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Wat Xieng Thong, an important Lao monastery in Luang Prabang (Photograph by John Elk III/Getty Images)

The mystical riches of Luang Prabang

Here are some tips on how to home in on the authentic and unexpected in this Southeast Asian gem.

At 4:30 a.m., the ring of my alarm clock stirred me awake. Though I had spent the previous night indulging in Laotian specialties like larb gai  (spicy chopped chicken), I rose effortlessly, eager to participate in a time-honored tradition: the local Buddhist monks’ daily collection of food for the poor.

Over the past decade, Luang Prabang has experienced an influx of investment (which is good or bad depending on who you ask)–along with strict regulations stemming from its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The combination has helped the former royal capital of Laos maintain its status as one of Asia’s best-preserved cities, with original stone temples and French colonial architecture reflecting its complex heritage.

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The daily almsgiving line (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

I carried a bamboo basket laden with steaming sticky rice to the gates at one of Luang Prabang’s many wats (temples) and joined a row of locals and visitors who were sitting cross-legged on blankets. As the sun began to creep over the horizon, I could see a line of monks, old and young, approaching, a basket hanging from a long strap on each of their shoulders.

As they got nearer, I concentrated on the task at hand: rolling the still-hot rice into small balls that I could toss into their waiting vessels. Their faces remained stoic as they passed, although one young monk offered a wide smile when I lobbed the rice ball, only to miss his basket (a hoops star, I am not)!

At this point in my life and career, visiting world-class museums, historical sites, and distinctive hotels has become a matter of course, but this small city presented one delightful surprise after another–and taking part in the almsgiving certainly stood out as a highlight.

Here are some tips on how to home in on the authentic and unexpected in Luang Prabang: 

My memories of Laos will always be cloaked in the mystical fog that blankets the city each morning. Every day, I made sure to wake early at my hotel to watch the city stir to life as though through a veil.

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The view from the infinity pool at La Résidence Phou Vao (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

With its gleaming teak floors, walls covered in hand-woven silk, open-air eateries, and infinity pool overlooking Mount Phou SiLa Résidence Phou Vao is a reminder of how a hotel can be a showcase for the soul of a country. La Résidence has hosted guests longer than any other hotel in town–even when Laos was largely closed to the outside world, earning it the moniker “The Friendship Hotel.” “[This] is where kings came to fly kites,” the concierge shared. “That is what Phou Vao means–Hill of Kites.” Imagining kites soaring against the backdrop of the hills and mountains is indeed a magical thought.

I would later stand atop Mount Phou Si, taking in the panoramic view–a must-do for anyone who makes the journey to Luang Prabang. In the evening, I took a break from buying hand-stitched bags and elephants carved from teak wood at the authentic Night Market. Pausing to listen to the monks’ melodious chanting at a nearby wat, I watched, grinning, as two novice monks squabbled over a shared prayer book. The next morning, I ambled through heaps of produce set out on blankets at the food market, following the path through back alleys, charmed by adorable kids munching on baguettes.

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The mighty Mekong (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

As the fog began to lift, I boarded a rosewood boat owned by La Résidence to see the famous Buddha statues in the Pak Ou caves. We glided along the Mekong, passing sweet potato farms and elephants wading in the shallow water, stopping in Ban Phanom, a 300-year-old village that depends on the river as its life force, on our way. (I learned that the Mekong owes its brown appearance to the presence of sand and is generally regarded as clean.) Up river, the caves themselves are magnificent, with countless little statues occupying every nook and cranny high above the rushing waters below.

For good eats, duck into Le Banneton French bakery for a warm, fragrant, croissant and hot, sweet cappuccino. Later, savor a long dinner at Blue Lagoon near the Night Market for a mix of Western and Lao food. A meal at La Résidence’s restaurant, Phou Savanh, surrounded by candles and lanterns, was especially memorable. Tamarind and the Apsara Apsara are other notable dining options.

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Le Banneton, an example of the enduring influence of the French colonial period (Photograph by Annie Fitzsimmons)

And no trip to Luang Prabang is complete without paying a visit to Wat Xieng Thong (the Temple of the Golden City) and the former Royal Palace, now a museum.

The palace’s “Throne Room” is easily one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen, featuring mosaic murals made of Japanese glass, a sword made of pure gold, and beautiful paintings that celebrate the traditions of Laos’s three primary ethnic groups.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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