Luang Prabang, Laos: The Top 5 Guide

You’ve voted Luang Prabang your Top City in the past two Wanderlust Travel Awards, so we thought we'd see what the fuss was about

Mark Stratton | Issue 112 | May 2010

Long before the first hairline crack of daylight infiltrated my wooden shutters, temple drums and cymbals had seeped into my reviving consciousness. Tum tum cheng is the locals' onomatopoeic name for this rhythmic beat - Luang Prabang's exotic and intoxicating alarm call.

Departing the wat (temple), fresh-faced, orange-robed novice monks began tak bat, their silent dawn walk to collect alms. It was already humid.

Steam sweated from the Mekong, forming a wispy mist into which fishermen cast their circular nets. I followed the monks as they paraded around the streets of elegant French-built villas and temples flamboyantly gilded with seven-headed serpents. Lining this route, kneeling devotees waited with offerings - warm sticky rice in rattan baskets - for the monks to take away in their brass pots.

Reasons to be cheerful

Such exoticism once again prompted Wanderlust readers to vote Unesco World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang 'Top City' in the 2010 Travel Awards. It's hardly surprising - this Mekong city stimulates all the right pleasure receptors: easy-on-the-eye Franco-Lao architecture; tropical warmth; tasty, spicy food; benign people; shopping opportunities galore. Its feel-good factor is immense.

In recent years the city has grown beyond a backpacker haunt, adding haute cuisine and boutique hotels to its canon. This has created an almost unholy alliance of trail-weary travellers queuing for 50p Oreo-cookie smoothies and holidaying couples sipping imported French chardonnay in gourmet restaurants.

Luang Prabang has also increasingly added to its portfolio of outdoors thrills in the surrounding green hills: everything from zip-lining, mountain-biking and kayaking to trekking between remote tribal villages and playing elephant mahout for the day.

Adrenalin kicks aside, Luang Prabang remains a place to put away the guidebook and soak up the languid yet authentic undercurrent; a place to experience fiercely contested games of boules, to spot wedding parties down narrow side streets, watch bird-sized tropical butterflies flittering around ylang-ylang blossom and, of course, to hear the hypnotic heartbeat of 'tum tum cheng' spilling forth from temples.

It's touristy, yes, but Luang Prabang has neither compromised its appearance nor sacrificed its Indochinese soul.

Luang Prabang Top 5... Foodie experiences

1. Laotian food is wholly different to Thai, thanks to its prolific use of fresh herbs. Learn how to prepare staples such as jaew bawng (chilli salsa) and mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves) at Tamarind Restaurant's day cookery classes (+856 20 777 0484, www.tamarindlaos.com; $28/£18). The course at award-winning chef Vongsaravanh's school, Tum Tum Cheng, is also recommended (+856 20 242 5499).

2. For a restaurant serving inexpensive Lao food, locals recommend Pak Houay Mixay (Sisavang Vatthana Rd) for its fiery papaya salad and laap (meat salad).

3. Fine dining fusing Gallic cuisine with a Laotian twist has firmly arrived. Quaff Grand Cru alongside lamb shank braised with Indochinese cardamom at French-owned L'Eléphant (+856 71 252482, www.elephant-restau.com) - one of many gourmet offerings in town.

4. Explore the morning produce market (west of the Royal Palace Museum) at around 7am for unfamiliar foodstuffs and fresh ingredients. Bundles of coriander and holy basil sit alongside baby frogs, bees' larvae and cloud-ear mushrooms. Try steamed quail eggs for breakfast.

5. The locals eat at a popular stall on the Mekong promenade near Wat Phonxay Sanasongkham that sells only crispy roasted duck. By 5pm it's sold out - the consolation prize lies next door, where diners broil their own Lao-style hotpot at Domus Restaurant (+856 20 554 5515).

Luang Prabang Top 5... Ways to escape the crowds

1. Following the tak bat around Sisavangvong St's important monasteries can seem an unedifying melee as crowds of visitors 'paparazzi' the poor monks. Select a smaller temple along the back streets - try waiting by a side entrance of Wat Paphaimisaiyaram, known as Wat Pa Phai - and discreetly join the monks at a distance. Take photos using a long lens and without flash.

2. Climbing Phu Si Hill for sunset has become a clichéd experience attracting sizeable crowds. For an alternative sunset view in relative solitude cross the Mekong by boat and watch from attractive Wat Chom Phet.

3. The Royal Palace was built in 1904 for King Sisavangvong and is now a museum displaying glittering royal artefacts. Ask for its newest addition - a self-guided audio tour using MP3 players - to better comprehend Luang Prabang's royal heritage.

4. The 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong and gilded Wat Mai are hugely popular temples so can be swamped by tour parties. Pre-empt the crowds by turning up around breakfast time, when the light is better for photography, too. It's also an illuminating experience to visit around lunchtime, when the novices have a little downtime and will chat about temple life.

5. A locals' alternative to the night market is the bustling Phosy Market, a short tuk-tuk ride from the centre. Purchase more-ish local delicacies such as dried kaipen (riverweed); finely woven rattan baskets make great gifts.

Luang Prabang Top 5... Places to stay

1. High-end accommodation in Luang Prabang is boutique style in French colonial buildings. Villa Maly (+856 71 253903, www.villa-maly.com) has reinvented a sumptuous 1938 art-deco royal mansion and is swathed in tropical gardens. Doubles from £111 including breakfast.

2. Two and a half hours by riverboat down the Mekong, Kamu Lodge (+856 71 260319, www.kamulodge.com) is a gem. A camp of 20 solar-powered tents set among rice paddies, this ecolodge delivers economic benefits (land rent, employment, etc) to the surrounding Kamu villagers. Two-day/one-night packages including all meals, boat transfers and activities (including gold panning and rice planting) from $120 (£79) per person based on two sharing.

3. A good budget option is friendly family establishment Thony Guesthouse (Chao Chomphou Rd; +856 71 212805), which has clean, fan-cooled rooms and river views for £15 per double. And while temple stays are off-limits, Paphai Guesthouse (Sisavang Wattana Rd; +856 71 212752), an ultra-basic wooden Lao home, is virtually part of the surrounding wat. Doubles from £7.

4. Villa Saykham (Sisavang Wattana Rd; +856 71 254223) is a fine medium-budget option on a quiet side street in the heritage area. Opposite a monastery, spacious double rooms with breakfast at this attractive restored villa cost £33.

5. The first property to be built on the Nam Kham's right bank is the brand new Aspara Rive Droite (+856 71 254670, www.theapsara.com/rive-droite.html), a nine-room river-facing hotel embodying seclusion. Double rooms from US$140 (£93) including breakfast.

Luang Prabang Top 5... Excursions

1. The Pak Ou Caves, 25km upriver, host several thousand images of Buddha.

2. Ban Xang Khong, a village just outside Luang Prabang, produces paper made from mulberry trees; there are various shops selling attractive gifts.

3. The Elephant Park Project is Luang Prabang's number-one attraction. Visitors learn mahout skills before joining the elephants for bathtime (+856 71 212311, www.elephant-park-project.org).

4. A trip to picturesque Kuang Si, waterfalls 32km outside Luang Prabang, makes a great day's cycle. You'll also find a centre for rescued Asiatic black bears (www.bearlao.com).

5. Ban Xang Hai (the 'Whisky Village') is famed for producing lao-lao whisky, made from fermented sticky rice; boats to Pak Ou call by, so disembark for a little moonshine.

Luang Prabang Top 5... Ways to make a difference

1. Luang Prabang's rugged countryside teems with ethnic tribes - trekking and overnighting in a homestay is a special experience. Community-based tourism initiative Fair Trek (www.trekking-in-laos.com) is a collaboration of various local organisations, including tour operator Tiger Trail (+856 71 212311, www.laos-adventures.com), which ensures your presence benefits the local community. Tiger Trail arranges homestays and treks of up to a week, incorporating kayaking and mountain-biking alongside visits to Kamu, Hmong and Akha tribal villages.

2. A Lao massage and steam bath can make a difference at the Lao Red Cross (opposite Wat Visoun). Your pleasure (or pain) contributes towards relief activities and community support programmes.

3. Weave your own silk scarf with Ock Pop Tok (Ban Saylom; +856 71 212597, www.ockpoptok.com). This self-financed initiative promotes village-based production of textiles to enrich tribal communities; it has several high-quality boutiques.

4. Volunteer a few hours to help young Lao practise their English conversation at Big Brother Mouse (near Wat Nong; +856 71 254937, www.bigbrothermouse.com).

5. Look out for tigers! Two-day wildlife-watching trips around Nam Et/Phu Loei National Protected Area (a seven-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang) form part of a radical new World Conservation Society (www.wcs.org/laos) tourism initiative. Villagers are paid per species they spot for guests (including $200 for a tiger). Contact +856 64 810008 to book.

Luang Prabang Top 5... Places to shop

1. The all-day indoor Dala Market on Setthathilat Road serves up quality handicrafts, particularly silverware.

2. Kõpnoï (Phommatha St; www.madeinlaos.com) sells contemporary jewellery and clothing with a strong fair trade ethos.

3. Nose around Pathana Boupha Antique House (26/2 Ban Visoun), a magnificent colonial house selling authenticated Indochinese antiques.

4. Hop on a bicycle to Ban Phanom weaving village, 6km out of town, to see Thai Lu weavers fashioning silk and cotton goods at competitive prices.

5. Kinnaly Gallery (64 Sakkaline Rd; www.kinnaly-lao.com) sells attractive, professionally photographed framed prints of Laos life.

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