- Cityscape French history, Mekong mystery
- City life Living on a prayer
Lying between mist-shrouded mountains on the palm-lined banks of the Mekong, languid Luang Prabang is every bit the land of the lotus eaters.
Years of war and some cranky communist ideas may have taken this historic town off the travel map for nearly two decades, but for those beating a path back to its Unesco-protected temples and colonial villas, the northern Laotian outpost is still one of the most charming destinations in south-east Asia. Serene to the point of somnolent, the old quarter is bursting with grand mansions and traditional wooden houses. The pleasures to be enjoyed here are simple and lingering: Lao coffee sipped in a street café; the hypnotic drum beat of the monks’ call to prayer; or a walk beneath fragrant boughs of frangipanis.
Do go/Don’t go
Pleasantly cool and dry weather arrives from November to February, but corresponds with a peak in tourist numbers. The wet season (peaking in August) is not a complete washout, though, as showers are usually brief and paint the countryside in a vivid palette of greens.
Planes Wing your way into Luang Prabang International Airport (www.luangprabangairport.com) from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap or Hanoi, among other regional airports. Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) and Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) offer the smoothest flight connections. An airport taxi into town costs about US$6.
Boats Several cruise boats connect Huay Xai (the bustling Mekong River port on the Thai border) with Luang Prabang – handy if you’re coming from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in Thailand. Luang Say Cruises (www.luangsay.com) offers a two-day river experience, with an overnight stay in the rustic town of Pak Beng. Don’t even consider the speedboats unless you enjoy tinnitus, cramp and death-defying velocity.
Automobiles Luang Prabang is compact and easy to explore on foot. For trips further afield to the Kuang Si Falls or Pak Ou Caves (nicer by boat), you could hire a car and driver: prices start at US$30 a day.
- Taxis There are no metered taxis, but plenty of jumbos (eight-seater motorised three-wheelers) or tuk tuks. You’ll hear the more diminutive vehicles before you lay eyes on them: the two-stroke engine whines like a hornet. Your ride will cost about US$2; a little more if your jumbo is, ahem, jumbo-sized. Hotels can arrange cars if asked.