Laos is probably one of Southeast Asia's least explored and understood countries. Luang Prabang was the erstwhile kingdom's medieval capital and probably where one should begin one's fascination with the country, C T opines.
Exploration through modern antiquity is probably one of the biggest draws of tourism in Southeast Asia. The region's newest city, colonial Singapore, was founded over 200 years ago and the kingdoms of the Thai, the Khmer, the Viet, the Burmese and the Malay stretched from times when many principal cities of Europe were still in their ditchwater infancy. Luang Prabang had its roots in a 14th century Laotian entity named Lan Xang, a glorious epoch that lasted around 4 centuries with territories that included parts of modern day Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and China. The last 300 years of Lao's history has been tumultuous, to say the least, having seen successive strives, decline, colonisation and foreign control. Luang Prabang saw its transition into a UNESCO Heritage site in 1995, and has since become the country's best known and most popular tourism destination. Against a stark reminder of how fast the face of heritage sites in Southeast Asia can change with the wind of development, Luang Prabang is happily one of the last few remaining spots on earth where one can step back in time to enjoy a sumptuous respite from cold, cruel modernity.
The Mekong cuts through Luang Prabang and provides much of the postcard scenes for this land-locked nation. The river is also a convenient mode of transport between attractions; it is the sensible (and possibly the only) route to visit the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden and the Pak Ou Cave. The former is a privately-run park that houses many local floral and fauna species and is well worth a visit while we would recommend the latter more for the journey than the destination.
A top attraction of Luang prabang is its architecture which melds both traditional wooden buildings and French colonial styles. Many erstwhile royal residences have been converted into boutique hotels, like Satri House, a generously sized garden villa that is said to belong to a princess of the country's old royal family. It is within such dreamy compounds that one finds the romance of an bygone era in this city.
Alms giving can be such a tourist cliché but it is still a daily routine respected and kept intact by the locals in Luang Prabang. The procession of monks in their saffron robes begin at the crack of dawn and passes through most parts of the old town. Hotel concierge can set guests at the choicest spots and prepare offerings of sticky rice and boiled eggs ahead. We were surprised to find candy, cakes and even money in some of the alms bowls.
Kuang Si Falls is probably Luang Prabang's most surprising attraction. Less than an hour away from the old town, this ethereal patch of forest and waterfalls takes on enticing hues of teal and turquoise and is open for visitors to take a plunge into the cool clean water of the pools the cascades and waterfalls empty into. Popular with locals and tourists alike, one can only imagine what these magical pools might look like when devoid of people and the happy noises they make.
Although a long-standing curfew restricts all nightly rendezvous to 11pm, there is a wealth of outstanding restaurants that serve both local and international cuisine in town. Hotels are also known to stage the most opulent dinners within their private spheres, from the villas to the poolside to quite possibly a secret spot conjured n a whim.
The inhabitants of Luang Prabang are its most resilient assets and continually attract visitors to the city with their sincere smiles and genuine hospitality. One of the most excellent spots to interact with the locals is the morning market where a surprising variety of local produce from zesty fruits to restorative herbal teas to rare spices can be found. Luang Prabang may truly be that secret enclave unspoiled by mass commercialism lost to so many heritage spots across the region.
Story and Photographs - C T