Spread serenely at the confluence of the mighty Mekong and Khan rivers, Laos’ ancient city of Luang Prabang represents a harmonious mingling of two cultures to form an ornate, gilded whole. Once-faded 19th-century French brick villas now house boutique hotels and shops, sitting cheek by jowl with Laotian teak structures and historic temples. This combination of the traditional and the Colonial, according to UNESCO, can’t be found anywhere else in the world – hence the World Heritage designation in 1995. Today, the bustling city’s winding streets reveal fantastic food, interesting shopping and museums musing on the city’s past. Beyond the town, there are glittering waterfalls, Buddhist caves and animal sanctuaries to be explored. Here are our 10 must-dos in Luang Prabang.
Step into the gilded age
The Royal Palace, or Haw Kham, was built in the early 1900s for King Sisavang Vong. In style, it’s a stunning mash-up of French Beaux-Arts and traditional Laotian and it contains art, religious artefacts and ornate furniture. It was transformed into a museum after the royal family was overthrown in 1975, never to be seen again; the bedrooms and living quarters of the family have been preserved from that time.
Experience temple life
Wats are Buddhist temples and in Luang Prabang, 32 remain after various wars and invasions decimated many of them. Temples are fundamental to Luang Prabang. These aren’t monuments to a lost world but rather an important feature of daily life. Wat Mai, near the Royal Palace Museum, was inaugurated in 1788 and is one of the most striking and richly decorated of the city’s wats. There’s an elaborate roof with five tiers and the interiors are almost entirely gold, except for where they’re a rich red. The 14th-century Wat Pra Buddhabaht, halfway up the Phou Si hill in the centre of town, has an enchanting grotto, while Wat Wisunarat is the oldest temple, dating back to 1513. It was burnt by marauding Black Haw raiders in 1887 but rebuilt using stucco and original materials.
Visit the market after dark
Days are steamy in Luang Prabang, which makes the idea of a night market even more appealing. Along Th Sisavangvong, stalls assemble each night (from 5pm), illuminated by glowing golden lights. Locals sell handmade items such as mulberry paper, brightly coloured silk scarves and handmade ceramics.
Weave some magic
Luang Prabang is home to many talented artisans producing textiles and handicrafts. At social enterprise Ock Pop Tok, visitors can master some of these arts, including batik drawing and silk weaving. The organisation also has a fair-trade shop, a villa for guests and a café.
Cook like a local
Enrol in a class at Tamarind cooking school to learn all about buying, preparing and cooking Laotian food. Going to a food market overseas can be daunting for travellers – the language is incomprehensible, the produce unfamiliar and the smells sometimes confronting. Tamarind classes start with a visit to the market for fresh ingredients before returning to the kitchen to make delicious dishes such as lemongrass-stuffed chicken, fish steamed in banana leaves and jeow, the spicy sauces that are fundamental to Laotion cooking. And, of course, the perfect sticky rice – a staple of the Laotian diet.
Join the morning ritual
The residents of Luang Prabang and the monks who reside in its wats undertake a sacred alms-giving ritual each morning. The saffron-clad monks make their way through town collecting sticky rice, fruit and traditional snacks given as offerings by locals. This religious ceremony is called Binthabat and it’s to be treated with respect. Visitors may participate – but quietly and respectfully (that is, put away your camera phone).
Swim beneath waterfalls
The majestic three-tiered Kuang Si Falls, located about 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang, flow into dozens of pools along their journey down a hillside. It’s a cool way to while away a hot afternoon.
Care for the bears
Right next to the falls is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, where rescued moon bears (or Asiatic black bears) recuperate after being rescued from bile farms around the country. Visitors can watch the small bears gambol around their forested enclosure, as well as and learn about the bile industry and how to help end it.
Explore Buddhist caves
The Pak Ou Caves, set into limestone cliffs about 50 metres above the water where the Ou and Mekong rivers meet, have long been a place of pilgrimage for devout Buddhists. The two caves are full of images and sculptures of the Buddha – more than 4000 Buddha icons have been slowly accumulating over hundreds of years. Tourists can visit the sacred shrines, located about 25 kilometres upriver from Luang Prabang, but they’re crowded with pilgrims during Lao New Year in April. On your way back to town, visit the village of Ban Xang Hai. It’s famous, somewhat incongruously, for its whisky made from rice.
French-Laotion fusion food is a revelation. Like its near neighbour Vietnam, Laos has taken on elements from the culinary habits of its colonial ruler to create a cuisine that’s both rich and fresh. Take, for example, the menu at Le Café Ban Vat Sene: omelettes are served with Asian herbs and sticky rice, baguettes are made in-house and stuffed with pork and local herbs, and the buffalo steak comes with maître d’hôtel butter. The building is French Colonial and the striped awning adds a touch of Paris.