In Southeast Asia, where preserving cultural heritage often takes a back seat to breakneck tourist development, Luang Prabang is a happy surprise: a tiny, ancient capital, beautifully maintained and bursting with temples, French colonial villas and traditional-style wood dwellings, all set between the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. With a newly expanded airport, and a highway being built between the town and the capital of Vientiane, the infrastructure and number of tourists may be growing. But there are still plenty of spots, from small cafes to textile galleries, to enjoy the low-key vibe and get to know the town’s warmhearted people.
1.GREEN RIDE, 4 P.M.
Most of Luang Prabang’s hotels provide free bikes for guests’ use, and it’s the best way to get around town, especially once you learn the unofficial rule of the road, which is shared by mopeds, trucks and pedestrians: Fend for yourself. The heart of the Old Town is less than a mile long and about a thousand feet across, and a ride through the town highlights how the limited geography between the two rivers, and a Unesco Heritage designation, have curtailed sprawl. Park your wheels at the Royal Palace for a quick lesson in a chapter of the town’s complicated history — the period when it was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the 1975 Communist takeover. Particularly impressive is the Throne Hall, with tiny mirrors forming a huge glass mosaic — the room was originally built in the 1950s to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha passing into Nirvana.
2.SUNSET TIPPLE, 6 P.M.
As the sun sets behind the Mekong, the river, considered one of the cradles of civilization, looks its very best, and both locals and tourists take the opportunity to enjoy the nightly light show with a beer in hand. The aptly named Riverside Sunset bar has the perfect view of the traditional wood fishing boats heading home. And with a large Beer lao, the country’s brew, on offer for less than two bucks a pop, it is a cheap but memorable spectacle.
3.EAT YOUR VEGETABLES, 8 P.M.
L’Éléphant has become a town institution for its elegant colonial setting and classic French dishes, but its new outpost, L’Éléphant Vert, has a much healthier (and arguably more innovative) menu, including an all-vegan choice that even meat eaters will love. Among the highlights are the curried coconut soup, a salad of vegetables and foraged leaves (topped with local flowers) and a carrot and cashew kheer for dessert. Each set menu includes a fresh juice like mulberry, lime and honey (tasting menus without drinks are 170,000 Lao kip, or about $21.55, at 7,887 kip to the dollar). If you still want the atmosphere of the original spot, the new menu is also now available at L’Éléphant as well.
4.QUICK STOP, 10 P.M.
Businesses close in this Buddhist capital by 11:30, so you might not expect night life to be a highlight of town. However, a welcoming atmosphere, and artfully mixed drinks, at the Ikon Klub provide the perfect last stop for a nightcap. The small bar, which has the feeling of a house party thanks to the Hungarian owner Elizabeth Vongsaravanh’s gregarious personality, features live music and poetry readings, impromptu chess games and cocktails (like a mean Bloody Mary with pepper-infused vodka), all of which draw a loyal expat and Lao following.
5.FRENCH EFFECT, 8 A.M.
Besides the elegant architecture, the French also left behind a passion for excellent bread. At Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene, for example, the breakfast of café au lait, croissants with butter and jam, and orange juice transports you to a Parisian cafe, albeit one with saffron-clothed monks wandering outside. Meanwhile, the new cafe Le Banneton is also a standout for breakfast, with magazines and guidebooks to peruse as you plan your day over a cup of French roast.
6.MARKET TO TABLE, 9 A.M.
One of Luang Prabang’s most authentic spots for traditional Lao dishes, theTamarindrestaurant also offers cooking classes off site to inspire a deeper knowledge of the cuisine. The morning course (285,000 kip) starts with a trip to the town’s vibrant food market to buy local and seasonal produce, followed by a class to learn how to make dishes like mok pa, fish steamed in banana leaves, and various jeow, the traditional dipping sauce. The school’slakeside location makes for a lovely setting for your tasty Lao lunch.
7.A MOMENT OF MEDITATION, 2 P.M.
Every morning at dawn the town’s community of hundreds of monks makeits way through the streets of Luang Prabang for tak bak, the gathering ofmorning alms in silence. Sadly, though, the event has taken on a zoolike aspect: Tourists with flashing cameras and throngs of onlookers have given a once peaceful and meditational event the feeling of a spectacle. For a more serene representation of the silence and prayer still involved in the monks’ daily lives, head instead to the permanent exhibition “Meditation” at Wat Khili. The evocative black–and–white images of monks meditating in the forest and around Luang Prabang were part of a 23–year project by thephotographer Hans Georg Berger to capture how central meditation practice is to their discipline.
8.FAIR TRADE, 4 P.M.
Most visitors to Luang Prabang will head to the Night Market for their shopping, even though more and more products that show up there are actually foreign imitations (usually from China) of Lao handicrafts. An effort is being made to protect indigenous products with a new “Made in Laos” label that identifies items that are at least 60 percent handcrafted in the region. Meanwhile in nearby villages like Ban Xieng Lek, watch local weavers at their looms — don’t miss the textiles at Patta Textile Gallery — with nary a tourist or mass-produced elephant sculpture in sight. In the town proper, Ock Pop Tok carries textiles that have been made either in their Crafts Center (they also offer half–day courses) or through a local country collective, while the shop at the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center (TAEC) offers well-priced handicrafts from nearby areas. For an even more intimate experience, Backstreet Academy has set up a four–hour course where visitors can go to a local’s home to learn how to weave; the cost is $29.
9.ZEN GARDEN, 6 P.M.
Set in tropical gardens, Utopia, a combination cafe, yoga center, volleyball spot, bar and D.J. complex, transforms from a chilled–out hideaway forreading and relaxing in the morning to a full–on dance party later in the evening. Six o’clock is the golden hour between the two incarnations, a place to have a pre-dinner drink as dusk deepens. On the way there, duck into Vat Visoun (known also as Wat Wisunalat) — it’s one of the oldesttemples in town, and one of the most beautiful.
10.COOK IT YOURSELF, 7 P.M.
The Mekong River may be the busier and more famous of Luang Prabang’s two rivers, but the Nam Khan is arguably more picturesque — as is the view of town from its banks, a pretty tableau of tinkling lights. Cross the Bamboo Bridge (in dry months you can walk across, during the rainy season a boat ferries people over) to Dyen Sabai, a restaurant where you sit on reclining pillows for sindad, a kind of do-it-yourself barbecue, which costs about 70,000 lak for two, and involves meat, fish and vegetarian selections.
11.COUNTRYSIDE PLEASURES, 8 A.M.
Laos is known as the Land of a Million Elephants, and an excursion to Elephant Village isn’t something just kids will love. This sanctuary for pachyderms — many of them having performed hard labor in the logging industry — provides a useful education on the animals in a tranquil setting overlooking the Nam Khan about a half-hour drive from town. It also offers the opportunity to ride and bathe them in the river, all for about $50 for a half–day tour. Don’t miss a visit to Maxi, the baby elephant who was born here two years ago — and who, unlike the other elephants who eat their bananas with the skin, likes his peeled. If elephants aren’t your thing, opt for a cruise on the Mekong with an outfitter like Banana Boat. The Pak Ou Buddha Caves excursion is quite touristy, but a shorter version of the trip passes small fishing villages, and monks playing soccer on the river banks. Cost is about $40 a person.
12.RESTING YOUR FEET, 2 P.M.
Spa parlors — ranging from streetside operations to fancier hotel options —are famous around town. Full–body massages may not be quite as therapeutic as their Thai counterpart, but reflexology is a great pick–me–up after long spells of sightseeing. The new L’Hibiscus spa is a more elegant option than some of the other more basic choices, while the tranquil spa in the Satri House, with its landscaped gardens and pools, offers an hour long therapeutic foot rub for $45.