For a long weekend away, Phuket and Bali are the obvious choices but if you’re looking for something a little more exotic, Luang Prabang may be the better bet. Dorothy Veitch reports.
1 French-Laotian old town
The pretension-free vibe of north central Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site steeped in Buddhist spirituality, is ideal for four perfect days. Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 to 1945, and needless to say ,a colonial and traditional Laotian mish-mash reveals itself around every corner, particularly in thelanguid old town.
2 The Alms Giving Ceremony
Get up before sunrise and hit the streets to watch hundreds of monks collecting alms in the morning. The tak bat ritual is performed in silence; the almsgivers do not speak, nor do the monks, who walk in meditation. Each monk carries a large lidded bowl, which almsgivers – who sit or kneel on the street – reverently fill with vegetables and sticky rice.
3 Palaces and temples
Wat Xieng Thong, one of the largest and most ornate temples in Laos, is a good place to start a strollthrough the old town. Winding your way in and out of the rabbit warren of tiny streets also takes you right past Haw Kham, the former royal palace now the national museum, and the entrance to Wat That Chomsi Stupa, the atmospheric hilltop temple that looms over the old city on Mount Phou Si.
4 Heuan Chan Heritage House
Make your way off the main drag to find Heuan Chan Heritage House, an authentic longhouse on tree-trunk stilts that showcases the traditional Laotian way of life. At once a museum and handicraft centre, it also provides cookery classes where you can try your hand at classic dishes like Laos pho (beef noodle soup). Finish up your visit with a chilli-topped pork baguette (khao jee) at the inviting palm-shaded café.
5 Villages that time forgot
For many visitors, Luang Prabang’s real charms lie outside the city. A short ride away, you find hamlets like Ban Chan and Ban Ou, small villages whose lifeblood is farming, and the textiles, ceramics and traditional wines they still make there. Walking through verdant fields to a tiny village, you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
6 Kuang Si Falls
After a day in the surrounding villages, head out to Kuang Si Falls, about 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang. The 50-metre-high waterfall cascades into a series of elegantly tiered pools making it one of the area’s most renowned attractions. Kuang Si is surrounded by the type of forested parkland that makes it perfect for a picnic – and for wildlife.
7 Haven for moon bears
At the foot of Kuang Si falls, you find Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, a world-class haven for moon bears, operated by Australian charity Free the Bears. Many of the bears have a tragic history, as victims of illegal trade, and it’s a pleasure to see them swinging in hammocks, playing with tires and generally having a good time.
8 Pak Ou Caves
Another day trip takes you 30 kilometres up river to Pak Ou Caves, one of the most revered holy sites in the country. Access by car is possible but a ride on the river is the best way to go. The caves date back thousands of years and are now packed with just as many Buddhist icons. To add a relaxing spin on the day, ask your hotel to arrange lunch on one of the sandy beaches on the small islands that dot the river.