Asia's hidden gem in Laos – Luang Prabang is Asia's prettiest town
by Craig Tansley
There's a sealed highway not too far away that connects Luang Prabang to China and Thailand. It's almost impossible to imagine, however. Surrounded here by soaring green mountains, everyone around me is getting about on foot or by bicycle. It's like the outside world doesn't exist at all: here trucks and buses – anything that might spoil the peace – are banned from the streets. The only thing that ever moves fast around Luang Prabang is the Mekong River which flows right through town.
Luang Prabang is considered Asia's prettiest town, for good reason. It's a former ancient royal capital that's earned World Heritage listing for its cultural artefacts in a country that's only been open to tourists for 27 years. There are more than 30 temples within a one-kilometre radius of the heart of town. It's a place of peace and quiet – a curfew forbids noise after 11.30pm – in a continent known for anything but.
Luang Prabang is the traveller's favourite secret. Ask anyone who's been here and their eyes will glaze over and the stories will start. I'm here for the calm; after time spent baking near sea-level across south-east Asia, the green mountains of Laos provide such relief.
Within minutes of checking into my hotel I take to the streets, and it's as if I'm in a different continent entirely. It's cooler here too – 10 degrees less than where I was in Hanoi, so strolling is more delight than dread. I walk for kilometres and no one – not a single person – hassles me for tuk-tuks, or to buy T-shirts, or a lady for the night. I can't help staring at the mountains framing the town all round me, they really give Luang Prabang a feeling that there's no other world beyond it. Mango and coconut trees, frangipani, jasmine and flamboyants line the streets, providing colour and a heady perfume, and French colonial style architecture makes me feel like I'm a tourist from a far more romantic era than this one.
The preserved colonial buildings with gabled window shutters all around me are framed too by coconut palms and huge manicured gardens. Some buildings are crumbling down, others perfectly restored – the contrast just adds to the aura. And shuffling about between are monks dressed in orange robes who file out from monasteries built among the town's central area. They glide noiselessly past me, like silent day-time ghosts.
While Luang Prabang these days is a hot-spot for backpackers, nothing seems to disturb its Buddhism-induced calm. The only time I see a crowd, oddly, is at dawn. I wake before first light and make my way along the barely lit streets (walking alone here always feels safe). Onlookers are already lining the streets, so I pick a private spot beside a monastery. At 5.30, the first monk appears; within minutes, hundreds of them are forming a procession up the main street gathering gifts of food (alms) from travellers and local residents, on their way to prayers. It's an odd sight but it's made Luang Prabang famous – and fortunately no monk stops for photos.
Later in the afternoon as dusk takes hold of town, I walk to the market set up along Sakkarine Road – Luang Prabang's main street . Here it looks much more alpine than Asian – with Swiss-style chalet buildings and colourful flowers in beds along gabled balconies. Travel companies line every street in town, but somehow even they can't spoil the illusion I alone have stumbled upon Asia's most secret hideaway.
Buddhism is never far from travellers; every three hours, drumbeats sound for a few minutes while tiny boys in monk robes keep the streets clean with traditional brooms. With so much time spent on foot, I can't help noticing Luang Prabang is one hell of a steep town. It's balanced on a precipice of hill tops; below it, the Mekong River meets the Nam Khan River. I walk for 15 minutes up a staircase from the centre of town and reach the summit of Mount Phousi. In the evening as the sun sets across a mist that gathers on top of the jungle, I can see all the way along the brown, wide Mekong. This is Asia's biggest river; it starts in Tibet and unloads off Vietnam's south coast.
At night the streets light up like Christmas parades, with French and Loatian-inspired fine-dining restaurants mixed in with vendors selling crepes from street stalls. With its curfew and its calm, Luang Prabang lacks the dusk-till-dawn bar action of so many south-east Asian tourism centres, but the bars here are chic affairs that look out across rivers, or up to the mountains around. There's an alternative vibe to the town – it reminds me of Byron Bay, with its mix of style and eccentricity.
Meals also come served up at colonial homesteads converted to hotels all across the city. I'm staying at the five-star Luang Say Residence, an original 1861 colonial home set in 14,000 square metres of tropical gardens. Its restaurant – La Belle Epoque – is one of the finest in Laos, and its restored 19th century bar is about as far removed from the bright, flashy bars you'll find anywhere on the coastline of south-east Asia as you can get.
There are river boat cruises, and waterfalls to swim at all around Luang Prabang but mostly this is a town to sit and watch the day pass by. I spend days at old-world cafes and restaurants, watching the monks shuffle back and forth, and waiting for the evenings when the streets light up and there's nowhere on the continent quite so tranquil and cool.