At 5:59 in the morning, Luang Prabang could be any small city snuggled in the sleepy hills of Southern France.
The crooked streets, some paved with cobblestones, others not paved at all, are empty and last night's rain -- it's the tail end of the monsoon here -- is evaporating into the humid air, shrouding the European-style homes in light gray mist.
But at exactly 6:00 a.m., they pour into the streets: hundreds of Buddhist monks in silent sandals and saffron robes, moving in single-file unison, an orange-clad army on its way to drill practice. The ritual is called takbat, when each morning the monks leave their monasteries carrying golden bowls to accept alms of rice donated by the locals who line the streets to feed them.
Watching, it's clear you're not in France anymore.
It's an easy mistake to make. Luang Prabang, the cultural capital of northern Laos, is a mystical amalgam, where ochre-walled cafes and French-colonial houses peek out from behind Buddhist temples. It was from here that the French ruled their empire of Indochine; here that Japanese invaders and later Communist nationalists vanquished the French; and here that Laos' line of kings breathed its last breath during two decades of war that left Laos with the dubious title of most bombed country in the world.
The conflicts, along with the city's remoteness, also left Luang Prabang relatively undiscovered by most travelers. Designated a world heritage site in 1995, it is only now experiencing a nascent tourism boom.
Brand new guesthouses are being built on almost every street where ancient Lao kings once rode their elephants. The Luang Prabang airport, opened in 1998, now welcomes flights from Bangkok and other nearby cities.
Flying is certainly the easiest route to Luang Prabang, but if you have some time and a sense of adventure, try traveling there by slow boat.
The trip from northern Thailand takes 12 hours, spread out over two days of lazy cruising along the Mekong River. You'll float past some of the most pristine jungle in Asia, where villagers still fish from wooden boats and oxen are herded along the riverbanks.
The slow boat, used by travelers and locals alike, can be crowded and uncomfortable (think more of a floating meeting hall with wooden benches than a luxury yacht), but the scenery more than makes up for it.
If you're less patient, you can also make the trip by "fast boat," which covers the same distance in half the time. But you won't see much through the helmet, goggles and life jacket you're required to wear while you hold on for dear life.
Either way, you'll need a good massage when you arrive, and luckily, there are plenty of places offering just that in Luang Prabang.
Like everything else in the city, a Lao massage is a hybrid, alternating between the vigorous and contorting Thai massage (otherwise known as "lazy man's yoga") and the more familiar pummeling Swedish massage. Several spas offer the rub-downs, including Mekong Massage on Khem Khong Road and the Lao Red Cross on Wisunalat Road, where the massages raise money for charitable activities. Prices range from $3 to $6 for an hour massage (yes, you read that right).
Food Fit for Royalty
Once you've been unkinked, it's time for probably the most enjoyable activity in Luang Prabang -- eating.
The small city of just 22,000 people boasts some of the best restaurants in Southeast Asia, serving up an eclectic mix of traditional Laotian dishes and polished French cuisine.
For an upscale experience,
on Bat Van Nong is one of the city's most chic French eateries, but if you're feeling intrepid, the restaurant at the hotel
on Xiang Thong Road offers authentic Laotian dishes dreamt up by the last chef to cook for the royal family.
Once home to a Laotian queen, the resort also offers one of the classiest places to stay in the city, with prices ranging from $70 to $100 a night. For dessert, leave the restaurants behind and wander in search of a roadside crepe cart for the traditional French treat.
Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene
on Sakarine Road is a relaxing favorite, where you can lounge in rattan chairs beneath the open-air bistro's lazy ceiling fans and enjoy a glass of wine, a tartine, or creamy homemade ice cream while you wait for the ghosts of Humphrey Bogart or Ernest Hemingway to saunter in.
This is a city built for such lounging, so relax with a book at L'Etranger on Kingkithsarath Road. The center of Luang Prabang's expat community, this used bookstore and tea house shows nightly English-language movies, during which you can recline on the pillow-lined floor with world travelers while sipping frosty concoctions made of banana, coconut and chocolate.
There's plenty more to see that is unique to Luang Prabang.
You can climb Phou Si (suggested $1 donation admission), the large hill at the city's heart, to watch the sunset or pay tribute at the small Buddhist shrine at its peak. Visit the Royal Palace Museum ($2 admission) to see the glittering mirrored mosaics in the king's throne room, or make a not-very-arduous pilgrimage to Wat Xiang Thong ($1 donation), the city's oldest and most revered monastery.
Luang Prabang has also become a center of Laos' burgeoning arts scene, and the streets are lined with small galleries showing the work of local artists.
After dark, stroll through the Hmong night market, where artisans and craftsman from nearby hill tribes sell paintings made on handmade mulberry paper, rich textiles and even packages of intense Laotian coffee, all beside Buddha statuettes and T-shirts emblazoned with Communist slogans.
The lush jungle hills surrounding the city also offer prime hiking territory, and the languid Nam Kahn and Mekong Rivers provide easy kayaking and rafting. Several adventure tour operators, including
, offer multiday treks ($25 to $220 per person) that include hiking, camping, spelunking and even treks via elephant.
And if you can bear the thought of getting back in a boat, hire a long-tailed craft for the leisurely ride out to the Pak Ou Caves. These stunning recesses in the cliffs overlooking the Mekong are crammed with hand-carved Buddha images left over the centuries by reverent pilgrims.
The Buddhas look completely serene as they peer out through half-closed lids, undisturbed by war, tourism or even the delicate cobwebs that cover their limbs. After hundreds of years here, they are perfectly content to simply sit and enjoy the jungle landscape and the river meandering beneath the mysterious monsoon sky.
You probably can't spend quite that much time in this enigmatic city, but even after only a few days, you'll feel just as serene yourself.
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