This side of the Mekong harbours one of the most charming towns to be found in former Indochina
There is a pervasive sense of calm in the town of Luang Prabang that few UNESCO World Heritage sites can echo. The ebb and flow of tourists might change throughout the year, but the Laotians ground the sense of place with an easy, almost nonchalent air. No one is in a hurry to get anywhere. Store owners don't press their wares into your hands and tuk-tuk drivers aren't tooting their horns to grab your attention. It's a refeshing change from the frenzied air of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. Many arrive to view the old town — a case study in itself on French colonial architecture — but stay on to soak up the bucolic air of the former Laotian capital and discover its many hidden attractions. Now that Lao Airlines has introduced flights between Singapore and Luang Prabang, flying in for an extended weekend getaway has never been easier. Here, we've rounded up a mixbag of experiences that makes for a good introduction to this charming town.
1. Visit the morning market
For a land-locked country, the morning markets in Luang Prabang pack in a dizzying array of produce that would make a grown chef weep. There are thick, dried swaths of buffalo skin, neatly bundled packets of herbal medicine to address any ailment and aromatic bunches of herbs native to the region. A lady lifts the lid on a bamboo basket to reveal a steaming mound of sticky rice while her neighbour has already fired up the grill, basting skewers of chicken and pork with a thick, sweet sauce. Our guide from the hotel buys a bag of green oranges (as it turns out, oranges are not necessarily orange), peels one, and hands us its bright, yellow flesh to taste. Come hungry. Stay curious. There's plenty to discover and you can do so at your own pace without touts breathing down your neck.
2. Wander through sacred grounds
Having visited numerous temples at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap, I thought I had seen it all. But Luang Prabang had a few surprises of its own. Wat Xieng Thong, arguably the city's most famous temple and monastery, boasts stupas painstakingly decorated with ornate mosaic tiles. Sweeping tiered roofs make a nod to traditional Lao temple architecture while its storied walls have witnessed the coronation of many a Lao king. Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, with its intricate red lacquer and gold leaf decoration, is equally impressive. Impeccable restoration work has brought the former glory of its interior and facade back to life.
3. Plant rice for a day
There are over 50 different kinds of sticky rice — otherwise known as glutinous rice — grown across the lowlands and highlands of Laos. While you might be familiar with having sticky rice with mango and coconut for dessert, the humble grain is very much a pantry staple for the Laotians who consume it at every meal. Interestingly enough, glutinous rice is surprisingly gluten-free. Curious to learn more about how rice is grown and harvested? Slip on your wellingtons and head to The Living Land Company, a social enterprise that's all about giving back to the community. Here, you'll get a taste of the back-breaking effort it takes to till the land. Soldier on and you might find the fruits of your labour landing on the plates of various restaurants in town.
4. Rise early for almsgiving
Luang Prabang is a city that practices what it preaches. Spirituality here isn't immortalised in monuments, it's very much alive and grounded in a sense of place. Each morning, as the sun rises to warm the land, locals dressed in traditional Laotian garments lay out their woven mats along the sidewalk in preparation for the arrival of the city's Buddhist monks. The monks, distinguished by their brilliant saffron robes, arrive barefoot, with metal bowls slung low across their chest. As the procession of monks make their way along the sidewalks, locals drop handfuls of sticky rice into their bowls. This almsgiving ceremony was seeded in the 14th century and continues to be upheld as a daily rising. Visitors are welcome to participate in the ceremony as well, but there are a few rules to be mindful of: wear modest clothings that cover your shoulders, chest, and legs; avoid talking to or touching the monks, and cut the flash if you're photographing the ritual.
5. Meet non-hipster artisans
You smell the persistent note of damp earth before you see it. An army of clay pots stand at attention as they wait for someone to take them home, and a few metres away, another pot begins to take its form under fingers that dance across sinuous lines. The dust-caked feet of the man before me belongs to one of the craftsmen who reside in Ban Chan Neua, a pottery-making village. Here, the houses are raised on stiltes, transforming the open space below into a pottery workshop. At the workshop, pots and clay figurines are hand-thrown and fired on site, giving you a glimpse of an age-old craft that continues to keep small villages like these alive. The village is accessible by boat via a 15-minute crossing across the Mekong. We recommend going on a guided tour, such as those offered by Inter Lao Tourism, if you wish to explore various craft villages in Luang Prabang.
6. Live like a king
It is easy to see why Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel was once upon a time the official residence of Prince Souvanna Phouma, the former Prime Minister of Laos. Its close proximity to the old town, Royal Palace Museum, and age-old temples let him remain close to the people while being wonderfully sequestered by a lush wall of greens. Today, a tangible sense of history continues to touch the space, with palm trees in the courtyard harking back to 1973, the year which Phouma first moved into the residence, along with a rock outcrop inscribed with the date the property was established. The other half of this rock, a fallen outcrop from Mount Phousi, sits within the grounds of the Royal Palace itself.
Today, the 24-room boutique hotel, sensitively refurbished by the Angsana Resorts Hotel Group, continues to play host to visitors from the world over. Given the excellent level of service we experienced during our stay, it's not hard to feel like royalty. Hotel Manager Yvonne De Suner Beltran (who's also the co-founder of socially motivated lifestyle brand Matter) was always seen interacting with guests, be it welcoming them to the hotel or sharing her insider tips on the town. Staff here don't greet you with well-rehearsed lines, they are candid and vivacious. It's easy to feel at ease and not hard to imagine that you're staying in the home of a friend.
Rooms in the garden wing come with spacious balconies, perfect for unwinding with a sundowner and book in hand. My home for three nights was the Laos Room which once belonged to the queen. The spacious light-filled room housed a walk-in closet, clawfoot bathtub, and commanded views over the pool below. As with all Angsana properties, oil burners ensured the room was well scented with a signature scent from the spa.
The hotel is a 15-minute drive from the airport and a 10 minute walk from the old town — perfect if you wish to be close to the key attractions in Luang Prabang. Even if you're not staying for the night, check into the hotel's world-class Angsana Spa. Here, spa treatments are executed with precision and backed with natural ingredients informed by Asian herbal know-how.
7. Take a dip in turquoise waters
The murky waters of the Mekong might not inspire poetry, but the Kuang Si Falls, located just 30km out of town, paints a different picture of calm. Hugged by greens as old and dense as the soil underfoot, the cascading falls whip across rocks shorn by waters that flicker blue and green. Wear sturdy walking shoes to embark on a gentle hike that takes you to the top of the waterfall, but don't forget to bring your swimsuit if you're planning to cool off in the calm waters. You might see a bear or two along the way, but don't be alarmed — these moon bears belong to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which shares park space with the waterfalls.
8. Feast on Laos cuisine, the original fusion fare
The Laotians are fiercely proud of their cuisine. It fuses the bold, layered flavours of Thai food with the judicious use of fresh herbs so often found in Vietnamese cuisine. Skip the seafood dishes. Owing to its geography as a landlocked country, the cuisine here draws heavily from the land. Sticky rice forms the backbone of the cuisine, waiting to be dressed in rich curries or coconut milk. Fluffy and chewy coconut pancakes, cooked fresh on a griddle, can be had from itinerant hawkers on the street. Some of the best we had were prepared a la minute at Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel's breakfast spread. Adventurous eaters should also try orlarm, a local stew prepared by slowly simmering pepper wood with lemongrass and other aromatics herbs. The result is a mildly peppery broth that is at once herbaceous and slightly pungent. Buffalo meat is commonly featured in this dish along with other vegetables.
To sample a slew of local dishes at once, head to Elephant Blanc. Their Prince Lao dinner set, served up four times a month, is a ten-course tasting affair that lets you graze on the signature flavours of Laos. For a refreshingly modern take on the age-old cuisine, head to Rosella Fusion on Kingkitsarat Road or Khaiphaen on Sisavang Vatana Road. The former is a cosy restaurant on the riverfront while the latter is a social enterprise that turned out some of the best dishes we had during our trip.
9. Cycle through the old town
The old town of Luang Prabang lies snug on a peninsula flanked by two rust-coloured rivers — the Mekong and Nam Khan. Thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage status, the French colonial architecture left behind by the French are one of the most well preserved in this part of the world. The best way to explore the old town? Hop onto a bike and pedal at your own pace. The traffic isn't ruthless and no one's rushing to get anywhere. Even if you don't stop at some of the beautifully preserved temples, you can make pit stops at the slew of cafes and restaurants in the area. At our hotel, we found a complimentary fleet of bicycles available for guests.
10. Keep traditional crafts alive
There might only be 7 million inhabitants in Laos, but the country is one of the most ethnically diverse places in South East Asia. More than 130 different ethnic groups reside here and over 49 of them call this part of the country home. The Luang Prabang Night Market in the centre of town brings together beautifully woven wares, handmade papers, dyed silks, and mulberry paper umbrellas (as seen below) from various artisans across the country, but stay clear of the mass-produced wares from Vietnam, Thailand and China that are slowly but surely invading the market.