Luang Prabang: Why you should visit South-east Asia's best preserved city now
Twenty years after Unesco recognition, Luang Prabang’s star still shines. Go now before the superfast trains get there.
'The river snaked into the jungle, reminding me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness'
'Don’t catch the speedboat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai; they crash and people die.” These were travellers’ yarns, we’d thought – but the next day our speedboat did almost that, hitting a drifting tree trunk at 50mph, the long tail motor snapping clean off. My wife (then girlfriend) and I sat on a spit of sand between the jungle and the Mekong River. We were marooned and it would soon be dark, the sky already losing its pink lustre, the tiger-populated forest making some very strange noises.
As our ferryman abandoned us to our imaginations and ran back along the shore for a replacement part, I took stock of our fellow passengers: a couple of Belgian gem hunters, our Aussie mates, and a few local Laos. Beyond them the river snaked into the jungle, reminding me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And just then, with disturbing synchronicity, twilight delivered us Kurtz – a naked bald man floating toward us as his corpse snagged on a nest of jetsam.
I share this macabre detail because we decided that if we ever made it to Luang Prabang – apparently an old city with a couple of guesthouses – we’d turn around and leave Laos at the first opportunity. But when we finally arrived that night I was to discover one of the most magical places I have ever been, and Luang Prabang has ever since threaded itself through my life, calling me back again and again these past 16 years.
It was 1999, the domestic airport was not to appear for another three years, and the only other option besides getting here by boat was the guerrilla-beset mountain road from the capital, Vientiane. You had to earn your hardship stripes to experience Luang Prabang back then and we revered it as Shangri-La, guarding its secret as if it belonged to us.
This December 7-9 marks its 20th anniversary under the protection of Unesco as a World Heritage site, and what a positive effect the international body has had. Imagine Indo-Chinese French villas sitting cheek-by-jowl with dragon-ornamented temples on a tropical peninsula bordered by two rivers, the Mekong and the Khan. Add the sound of gongs calling monks to prayer and you have a romantic blend unlike anywhere in the world.
'You had to earn your hardship stripes to experience Luang Prabang back then and we revered it as Shangri-La'
These days travellers of all ages fly in from Bangkok, Singapore and further afield, to stay at Mr and Mrs Smith-style boutique hotels, trek with hill tribes, take a Lao cooking class, shop at the fabulous night market, go elephant trekking and bathe in the turquoise waterfalls of Kuang Si. When travellers nostalgically glance through their passport stamps from their gap year around Asia, or midlife dream trips to South-east Asia, it’s not Thai beaches or Vietnam’s Halong Bay that they remember, but this little riverside city garlanded with 33 gold-and-oxblood temples amid dense forests and mist. The fact that it now has some of the finest hotels and French restaurants in the world doesn’t do any harm, either.
But it could all have been so different without Unesco’s steely insistence on new buildings conforming to an architectural blueprint sympathetic to the style of the city’s old houses. This November, Laos’s big brother, China, began constructing its high-speed train through Laos en route to Thailand and beyond. In anticipation of its arrival in Luang Prabang, they’ve established an ugly satellite village for the construction workers; it sits like a reef parasite on the fragile coral of the old city.
On the night of December 9, thousands will gather in Luang Prabang's streets to watch a procession of 20 elephants
On the night of December 9, thousands will gather in Luang Prabang’s streets to watch a procession of 20 elephants, 12 of which will have travelled 400 miles from their home at the Sainyabuli Elephant Conservation Centre, stopping in villages to educate children about elephant conservation. As they womble down main street past the royal palace, with Mount Phu Si glittering like a chandelier on the hill and young apprentice monks doing their best not to evince excitement as fireworks erupt above them, people from all over the world will celebrate Luang Prabang’s uniqueness.
Imagine Indo-Chinese French villas sitting cheek-by-jowl with dragon-ornamented temples on a tropical peninsula bordered by two rivers, the Mekong and the Khan
It wasn’t quite so cosmopolitan that first night in the near-deserted city, temples winking like heaped treasure in the overgrown darkness. I thought I was dreaming, that like some dwarf in The Hobbit I’d happened upon Smaug’s treasure and had it all to myself. According to my Lonely Planet guide, our options for sleeping were limited: two upscale hotels and a few guesthouses. A bakery sold croissants and a few slices of processed cheese, and had CNN on television. I co-write Lonely Planet’s guidebooks to Laos nowadays, and a lack of choice is certainly not a problem. If anything, there are too many options now.
Devotion to Buddha in Wat Xieng Thong
I returned in 2002 and noticed that the pavements had been bricked, the clay‑baked roads laid in tarmac; there were more hotels and guesthouses and, to my hardcore traveller’s horror, middle-age people with suitcases on wheels! By 2007, international investment had led to colonial-style buildings blossoming as old relics fell down; there were more scooters and ATMs appearing, as local wealth grew through business and folk left the rice fields to find jobs as guides and to open guesthouses. But even in 2007 there were still plenty of Lao folk living here, hanging their washing in the streets, drying rice cakes and meat in the sun.
Luang Prabang today is better than ever
Two years later the town had become seriously sophisticated; many had sold their peninsula homes and moved over the Mekong. I began to lose count of all the world-class hotels. Luang Prabang today is better than ever, and though it might sound like a well-worn caveat, I don’t know how long it will resist the developments around it. If you don’t make it for the celebrations on December 9, you had better get there before the train does.
The Apsara (00856 71 254670; theapsara.com, you can book via Booking.com or Agoda.com). Facing the Khan River, this is my all-time favourite hotel, for its wood-floored, silk-screened bedrooms, with impossibly comfy beds and colourful glass Buddha statues that animate in the afternoon light. The old building perfectly summons old Indochine, while its restaurant is one of the best in town for fine Lao cuisine. Rooms from £53-£86.
Les 3 Nagas (00856 71 260777; accorhotels.com, you can book via Booking.com or Agoda.com). A beautiful cream-coloured belle with lavish rooms, billowing silk mosquito nets on four-poster beds, and a sense of old-world charm, as well as a fine restaurant – Lao on one side of the road, and Western on the other. Rooms from £256 per night including breakfast.
Satri House (00856 71 253491; satrihouse.com, you can book via Booking.com or Agoda.com). Set in lush, manicured gardens with an emerald-green pool, and restful peach-hued rooms decked in fine statuary and colourful Hmong tribe tapestries, this is the place to pamper yourself; check out the spa or don that white linen jacket and smoke a Gauloises on the balcony. Rooms/suites from $255-$480 (£171-£321).
Restaurants and bars
Le Banneton. Up at the quiet end of the peninsula where the sacred ceremony of almsgiving (tak-bat) begins at dawn, a little bakery restaurant makes the best baguettes and croissants in Laos. As the mist rolls through the chilly 6am streets, take an alfresco seat and watch the orange-robed monks process from a respectful distance.
L’Elephant (elephant-restau.com). Set in a stunning Sixties-style building, this high-ceilinged Gallic restaurant boasts the best cuisine in the country, made with locally grown vegetables from its organic farm and the finest cuts of meat.
The Icon Klub (iconklub.com). If Garbo had a love child with Bukowski (and it was a bar), it might look something like this. Bohemian Icon swims in shadow and lively conversation, with poetry slams, great tunes and a sorceress of an owner who casts her spell with mixology and easy charm.
Thai Airways International (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) operates twice-daily flights from London to Bangkok (from October 25), as well as the only non‑stop A380 service between the two cities. A return flight to Luang Prabang costs from £543 including taxes and fuel surcharges; business class from £2,844.
December and January are cooler, less humid months, allowing you more energy, if higher prices for accommodation.
One-month tourist visas are available upon arrival and cost around US$35/£23.