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.