Why Luang Prabang?
An alluring combination of mountains and rice paddies, golden stupas and red terracotta rooftops, faded French villas and fantastic Gallic and Asian cuisine, built on a sacred intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, it's impossible not to fall in love with Luang Prabang.
Despite an influx of investment over the last few years, life in Laos' former royal capital continues to move at a regal pace, a pace mainly dictated by nature and time-honoured traditions. In the mornings, observe saffron-robed monks receiving alms, lunch on pumpkin curry in the company of rescue elephants, spend afternoons dozing on the Mekong in a little wooden boat, and evenings spellbound by a choir of cicadas, frogs and crickets – imagining yourself part of a world barely changed in a thousand years.
Life here is deliciously sleepy, but, if you want to keep busy you can do that too; in this Unesco-protected town there are 33 spectacular Buddhist temples, a raft of colonial-era architecture, as well as museums, heritage centres and night markets. And on its doorstep; hike-able national parks, misty mountainous rainforest, intricate limestone caves, fairy-tale-pretty waterfalls and rare and beautiful wildlife.
Most visitors tend to only pass through Luang Prabang for a few days as part of a tour of the Golden Triangle, but this fascinating city undoubtedly merits more of your time.
A comfortable bed
Romantically rolled out across both sides of a gurgling river, the Rosewood Luang Prabang is the latest luxury hotel arrival. 22 suites, poolside bungalows and tented villas stilted amid the jungle canopy are decked out in a fabulous retro tableau of glossy teaks, patterned tiles, tassles and antiques. The restaurant is atmospheric and features rediscovered Royal Laotian recipes; a trip to the spa, perched above the river, will leave you glassy-eyed and mumbling for bed. Riverside rooms from US$724 (Dh2,659) per night, including breakfast.
There's more than a whiff of colonial nostalgia about the Belmond La Résidence Phao Vao, with its white-washed walls, wooden shutters, potted palms and swirling fans. Positioned on the hillside, the views overlooking the stupa-sprinkled city and rippling mountains are magical – and there's a complimentary tuk-tuk or limousine service to drop you in town. Doubles from US$422 (Dh1,550) per night (it's worth paying a little more for those stupendous mountain views).
Housed in a former French officers' quarters slotted right in the thick of it, between the Royal Palace and the handicrafts night market, the newly-opened Avani+ is a slick blend of east meets west. Rooms are sunny and modern, with light wood floors, creamy walls and splashes of Hmong silk. Enjoy a breakfast of Laos arabica coffee and puffy French croissants at the pavement cafe watching novice monks wander past. Doubles start from US$132 (Dh485) per night.
Find your feet
Laos' former seat of power is much smaller than you might imagine and its tamarind-lined, temple-strewn streets were made for meandering. With dozens of extraordinary shrines, gorgeous Gallic architecture, miles of riverbanks and food stops on every corner, whole weeks could be spent snooping, but, a good starting point to get a feel for the city is Wat Xieng Thong, widely regarded to be the finest temple in Laos.
Curlicue roofs beckon visitors upstairs and into an elegant compound of ordination halls, tiny chapels, intricately carved wooden pillars and mirrored-tiled murals. From here, you can ramble along Mekong River Road, nipping into shaded alleyways for a cooling drink, the oche and gold Wat Sene Souk Haram, and Peninsula Massage and Sauna for a blissful hour of foot reflexology in a rattan chair overlooking the Mekong (no web).
Later, make your way to the UXO Lao Visitor Centre for a sobering insight into the half a million bombing missions the United States flew during the Secret War years between 1964 to 1973.
The following day, rise and shine and pull on your swimwear for a crowd-beating early morning dip in the phenomenal Kuang Si waterfalls, a series of fizzy falls tumbling over rocks into dozens of luminous-blue limestone pools. Around a 45-minute drive outside of town, you'll need a taxi to take you there, but the journey through misty jungle is a delight and there are baguettes, fruit shakes and picnic spots when you arrive.
Meet the locals
Laos sprang from the bountiful confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kang Rivers, and there's no better way to soak up its somnambulant atmosphere than lolling in the back of a boat. Bounmi offer glamorous, customised cruises in blinged-up slow boats to local villages, riverside beaches and sacred caves.
Myths, legends and folktales are brought to life at Garavek, a traditional storytelling theatre which puts on intimate, highly-amusing nightly performances in English.
Book a table
River fish rice, buffalo sausage, chicken noodle soup, spicy papaya salads, spring rolls, baguettes, tarts, crepes and opera cake; Luang Prabang has a staggering amount of fabulous food to devour.
For an exciting introduction to the dining scene, book a table on the patio at lantern-lit Blue Lagoon. Laotian Chef Somsack trained in Switzerland and balances eastern and western flavours in perfect harmony. Favourite dishes included gooey cheese fondue Chinoise, tender black pepper buffalo fillet and – for the more adventurous – grasshopper tagliatelle in creamy dill and lemongrass sauce.
Hidden behind a wall of bamboo in the historic district with a hidden terrace and hardwood tables is Bistro Pastis (no website). This French restaurant serves an ever changing menu of summery Provencal and Mediterranean dishes - ratatouille tart, beef tartare, crème bruleé. The ambiance is relaxed and the staff chatty and professional.
Make sure to leave plenty of space in your suitcase; artsy Luang Prabang is packed with unique pieces you'll want to take home. Start at the Handicraft Night Market, where you'll find the likes of hand-woven cushion covers, embroidered quilts, silky bed runners, oil paintings, decorative rice baskets, silver bowls and Khmer bronzes.
Call Ock Pop Tok to pick you up in their rainbow-bright war-era Toyota jeep and bounce over to their lovely riverside Living Crafts Centre, a sustainable fair trade project, run by women for the women of Laos. Sign up for a class and learn the art of bamboo weaving and batik or swing by the shop to pick up one-of-a-kind artisanal pieces, with some fabrics taking months to produce and costing in excess of US$2,000 (Dh7,346). Enthusiasts will also find a second Ock Pop Tok heritage shop in town selling vintage and antique textiles.
What to avoid
As with most holiday destinations in South East Asia, it's best to avoid travelling during the Chinese Golden Week break which falls in October, causing many major tourist spots to become seriously over-crowded.
Around a 40-minute drive from Luang Prabang is the soul-stirring Mandalao Elephant Conservation Centre, one of the most responsible, forward-thinking elephant sanctuaries in South East Asia. The elephants here have been rescued from back-breaking labour in the logging industry and tourist riding camps and now spend their days peacefully eating and wandering their way around 200 hectares of land. Visitors may feed their four-tonne four-legged friends with pineapple, bananas and sugarcane, before embarking together on a two-hour walk.
Emirates and Etihad both operate codeshare flights with Bangkok Airlines, from Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively to Luang Prabang via the Thai capital. Fares start from Dh4,295 with Emirates and Dh3,995 with Etihad.