LUANG PRABANG, Laos (Reuters Life!) - Luang Prabang, the historic former royal capital of Laos, is an enchanting mix of tranquil Buddhist temples, French architecture left over from colonial days, lush foliage and sweeping river views.
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the city is no longer the sleepy backwater it once was and boasts boutique hotels and chic restaurants. But there are still plenty of glimpses of the peaceful, other-worldly city of the past.
6 p.m. The main historic area fills a peninsula formed by the meeting of the town’s two rivers, the Nam Khan and the Mekong, and can easily be explored on foot. Walk around the peninsula, on streets lined with French houses and towering palms.
You may pass locals playing “petang,” Laos’s answer to the popular French game of petanque or boules, a remnant of the colonial past.
Stop for a Beer Lao, the country’s ubiquitous and delicious national beer, at a riverside bar and watch the sun set.
Later, sample Lao barbecue at one of the riverside restaurants. You cook slivers of meat on a metal tray heated over a bucket of hot coals in the center of your table, while vegetables, herbs, egg and noodles bubble away below.
6 a.m. Rise early and head toward Sisavangvong road to watch the silent, ancient ritual of the Buddhist monks processing through the streets in their orange robes, collecting alms of sticky rice and food.
7 a.m. Just across the main road from the former Royal Palace, you can climb Mount Phousi for a fantastic view of the town and the two rivers that embrace it. It’s a steep climb up steps cut into the hillside, but well worth it.
8.30 a.m. Time for breakfast. Sisavangvong road is lined with cafes and restaurants. Make sure you try some traditional Lao coffee — strong but smooth with a slightly chocolaty taste.
10 a.m. The National Museum, showing a selection of religious treasures and antiques, is housed in the former Royal Palace, built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and his family.
Don’t miss the famous Phra Bang gold Buddha, which can be seen in a separate room to the right of the museum entrance. The Buddha gave Luang Prabang its name.
The royal family’s cars are displayed in a separate building in the grounds.
11.30 a.m. Head toward the far point of the peninsula to marvel at temple Wat Xieng Thong, which dates back to the 16th century. Have a look at the tiny, ornate red chapel in the courtyard, the intricate wall decorations encrusted with tiny glass mosaic tiles and the separate chapel housing King Sisavang Vong’s funeral chariot.
1.30 p.m. For lunch, take your pick from the myriad cafes serving Lao, Thai and western food.
3 p.m. After temples, hill-climbs and a museum you’ve earned some relaxation. Head to Sisavangvong street and choose from the many places offering traditional Lao massages. You’ll sweat away your aches and pains in a sweltering herbal sauna for as long as you can stand, before an invigorating massage.
8 p.m. Dinner. The sleek Les Trois Nagas restaurant serves Lao specialties in a stylish setting. Sample strips of dried buffalo and squares of Mekong river weed deep-fried and scattered with sesame seeds followed by laab, a spicy salad of fish, chicken or beef with chili, coriander and lime served with sticky rice. Luang Prabang sausages are another local specialty.
10 p.m. Luang Prabang’s famous night market takes over the main road from Mount Phousi onwards in the evening. You can pick up brightly colored woven shawls, Lao coffee, carved wooden souvenirs and paper lanterns.
9 a.m. Ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the Kuang Si waterfall. The trip takes about an hour, winding through the lush green countryside, with frequent stops to allow the buffalo ambling along the road time to get out of the way.
You can climb up the steep wooded path to the top of the cascade or simply admire the dramatic falls from the lower paths. Make sure you take your swimming costume — you can take a refreshing dip in some of the natural pools.
If the waterfall doesn’t grab you, you could also take a boat trip to the Pak Ou caves, an important shrine filled with thousands of Buddha statues. Negotiate a price with one of the boatmen on the Mekong riverbank in Luang Prabang and chug gently up the river as it carves through green hillsides.
3 p.m. Back in Luang Prabang, spend the afternoon just wandering. You’ll stumble across stunning temples hidden down tiny alleyways.
6 p.m. The theater in the grounds of the National Museum stages performances of traditional Lao dancing on some evenings. Dancers in bright costumes act out Lao folk tales accompanied by musicians on traditional instruments.
8 p.m. Try the Coconut Garden restaurant for local specialities as well as plenty of Western dishes — some, like grilled buffalo steak, with a local twist.
Editing by Elaine Lies