A long luxury weekend in Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang’s hip restaurants and buzzy bars are no longer a secret, but the town -- along with its surrounding caves, waterfalls, jungle and Mekong river villages -- is yet to be discovered by the masses. Languid and laid-back, its intimate scale is ideal for a long weekend, while its rich mix of French colonial history, Buddhist ritual and natural beauty will leave travelers anxious to return.
While nearby Siem Reap celebrates Cambodia’s former glory, Luang Prabang’s allure lies in the fact that it’s a living, breathing entity, vital and spiritual. Buddhism anchors the world of residents with 36 wats in the city. Ornately roofed and elaborately decorated, the temples are a way to learn about Lao culture and all it holds sacred. Every morning at dawn a blaze of orange saffron snakes its way through town, hundreds of monks spilling on to the streets in search of alms. For visitors it is a visual experience, for the Laotians, it is essential.
For culture vultures
Wat Xieng Thong is the postcard-perfect Luang Prabang temple, its roof effortlessly arcing to the floor. It’s an original survivor from the 16th century, before the Black Flag (not Henry Rollins' seminal punk band, but a band of marauding Chinese) used it as a base during their 1887 assault on the town. The Royal Palace Museum is housed in the former royal residence, and boasts treasures including a portrait of King Sisavang Vatthana, whose shoes appear to follow you across the room in the most alarming manner, completely changing direction.
Nature fans should venture to the Kuang Si Falls (Tat Kuang Si), tumbling cascades that wind their way through the Lao jungle. There are several swimming holes beneath the main falls, including one with an impressive rope swing.
Make a pilgrimage to the Pak Ou Caves, too, to pay homage to the thousands of Buddha images hidden away here over the centuries. Not so secret any more, the dramatic location in towering limestone cliffs above the Mekong is still worth the detour.
Luang Prabang has a host of tempting shopping opportunities, but given this is so-called chilled out Laos, there is not much of a sales pitch compared with the Siem Reaps and Hoi Ans of this region. Enter a boutique and you may need to wake up the sales assistant to make a purchase. The exception is the vibrant night market, strung out along Sisavangvong Road each evening. Buying at the bazaar, which touts silk scarves, ethnic slippers and Hmong throws, is a direct way to benefit the local economy.
Where to crash
A beguiling blend of East meets West, La Résidence Phou Vao is an intimate tropical resort with magical mountain and temple views from its jungle-side infinity pool (US$278-511, including breakfast -- all prices mentioned are for a double room per night).
Built as a residence for a branch of the Lao royal family in the late 1900s, elegant Satri House was once the childhood home of Prince Souphanouvong and, after an extensive renovation, is once again fit for the aristocracy (US$180-480, including breakfast).
Enjoy life on the other side of the river at The Apsara Rive Droite, a chic little hotel whose peaceful waterside setting, designer furnishings and delicious food act as an opiate (US$140-195, including breakfast and airport transfers).
For some serious self-spoiling, old-world charm meets modern-day convenience in the surrounds of Amantaka, a former French colonial hospital with shady verandas, high ceilings, spacious pool suites and a state-of-the-art spa (US$600-1,400, including airport transfers).
Tamarind (Ban Wat Nong, opposite Wat Nong Temple; +856 (0) 20 7770484) is home to the most authentic Lao food in town. Try the Pun Pa Lao banquet, which includes a whole Mekong catfish to share. A hip and chic restaurant fronting the Nam Khan River, the decor at the Apsara (Kingkitsarath Road; +856 (0) 71 254670) -- sister to the Apsara Rive Droite hotel -- is Hong Kong-Laos-London thanks to patron Ivan Scholte’s international wanderings. Tuck into superb food, including goat tagine with prunes and panin fish for two stuffed with lemongrass.
Buzz over to Hive (Phousy Road) to rediscover your roots and release the backpacker hidden within. A real hive, it offers plenty of nooks and crannies to escape the crowds, a serene garden and music.