Located on a lush peninsula on the banks of the Mekong River in northwestern Laos, lovely languid Luang Prabang, with its lofty palm trees and shady laneways lined with glittering Buddhist temples, Chinese shop-houses, and French colonial villas, is an ideal Southeast Asian escape. Especially if you’re retreating from other Southeast Asian cities!
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed former royal capital is an atypical Southeast Asian city in that it is tranquil and compact, and not in the least bit crazy and chaotic. The late afternoon influx of backpackers from the slow boats and the trading activity at the morning markets are about as much bustle as you’ll see in this teensy Laos city.
There’s also very little ‘hustle’ or hassle — only a few times during our four day stay were we even offered a taxi, let alone hounded by the familiar “Tuk tuk, madam? You want tuk tuk?” of other cities. And only once did a driver attempt to over-charge us for a ride. Luang Prabang’s laidback locals appeared almost disinterested in tourists and seemed content to pass their days as visitors here do — leisurely.
Aside from the traders at the morning market, many of whom leave their riverside villages at dawn, it’s as if everyone here is on holidays and in no hurry to go anywhere much at all. It was a far cry from Bangkok, where we’d come from — or even cities like Phnom Penh, which are busy yet laidback in comparison to the Thai capital. Luang Prabang, on the other hand, could most accurately be described as somnolent.
The unhurried pace of life here is perhaps partly explained by the diminutive size of the town — you can walk from one end of the two kilometre-long historic centre to the other in twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes and you’ll practically be out in the countryside. There’s nowhere to rush to.
It’s also because Luang Prabang has a timelessness about it. Indeed, in the old centre it feels as if time has stopped — somewhere around 1945. When UNESCO added Luang Prabang to its World Heritage list in 1995, it designated it Southeast Asia’s best-preserved city and it’s that feeling of stepping back in time that makes you want to slow down.
War, poverty and communism held back development until 1989 when Luang Prabang was cautiously opened up to tourism and a backpacker scene began to develop. And then after the UNESCO listing a more affluent tourist trekked here to take in the architectural and cultural riches that warranted the designation — the shimmering temples, the golden Buddha images, the faded colonial mansions — as well as the early morning alms-giving ritual that has now become the major attraction.
While tourism appears to be flourishing in Luang Prabang, with plenty of excellent eating, from good street food to refined restaurant dining, a wide range of accommodation options from budget guesthouses for US$1 a night (yes, indeed) to the most luxurious pool suite at the Amantaka going for US$1,500 a night, and enough activities to keep visitors busy for a few days, it is the atmosphere of the place that most appealed to us.
Like Siem Reap, a city that we felt slowly revealed itself over the course of a week, Luang Prabang was a place that endeared itself to us more and more each day we stayed. It’s tiny and there is very little to do, but over the course of four days we found ourselves delighting in little things, like the intricate tile-work of a temple façade or the mottled patterns of mildew creeping up the wall of crumbling mansion or the complexity of a soup we slurped at a simple street-side shack.
Luang Prabang, like Siem Reap, was another place that after just a few days — before we’d even left — had bewitched us so much we were already planning a return trip.