The Allure of Luang Prabang

This spectacular, unspoiled, river-flooded town, set in northern Laos, turns the clock back to the 19th century

Luang Prabang. Even the name sounds languorous, rich, and exotic. Located on a lush peninsula flanked on one side by the swirling waters of the Mekong River and on the other by its tributary, the Nam Kan, this ancient royal capital is surrounded by mountains. Luang Prabang remains one of the last truly unspoiled outposts of Southeast Asia. Having been opened to individual travel only in the early 1990s and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, Luang Prabang's old city (population 15,000) sometimes feels more like it exists in the 19th century than the 21st.

Luckily for American tourists, modern air travel makes this Indochinese retreat easily accessible. Direct flights from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways cost just $180 round trip. Obtaining a tourist visa at the airport takes 10 minutes, $40, and two photos. (On a recent trip, I arrived without my photos, but the immigration official happily waved me through anyway.)

The best time to visit Luang Prabang is in November and December, after the monsoon rains subside. Evenings are cool, and it's misty at daybreak, but by midday the sun can still be punishingly hot. That's a good time to seek a shady respite at one of the city's more than 40 temples, known as wats. Most of them double as places of worship and seats of learning for the Lao boys who join the temples and shave their heads in exchange for a free education.

If you visit only a single wat in Luang Prabang -- and that would be a great shame -- don't miss the city's most venerable complex, Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560, it was a royal temple until the Communists took over Laos in 1975. Its multilayered, curvilinear roof, gilded doors, and splendid glass mosaics depicting scenes from the Buddha's life are set in a lush garden filled with coconut palms, flame trees, and bougainvillaea.

Old Luang Prabang occupies a peninsula only two-thirds of a mile long and a few hundred yards wide, and you can easily reach all of the town's attractions on foot. Many architectural treasures from the French colonial period have been converted into guest houses and hotels. The eponymous Villa Santi Hotel (www.villasantihotel.com) is run by Santi Inthavong and his wife, Sawee Nahlee, the granddaughter of the last king of Luang Prabang. For $90 (double) you can bask in the atmosphere of royal yesteryear. The main house formerly belonged to the king's concubine. The newly refurbished Pansea Luang Prabang hotel (pansea.com/laos.html) on the city's outskirts goes for a more princely $150 to $175. Both can be booked directly on the Internet.

Indisputably the best-known event in old Luang Prabang is the daily procession, at the crack of dawn, of saffron-robed monks holding their brass begging bowls. More than 300 of them, ranging from age 8 at the front to more than 80 years old at the rear, trudge barefoot in single file past the kneeling denizens of Luang Prabang, who fill the bowls with sticky rice.

But the monks don't survive on rice alone, and you needn't, either. The cuisine of Laos is fresh, spicy, and cheap. A meal of green papaya salad, noodle soup, a steamy local delicacy called lap made of minced lamb (or fish or pork), mixed with local herbs and eggplant, sticky rice, and a glass of wine or beer will set you back about $5 at a riverside restaurant.

No trip to Luang Prabang would be complete without a relaxing cruise up the magnificent Mekong River. You can hire private boats for $18 a day to ferry you north to Pak Ou Caves, where thousands of Buddha statues repose in a limestone grotto high above the rushing current. On the way back to Luang Prabang, you can pull in at riverside villages and see handmade mulberry paper drying outside, women weaving at their silk looms, and men making Lao Lao, a fiery rice wine fermented in clay pots in the sun.

Make your last stop at the village directly opposite Luang Prabang. It offers breathtaking views of the city as the spires of its wats catch the last rays of the setting sun. Then, for less than $3, you can finish off your day with a soothing natural-herb steam sauna and massage at the Lao Red Cross. It may all sound too good to be true, but I have been back every year since discovering Luang Prabang in 1995. So far, this sleepy treasure has lost none of its charm.

By Frederik Balfour

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