Two dates loom large in Luang Prabang’s modern history: 1975, when the monarchy was overthrown and Laos moved its seat of government to Vientiane; and 1995, when Unesco declared it a World Heritage site. Both helped keep the population low and preserve the small-town feel of this royal capital.
Climbing Mount Phousi reveals the extent of the city – famous for its waterfalls, wat (temples) and red-tiled roofs – but the centre of town is a walkable affair that’s just four streets wide. Hire a bike for a bit more zip.
Luang Prabang’s sleepiness is maintained by a lack of direct flights from Asian hubs, although China’s high-speed rail link between Kunming and Singapore will go via Laos through Bangkok, stopping in Luang Prabang in 2022. Strangers, however, are nothing new: French colonialists left their mark on the architecture and food, and Americans and Vietnamese passed through during the Vietnam War. The current crop of outsiders tell a story of stopping off by chance, falling for the city’s charms and creating a commercial excuse to stay – setting up bars, shops and, most recently, a botanical garden.
Meanwhile Luang Prabang’s citizens get on with their lives in this religious centre for Buddhism, giving alms to monks and buying blossoms from the market, before turning in early when the city shuts down at 23.00.
Sisavangvong Road closes at 17.00 in preparation for a night market but the layout of Luang Prabang’s old town makes it an ideal place to ban cars all day long. A largely pedestrianised peninsula could easily be achieved by prohibiting all vehicles – besides bikes and a few electric golf buggies to bring in hotel guests, of course.
Windows on the world:The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel
Keep the French shutters open for views of the Mekong River.
Sausage party:Manda de Laos
Sample Laotian family food around a charming sylvan setting.
Contain yourself:Caruso Lao
Ebony pieces made in Laos by Canadian émigré Sandra Yuck.
Social fabric:Boutique by Ock Pop Tok
Beautiful scarves woven by Laotian women.
This grocery shop mixes Laotian flavours with Korean design.
Church and state:Haw Pha Bang
A temple inside the former royal palace is now a museum.
A basket is essential for bringing home crafts and French pastries.
Blooming early:Morning market
Rise with the sun to buy fresh fruit and cut flowers.
Go with the flow:Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden
Visitors to the botanical garden arrive by Mekong water taxi.
Cinema paradiso:Victoria Xiengthong Palace
We caught 1927 film Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness.