Luang Prabang, Laos

A dark crimson Citroen, idling at the airport, awaits your arrival. During the quick ride across the river, you see slow boats moving along the brown water. Drops fall from Asian rosewood trees. It just stopped raining. You pass lettuce fields, golden-roofed temples, and French Colonial architecture. Tuk-tuks and bikes hurry past the car. Entering the Old Quarter, you’re surrounded by wooden houses, a royal palace, open-air craft shops, and more temples. It could easily be 1954.

Photo: Hotel 3 Nagas Luang Prabang
Photo: Hotel 3 Nagas Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the former capital of landlocked Laos, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located where the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet, the city has maintained its historical structures and long-held customs. Three buildings, the oldest from 1898, have been turned into a comfortable boutique hotel. The 3 Nagas has clay tile roofs, four-poster beds, and luxurious silks. Ceiling fans spin in every room. A courtyard garden abuts the Nam Khan.

After a dinner of traditional Laotian food–Kaengnor Sai Yanag soup and Pla Thod Khing fish, plus a Lao Lao Sling to drink–retire early. You’ll want to be up and outside by 5:30 a.m. the next morning for the almsgiving procession. Monks, wearing amber-hued robes, pass by the hotel in a single file. They collect food–mostly rice–in bowls from people sitting or kneeling on the side of the road. It’s a silent, powerful moment.

After watching the monks go by, set out early to explore the temples. Hike more than 300 steps up Mount Phou Si for a panoramic view of the city. Light reflects from the temples’ golden roofs below. Wat Chom Si is at the top. Its golden stupa can be seen through Luang Prabang. Visit Wat Xieng Thong, an enchanting temple along the Mekong, for its elaborate 16th century paintings and carvings. Wat Pa Phon Phao, a peaceful temple deep in the forest. Or Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, the largest temple in the area, with its emerald Buddha statue. After seeing temples during the quietest time of the day, you can now eat breakfast. Warm, buttery croissants, bananas, lychees, and strong Laotian iced coffee.

Photo: Hotel 3 Nagas Luang Prabang
Photo: Hotel 3 Nagas Luang Prabang

The afternoon brings more rain. It’s a good time for a nap after waking up before sunrise. When the rain finally stops, walk toward the river. Sip tea at a cafe and watch colorful boats race on the Mekong to mark the end of Buddhist Lent. Drink a Beerlao and listen to the monks chant across the Nam Khan. Wander through the crowded streets to the night market. Held under the red canopy, the market comes alive in the early evening. You can buy anything here–clothes, ceramics, tea, spices, and lamps. Just be ready to bargain.

Spend the next day outside of the city. Bathe and ride elephants at the Elephant Village. Cool off at the three-tiered Kuang Si Falls. Or find miniature Buddha sculptures in the Pak Ou Caves. Return to the 3 Nagas for another nap before checking out the Buddhist art and royal Laotian artifacts at the Royal Palace Museum. The royal family lived here until they were exiled in 1975. It’s time to move on when you smell lemongrass chicken in the air.

You’re starting to get into a groove. Explore early in the morning. Nap. Wander through the compact city. And then eat things you can’t pronounce until you’re stuffed. Sounds like the perfect itinerary, regardless of the decade.

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