Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on June 2010

Photos by Mark Andrews

To get the most out of a day in Luang Prabang, you need to get up early. First come the waves of saffron at dawn (around 6-6:30am, depending on the time of year), as monks stream from the wats to collect alms in their bowls. The ritual has become something of a tourist attraction, but it remains meaningful to the local people.

As the monks file barefoot back into their temples, the locals turn their attention to food. The fresh produce market, in an alleyway running down the side of the former Royal Palace, is at its busiest early in the morning. An old lady fries corn cakes, while hill tribe women sell banana leaves and sweet potatoes. Each stallholder has a meager selection of exotic-looking fruit or vegetables laid out on the ground in front of them, as housewives flit about examining the wares.

Luang Prabang’s small size belies the fact that it is Laos’ second city. For years a sleepy backwater in the former French Empire, it is now firmly on the more adventurous tourist’s map, thanks to its UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1995.

When Fa Ngum established the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (literally, “a million elephants and the white parasol”) in 1353, he chose Luang Prabang—then known as Xiang Dong Xiang Thong—as its capital. The city’s importance has waxed and waned over time, but during French rule and the early years of independence it remained the seat of the Lao king.

Much of the old town is sandwiched into the narrow strip of land created by the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. A good place to start your tour is at the former Royal Palace, which was used by the monarchy until their removal by the communist government in 1977. Built in 1904, it combines French and Lao styles and lacks the ostentation displayed by many other royal families. The patronage of various powers is also revealed: the royal garage displays two Lincoln Continentals, a Toyota jeep and a rundown Citroen DS, gifts from the US, Japan and France, respectively.

With so many wats to see, it’s easy to get “templed out.” Wat Xieng Thong is considered to be the most exquisite, with its low-sweeping roof and liberal use of gold leaf and paintings. Wat Wisunarat is easily spotted thanks to its large blackened stupa, and as the oldest operating temple in town it’s also worth a visit.

People don’t go to Phu Si Hill so much for the old temples littering its slopes as the view from the top. At dusk, crowds congregate around That Chomsi, the 24m-tall stupa at the peak, to gaze out over the rivers and town.

At night, a long stretch of Th Sisavangvong in front of the Royal Palace is closed to traffic and becomes a night market selling handicrafts, T-shirts, food and tourist trinkets. The Royal Theatre in the palace grounds has regular dance and folk music performances in the evening, and you can also look out for various traditional shows advertised around town. During the high season (October-April), Roots & Leaves restaurant has a dinner show six nights a week in its beautiful outdoor dining area.

Many visitors choose to eat at restaurants serving foreign food, ranging from French and Italian through to Thai and Indian. However, Lao food is well worth trying: it’s generally not as spicy as Thai cuisine, and makes ample use of herbs. Many of the open-air restaurants lining the banks of the Mekong are good bets. However, for a true insider’s experience, try one of the numerous cooking classes offered around town. Tamarind Café holds lessons in a lovely out-of-town location, where visitors are taught how to produce popular dishes like deep-fried lemongrass stuffed with chicken.

Trip Tips

There are no direct flights from Tokyo to Luang Prabang, so the best route is to go from Narita to Bangkok and then catch a connecting flight. The other alternative is a two-day boat ride down the Mekong from Huay Xai (dependent on water level), after crossing from Chiang Khong in Thailand. Avoid arriving late in the day without a reservation during Chinese national holidays, as space is tight and all accommodations tend to have fewer than eight rooms. Roots & Leaves (www.rootsinlaos.com) is open daily 7am-11pm; shows are held 7-9pm on Mon-Sat during high season (Oct-Apr), and on Sun, Tue and Thu during low season. Tamarind Café (www.tamarindlaos.com) runs classes from 11am-6pm Mon-Sat.