No matter where you go, there are pockets of living history, as it were, that gives a holiday destination extra sparkle. Not in a quaint, condescending way — simply one that offers a glimpse into where we came from and a deeper understanding that no matter how fast our broadband is there are places where WiFi speed is of peripheral importance. It’s history on a continuum.
A great place to remember that is in Luang Prabang, Laos’ unpretentious little sister to the capital at Vientiane in the north-central part of the country. Lush, intensely Buddhist and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is the kind of perfectly balanced getaway weekend ideal for self-indulgence alone, romance for two or an educational adventure with the family.
The town of roughly 50,000 sits at the intersection of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers, making it the perfect jumping off point for exploring the area from the Pak Ou to the north of the city, to the renowned Kuang Si Waterfall to the south. In between the towns at Ban Chan, Ban Ou and Ban Sanhai reflect a way of life common in Asia 30 or 40 years ago, but still thriving in parts of Laos. Tradition is strong around Luang Prabang — the imperial capital before the establishment of the communist government in 1975 — and Buddhist philosophy and beliefs have seeped into every aspect of life. It’s easy to see why the area’s such a hit with backpackers and other wannabe Dharma bums, and it can be frustrating (Laos lacks the comprehensive tourist infrastructure of neighbouring Thailand) but that certainly doesn’t mean Laotians won’t try and make your stay enjoyable.
The historic city centre itself is worth a day or two of exploration. Small enough to walk almost in its entirety yet not so small as to feel like, “That’s it?” temples dominate the cityscape. Dozens of them mixed in with the uniquely French/Lao architecture are an artist or photographer’s dream. A good place to start is at the old royal palace, or Haw Kham (now the National Museum) and the Xieng Thong Temple. From there, a stroll along the town’s main drags (Souvannakhamphong and Sakkarine) will take visitors to the night market off Sisavangvong Road. The rabbit warren of tiny streets around there reveals the Museum and the legendary That Chomsi Stupa, the hilltop temple that looms over the old city on Mount Phou Si. The view is worth the climb. It’s also worth noting you can eat like a king in the same backstreets, where unfussy, home cooking is as abundant as it is in the scores of restaurants. If you can handle a Hong Kong dai pai dong, you can handle a Luang Prabang food stall.
For anyone travelling with family, the more facilities, activities and services a hotel has the better; Luang Prabang can be hard to navigate with a bunch of kids. Hotels like Amantaka and Belmond’s La Résidence Phou Vao are good places to start, with Belmond the more reasonably priced luxury option. La Résidence can arrange trips to the Pak Ou Caves on its private riverboat — and that’s really the best way to get there. The Mekong is dotted with working villages and the hotel can arrange a private lunch on one of the river’s islets. The Caves themselves (Tham Ting and Tham Theung above it) are an eye-opening visit, one that can be complemented by getting up at the crack of dawn — even though it is a holiday — to see the daily alms offerings to the city’s monks. This is nothing like the Buddhism we see in Hong Kong
If more natural sights are the order of the day, an excursion to Kuang Si to the falls and the endangered Asiatic Black Bears, cared for by the non-profit Free the Bears, who live in the park’s rescue centre. Another picnic can be arranged for after a dip in the falls if they’re not running at dangerous speeds, unless the aromas from the stalls and diners outside the park’s main gate beckon. Try the baguettes and grilled treats from the street vendors, and kua fer, a traditional fried noodle, or sin dard, Laotian DIY barbeque if you’re sitting for a meal. Getting to the falls requires a car, and so take the opportunity to stop in the rice-growing communities and villages — many of which are populated by the minority Hmong and Khmu — that still subsist on local traditional liquors, ceramics and woven textiles on the route to or from Luang Prabang. The spa will be there when you get back.
If You Go
There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Luang Prabang. The most efficient route is via Bangkok with Bangkok Airways.
If You Stay
If effortlessness is required, high-end luxury hotels like the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao (www.belmond.com) and Aman Resorts’ Amantaka (www.aman.com) are your best bets. For those more interested in the historic city centre, the Mekong Riverview and Lotus Villa (www.mekongriverview.com, www.lotusvillalaos.com) are among the well-priced alternatives.