Hidden in the shadow of lofty green mountains, in between the mighty Mekong and calming Khan rivers, lies the laid back town of Luang Prabang, a UNICEF designated world heritage site and the most stylish of Laos’ tourist draws, thanks to its French Indochinese heritage.
Luang Prabang is a perfect, pocket-sized blend of prohibition-era Paris and the innocent, but beguiling, Buddhist way of life. Endowed with chic colonial architecture, the town is as dotted with red-roofed temples as it is red-wine bars.
Steeped in culture, Luang Prabang’s most famous tourist attraction is Wat Xienv Thong, the most enchanting and historic Buddhist monastery in the entire country.
While visitors flock to marvel at its intricately designed golden walls and quietly admire this graceful place of worship; this quaint riverside town has so much more to offer backpackers and flashpackers, whatever the budget.
There is a distinctly stylish and low key vibe here, where French culture compliments its Southeast Asian home.
ON A SHOESTRING
Things to do, What to Eat and Where to Stay
The cheapest way to enjoy Luang Prabang and soak up its atmosphere is by hiring a push bike from one of the town’s many guesthouses (£1 for 12 hours) to meander down the town’s winding alley ways and alongside both of the rivers.
Cycle along the Mekong and there are no shortage of budget-friendly river front restaurants or cheap street food stalls.
The former makes a picturesque pit stop for lunch or evening drinks to watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. The former is the cheapest and most authentic way to eat out in Luang Prabang – with vegetarians more than catered for. Grab a bowl, pay £1.50 and treat the barbeques and street food stalls like a buffet and fill up as much as you can.
Meat-lovers will adore the dirt-cheap smoky skewered pork and vegetarians can eat their fill of vegetable noodles, fried Mekong river weed and sweet potato curries.
If a bicycle isn’t for you, your feet wont tire of strolling past French Colonial houses-turned-wine-bar or art galleries, dotted with Chinese lanterns; leading you in circles around the town among Luang Prabang’s legacy of ancient red-roofed temples to the sacred Buddha image, Pha Bang.
Things to do, What to Eat and Where to Stay
If visiting Luang Prabang with a little cash to splash then you will not be disappointed with town’s choice of frangipani fringed boutique hotels, stylish restaurants, cocktail bars, fashion boutiques, art galleries and day trips…
…The best bit about most of these options being that they each serve, in some way, to give back to Laos local communities – essential to this beautiful country with its little-known tortured past as the most bombed country in the world!
While spoiled for places to stay, my number one recommendation would be the stunning Villa Maly hotel. Centered round a pristine pool under chic Chinese lanterns, you will find Villa Maly, a colonial mansion turned boutique hotel, hidden from the hustle of Luang Prabang by its dense green garden of sky high palm trees and vibrant banana plants.
The hotel serves expertly blended cocktails by the talented team in Villa Maly’s Mouhot’s Bar, its namesake Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist who rediscovered the famous Angkor temples before travelling through Luang Prabang.
As well as Mouhot’s Bar, Villa Maly offers luxury dining at Le Vetiver a perfect alfresco experience, sited on a wooden deck, appointed with a warm rose wood furnishing and sheltered by a canopy.
And on balmier evenings guests have the option of a poolside barbecue: Surrounded by the garden’s tropical frangipanis, ginger, orchids, lilies, gardenias and mango trees, and served next to what has been rates as one of the best pools in Luang Prabang, here Villa Maly’s team will fire up the grill and leave you to cook your selection of tantalizing cuts of well marinated tenderloin, ribs, pork, shrimp and fresh seafood.
If you’re not watching your pennies then Luang Prabang’s sunny streets are rife with luxe Laos cuisine, French bistros and low key wine bars.
Everyone who’s anyone in Luang Prabang (whatever that means!) heads to L’Eléphant, where you can choose from a French or Lao menu (Ban Vat Nong; 856-71-252-482; entrées from $10).
Its sister restaurant next door, the chic Green Elephant, is Laos’s first vegan eatery (no phone; set menu, $21).
And even if you’re not staying at the hotel itself, the 3 Nagas café—with extra-fresh Lao court cuisine—is worth a visit. The shady patio makes for a great lunchtime spot (856-71-253-888; entrées from $5).
My favourite restaurant is Le Tangor on the main street of Sisavangvong Road; a French restaurant perfect for people watching, serving a killer steak and baked camembert, espresso martinis and delicate lemon tart. The shabby chic, red hued interior plays strong homage to its Indochinese heritage to perfection.
Statues of Buddha sit alongside vintage tins of Fois Gras and the walls are adorned with retro TinTin prints.
If you fancy making the most of Laos boat life, stretching beyond the Mekong then take a unique cruise along the spectacular Luang Say from £120 per person based on groups of 9-38 people.
WHEN TO VISIT
Go between November and January when temperatures are mild, but keep in mind that this is also the season when tourist numbers are highest.
Alternatively head to Luang Prabang in the rainy season (April-July and Sept-Oct), when ‘rain’ means a brief cleansing shower most afternoons, but otherwise lovely weather.
Avoid March when temperatures are searing.
The Lao New Year festivities (from 13 to 15 April) are a worthy draw, and the tradition of throwing water is delightful – and tonic.