- Classic colonial boutique
- Heritage heartland
- Pared down colonial
- Quiet residential quarter
- Heavenly hideaway
- Valley with voluptuous views
- Right royal residence
- An amble from the old town
- Chic gîte retreat
- The right bank
Luang Prabang Overview
- French history, Mekong mystery
- City life
- Living on a prayer
Lying between mist-shrouded mountains on the palm-lined banks of the Mekong, languid Luang Prabang is every bit the land of the lotus eaters.
Years of war and some cranky communist ideas may have taken this historic town off the travel map for nearly two decades, but for those beating a path back to its Unesco-protected temples and colonial villas, the northern Laotian outpost is still one of the most charming destinations in south-east Asia. Serene to the point of somnolent, the old quarter is bursting with grand mansions and traditional wooden houses. The pleasures to be enjoyed here are simple and lingering: Lao coffee sipped in a street café; the hypnotic drum beat of the monks’ call to prayer; or a walk beneath fragrant boughs of frangipanis.
Literally Luang Prabang
Many of the Mekong region’s historic and sacred sites are a throwback to bygone empires, but Luang Prabang’s allure lies in the fact it’s a living, breathing entity. Nowhere is this more tangible than in the city’s 36 ornately roofed and elaborately decorated Buddhist wats (temples). Every morning, a bright blaze of tangerine fabric snakes its way through town, as hundreds of monks spill onto the streets in search of spiritual succour. Cynics might contend that the daily dose is just for tourists now, but if you venture into the back alleys, you’ll find the tradition alive and well.
- There are no metered taxis, but plenty of jumbos (eight-seater motorised three-wheelers) or tuk tuks. You’ll hear the more diminutive vehicles before you lay eyes on them: the two-stroke engine whines like a hornet. Your ride will cost about US$2; a little more if your jumbo is, ahem, jumbo-sized. Hotels can arrange cars if asked.
- Tipping culture
- Most Laotians don’t tip, but Johnny (or Joanna) Foreigner is expected to leave about five to 10 per cent.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Banks open weekdays 9.30am–4pm. Shop times vary widely, but the core hours are 9am until about 9pm. Lao people usually dine early, so local places close before international eateries. Night spots warm up around 9pm, but the universal closing time of 11.30pm means they cool down pretty soon afterwards.
- Packing tips
- A hod: the value of Lao’s coinless kip currency is so low that you’ll have to carry around brickloads of cash to pay for even small items (we suggest you take low-denomination US dollars or Thai baht instead).
- Recommended reads
- Unravel the mysteries of the Laotian nation with A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between by Grant Evans. Dervla Murphy’s One Foot in Laos may inspire you to travel into the hinterland.
- Lao cuisine has long lived in the shadow of its neighbour Thailand’s fare, but undeservedly so: common dishes such as laap (minced meat or fish with herbs, greens and dried chilli flakes) may have a shared ancestry, but, among other ingredients, it is finger-friendly sticky rice that sets Laotian menus apart. A culinary sponge, it soaks up sauces, eradicating the need for fiddlesome cutlery.
- Regional specialities
- Savour a signature Luang Prabang salad (made with coriander, mint and crisp watercress) and you’ll realise fusion was invented way before it popped up in Wolfgang Puck’s recipe files. Other unmissable snacks include nori-style kai phen (Mekong River weed with sesame seeds and chilli) and jaew bong (a gingery dip with water-buffalo skin and dried chillies).
- Lao kip (LAK), Thai baht (THB) or US dollar (US$). US$1 = about 8,400 kip.
- Time zone
- GMT + 7 hours.
- Dialling codes
- Country code for Laos: +856. Luang Prabang: 071 (drop the zero if calling from overseas).
- Do go/don't go
- Pleasantly cool and dry weather arrives from November to February, but corresponds with a peak in tourist numbers. The wet season (peaking in August) is not a complete washout, though, as showers are usually brief and paint the countryside in a vivid palette of greens.
Don't go home without...
… a Laotian scarf from Caruso Lao (www.carusolao.com) – they also offer original homewares including wooden tableware, ebony vases and shimmering silks.