Why Luang Prabang?
Situated in the mountains in northern Laos, with the sacred Mekong and Nam Kha rivers flowing through it, Luang Prabang, a Unesco-protected historic royal city, is an incredible mix of glistening golden temples, colonial French architecture, scenic landscapes and diverse multi-ethnic inhabitants. Every cobbled street is full of treasures - bead stores, garden cafes, art galleries or monasteries. The attraction lies in exploring the back lanes of this modern yet spiritual city that truly cares about how it presents itself to the outside world. It's one of those destinations that you wish you never had to leave. At least I wished that. I had planned to spend two days and ended up staying a week, which still didn't seem enough. The city offers more bang for one's buck compared to the capital city of Vientiane and also its noisy neighbour, Vang Vieng.
A comfortable bed
Luang Prabang offers a wide range of accommodation both within the historic temple district for those who want to be on the tourist trail and a bit outside the city to enjoy a more tranquil stay. Both the hotels mentioned here are located in the city. Topping the list of the many five-star boutique hotels is Auberge les 3 Nagas (www.3nagas.com). The exquisitely restored buildings with their high ceilings, woodwork and fine furnishings are set in a beautiful garden in the middle of the city. This is the place to stay to enjoy Laos's serenity in true style. Double rooms cost from US$300 (Dh1,102) per night, including taxes and breakfast. For those on a tighter budget, check out the tasteful Apsara hotel (www.theapsara.com). The hotel overlooks the Nam Kha River, from where you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise. There's also a popular in-house restaurant. A double room costs from $70 (Dh257) per night, including taxes and breakfast.
Find your feet
Like many cities in Asia, the street names in Luang Prabang are unpronounceable to some and confusing but it's easy to get acquainted with the city as long as one remembers that the main streets run parallel to the Mekong River and the landmark Mount Phu Si is centrally located. Sisavangvong Street, also known as Market Street, is where most of the touristic action takes place and a good place to start exploring. You could take in most of this small city in about two days if you are in a rush. But why rush?
The north-east side of the old quarter has most of the sightseeing sites, including the photogenic historical temples. Luang Prabang is a city of living temples in which monks perform daily rituals. There are about 66 historical temples, out of which more than 30 are active monasteries. Must-visit temples include the stunning Wat Xieng, with its golden rooftop and memorable mosaic walls, Wat Phu Si, Wat Mai and Wat Wisun lrat.
Climb to the top of Phu Si hill to get a view of Luang Prabang's landscape: green paddies, mountains and, of course, the two rivers. The temple at its top is not as beautiful as the others, but the view of the sunset from this spot makes up for any architectural disappointment.
To get a sense of Laos's historic past and the lives of the royal family who ruled the city even under French occupation from the mid-to-late 19th century, visit the Royal Palace which now houses the National Museum. The palace is set in a sprawling garden opposite Phu Si.
Meet the locals
Enjoy a chat with one of the novice monks at any of the many monasteries in the city. Most of them are very friendly, speak excellent English and will engage you in a varying range of topics from the latest pop songs to best meditation practices.
Book a table
With a sudden influx of fashionable eating places in Luang Prabang, especially French-style bistros, there are many places to choose from. For more local fare check out the lane of outdoor restaurants along the Mekong riverfront serving freshly cooked food in a romantic setting.
For breakfast, head down to the popular JoMa Bakery (www.joma.biz) for excellent coffee and bagels. Another place with an interesting twist is Saffron Cafe (www.saffroncoffee.com) on the Mekong. The cafe has improved the lives of former opium growers by getting them to grow the great coffee that it sells. If you want something more traditional check out two popular places; Tamarind: a Taste of Laos and Tamnak Lao: the Three Elephant Restaurant. Try the do-it-yourself wraps - you can make your own spring rolls with a variety of fillings. Both places get busy, so make reservations and, if interested, check out their cooking classes.
The daily evening handicraft market on Sisavangvong Street is to die for. Tribes from the surrounding villages come together to sell a selection of ethnic merchandise, including clothes, jewellery, handmade paper products and other knick knacks to take home as souvenirs.
Just past the night market there is a line of beautifully arranged and styled boutiques selling the latest fashions in top quality Laos silk and cotton along with fabulous home furnishings. Check out OckPopTok (www.ockpoptok.com) and Fibre2Fabric (www.fibre2fabric.org), two not-for-profit textile galleries promoting local products. Heritage is a nearby shophouse set in a restored old mansion that keeps antique pieces and silver jewellery.
What to avoid
It's worth spending a bit more on a slow tour down the Mekong, visiting handcraft villages and the limestone caves of Pak Ou that house thousands of Buddha statues in various shapes and sizes. Some of the cheaper operators herd tourists onto boats like cattle and are more interested in making a quick buck than delivering a memorable experience.
Tat Kwang Si, a picturesque, tiered waterfall 32km out of the city, is a must visit. Climb to the top of the falls through a well-marked but steep path to the right of the falls and laze around in the cool, sparkling pools on top. To get back down you can take a different trail through some natural pools on the opposite side.