On the heels of the twenty year anniversary of its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, the peninsula city of Luang Prabang remains one of the most spectacular experiences to be had in Laos. Our editor, Erika Lenkert, with junior editor Viva, explores the Southeast Asian city in the country’s mountainous northern region and discovers a relaxed, walkable destination replete with stunning, historic Buddhist temples, fusion Laotian and colonial architecture, colorful outdoor markets, and enough traveler-savvy hotels and restaurants to make the gluten-free adventurer feel right at home.
Photography Zupachai Laokunrak and Rodolphe Gay
Tak Bat Ceremony
If ever there was a reason to leave your hotel room at 5:30 a.m., this 6:00 a.m. alms-giving ceremony along Sisavangvong Road is it. Despite the throngs of photo-snapping tourists, there’s no denying the beauty of witnessing the town’s monk population, clad in vibrant orange robes, walking the streets collecting food offerings. If you want to participate, ask your hotel staff for guidance.
There’s much to love about the traditional Laotian massage at Peninsula, the extremely basic spa close to Xieng Thong temple on the Mekong River, where walk-ins are welcome, expert attention is paid to the body’s pressure points, and prices hover around $6 per hour.
Kuang Si Falls
It’s as touristy as it gets, but Kuang Si Falls (aka Kuang Xi or Tat Kuang Si Waterfalls) is Facebook-cover worthy. About a half-hour drive outside of town, the three-tiered travertine falls with various swimming opportunities are a wonder to behold—and a blessing during the hot, humid afternoons. Expect to pay around $2.50 for admission and bring your own towel.
Some of the country’s most stunning temples are here and can be visited year-round. Bring cash to get in, dress modestly (women need a cover-up to conceal bare shoulders), and be prepared to marvel at the astounding murals and mosaics adorning the town’s thirty-plus Buddhist houses of worship.
You can walk pretty much everywhere here, but bike riding is a convenient and charming way to get from point A to point B, especially if you want to beat the often oppressive heat. If your hotel doesn’t lend bikes, you can find rentals widely offered on Sisavangvong Road, the city’s main street.
There aren’t that many shops selling trinkets worth jamming into your suitcase, but you’ll find gorgeous fashions and accessories at Anakha (anakhalifestyle.com) and collectable textiles, artifacts, and photographs at expat-owned Gallery Asiama (asiama.fr).
The top of this small, famed mountain, with a pronunciation that inspires chuckles (the h is silent) and 360-degree vistas that cease them, is accessed via a heart-racing climb up more than 300 steps. Fortunately, there are various shaded, historic Buddhist temples and stopping points along the way. Expect to pay a few dollars to join the crowds at sunset; an early morning trek provides a more intimate, majestic experience.
Luang Prabang National Museum
Built in 1904 in a mix of traditional and French beaux-arts styles, the ornate prior home of King Sisavang Vong and later Crown Prince Savang Vatthana is the place to browse exquisite artifacts, antiques, and gifts to the royals from other countries.
Mekong River Cruise
No need for a formal cruise. Buy a bottle of wine from Chez Matt wine shop (on the city’s main street), get them to open it for you, grab some glasses, and head to the Mekong River an hour before sunset. If you negotiate, it’ll cost you only about $20 to charter a boat for a couple of hours and snap photos as the sun dips behind the surrounding mountains.
The Night Market
If you’ve been to a night market before, you know the drill: walk the mazes of stalls hawking everything from jewelry to clothing to exotic insects preserved in booze and bargain with the vendors until you reach an agreed upon price. Or just meander the stretch of Sisavangvong Road for the fun of mingling with the crowds and browsing the handicrafts.
Traditional Laotian food features a rice-based diet (and often includes MSG). But soy sauce and oyster sauce are common ingredients, making some dishes unsafe for GF diners. Meanwhile, almost no one knows what gluten is, and often waitstaff will nod in agreement out of politeness when they don’t understand what you’re asking. To play it safe, order items that are intrinsically GF: summer rolls; larb (aka laap, the country’s most famous dish, which features ground meat with fish sauce and herbs); and sticky rice with mango and coconut. Avoid street food and drink, and stick to restaurants with English-speaking staff, such as those listed in this article.
Don’t let the handful of tables, little atmospheric adornment, and very leisurely service be a deterrent at this restaurant, which proudly abstains from using MSG. Access the free WiFi and catch up on email while the chef-owner ducks into the small kitchen to prepare excellent Laotian dishes à la minute. Must-tries: Sausages, spring rolls (their version of summer rolls), and pumpkin curry. cafetoui.com
Manda de Laos
The city’s new and sexy alfresco bar and restaurant serves refined Laotian family cuisine on the periphery of a massive UNESCO-classified lotus pond. Must-tries: Mix-it-yourself laap moo (minced pork, lime juice, Laotian herbs, and condiments), oua mak phet (barbecued sweet pepper stuffed with pork and garlic), and Luang Prabang feu (rice-noodle soup and Laotian herbs with condiments and lemongrass). mandadelaos.com
A vivacious Euro vibe, colonial decor, an eclectic menu that mixes French classics, like frog legs, with a Laotian sensibility (hello, buffalo tartare), and fresh produce from their organic gardens make L’Eléphant an everpopular place to linger over a meal and bottle of wine. Must-try: Buffalo tartare or anything on their seasonal vegan menu. elephant-restau.com
La Belle Epoque
At elegant, tranquil Luang Say Residence resort’s restaurant five minutes outside of downtown, familiar European dishes and superb Laotian specialties benefit from ingredients plucked fresh from the on-site organic gardens. Pair them with a cocktail and veranda seating overlooking the lush landscape and pool for refined, romantic dining. Must-tries: Eggs Benedict at breakfast and Caesar salad (sans croutons) or larb salad at lunch. luangsayresidence.com
DRINK IT IN:
Opera House Wine Bar
Located on Luang Prabang’s main street just steps from the overabundance of cheap tchotchkes at the night market, this wine bar and tapas joint is a perfect place to grab a terrace table and watch the world go by over a bottle of wine. operahouseluangprabang.com
Sophisticated surroundings and libations are on the menu at this fancy downtown watering hole. 525.rocks
Though in one of the world’s poorer countries, accommodations aren’t all that cheap in a town where nearly all revenue is generated by abundant tourist trade. However, an evening stay usually includes breakfast, which offsets some of the cost.
The Luang Say Residence
A five-minute bike ride from downtown, this luxury oasis boasts beautiful colonial rooms, an infinity pool, La Belle Epoque full bar and restaurant with organic gardens (page 92), complimentary bikes, and an on-demand shuttle service. An international staff eliminates language barriers. luangsayresidence.com
A three-minute walk from downtown, this mid-range boutique hotel boasts well-appointed rooms, a pool, spa, lily pad–topped ponds, and the sexy restaurant Manda de Laos (page 91). maison-dalabua.com
The BelleRive Boutique Hotel
Located on the banks of the historic downtown peninsula, the hotel’s rooms are divided among three colonial buildings and adorned with Laotian and colonial decor. Its riverfront restaurant allows for breakfast overlooking the chocolaty-looking Mekong River. thebellerive.com
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