabulous views from the peninsula where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet. Their restaurant right on the banks of the river, Viewpoint Café, is hands down the best sundowner spot with sweeping views, chilled wines and beers and a charming host.
The grand dame of Luang Prabang’s restaurant scene, L’Elephant is an up-market venue serving delicious French fare matched by a fine wine cellar. For an evening of great food and candle-lit ambiance, L’Elephant is a great place to treat yourself to a taste of Laos’ colonial past.
Pack Luck is where the expats hang out on the weekends. Come for the good priced wines, tasty snacks, friendly ambiance and comfy chairs. Easy to find, just opposite L’Elephant.
Be warned: Luang Prabang is not a party town! But if you must, then the Hive Bar is where many congregate. Drinks are inexpensive, as is food. Lighting is low, music is loud and there are always a few tables having a good time. If you want to go on-on, then you can share a tuk tuk with a bunch of travellers and drive out of town to the bowling alley where the party action apparently rages on until the wee hours.
Crafts from all over Laos are well designed and packaged at Mixay. From silk dresses to table mats, wall hangings to fun souvenirs, this shop is a great place to go to buy something special to take home.