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.
Getting ThereFlying 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.
Food Fit for RoyaltyOnce 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, L'Elephant 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 Villa Santi 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.
Must-See SpotsThere'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 Green Discovery, 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.
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