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May 10, 2017

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Luang Prabang’s slow pace of life is blissful

SINCE I traveled to Myanmar five years ago, no other Southeast Asian country or city had impressed me for its landscape and spirituality as much as the nation did until I visited Luang Prabang, which stands at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers in northern Laos.

In just three days, this incredibly enchanting town full of heritage, regal history and spiritual nourishment left a deep impression on me.

With ancient temples and stupas scattered everywhere and beautiful French colonial houses lining up the main streets, the town slows down your pulse rate. All you need to do is unhurried exploration on foot.

Luang Prabang might be overshadowed by its more popular neighboring countries Thailand and Cambodia, but after it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, it has grown as a destination in the region. But despite a surge in tourist traffic, it has still managed to retain its nostalgic vibe, serenity and peace.

Like its friendly slow-paced locals, Luang Prabang has its own rhythm and pace. High-end international hotels and resorts have been eyeing this piece of land as its next leisure destination, including Amantaka; La Residence Phou Vao retreat overlooking the lush jungle; and M Gallery by Sofitel that is housed in a restored historical colonial building. The newest entrant Azerai by renowned hotelier Adrian Zecha offers a contemporary, elegant dwelling.

A comfortable and luxurious stay is assured in Luang Prabang, but outside, early in the morning, the saffron-clad monks walk silently down the street collecting alms.

It’s called the Tak Bat ritual.

It reveals the city’s venerable tradition and distinction besides the top-notch hospitality.

The locals prepare the alms even before the monks arrive. They are full of Lao staple — sticky rice and some other food. It’s a tradition that every monk gets a scoopful of rice in his bowl. They carry a large lidded bowl attached to a strap hanging from the shoulder. The streets are lined with almsgivers who are usually kneeling on the ground.

This ceremony is done in silence — monks do not speak nor the almsgivers.

A spiritual township and a former capital of Laos, the peninsula town is recognized as a cultural and religious center for Theravada Buddhism. There are over 30 active temples scattered throughout the peninsula, and groups of saffron-robed monks and novices from eight to 80 years old are a common sight at any time of the day throughout the town.

Once the home of the 14th-century Lan Xang Hom Khao (one million elephants kingdom under the white parasol), Laos became a French protectorate in 1893. More than a century later, it’s now one of the lesser-known but beautifully preserved living heritage sites in the world.

The exceptional fusion of traditional architecture and urban structures influenced by the 19th- and 20th-century European colonial settlers provides a picturesque setting for residents and visitors.

An early morning stroll following the town’s daily scared traditions is probably the best way to appreciate the many beautiful temples hidden among the intricate blend of buildings with French, Vietnamese and Chinese influences.

I started my exploration from Wat Xieng Thong, the town’s best-known monastery and the religious emblem of Luang Prabang. It is a beauty composed of a central ordination hall, several stupas and little compact chapel halls featuring intricately carved walls, lavish and elaborate paintings, mosaics, and rare Buddhist deities. The site is also an important gathering place for the town’s significant annual festivals.

The temples have common features such as the gleaming temple roofs and elaborate front façade. The tips of the roof are adorned with finials shaped like a naga, the mythological serpent believed to protect Buddhism.

The temples are all unique and nestled against the lush green backdrop. There is a rare sense of peace early in the morning in this compact riverside town, and an unhurried way of life as you follow the beauty of the architecture and the meandering path of the Mekong.

The former Royal Palace just off the main street showcases a mixture of traditional Lao and French beaux-arts style. Set in a well-tended garden and built in 1904, it was the residence of the king and is now the Royal Palace Museum boasting much of the well-preserved treasures of the kingdom. It’s well worth a couple of hours to learn about Lao history and its culture.

Luang Prabang is a captivating place to spend time, wander through the Lao temples and admire French provincial architecture. Check out the 100-meter-tall Phu Si for fantastic town views.

If time permits, discover the local hand-made textiles, have a Laotian beer along the riverbank and indulge in the local gastronomy.

Although Luang Prabang teems with travelers and backpackers often seen in Thailand, it is not such a party destination. Travelers often show up in the night market, where an eclectic mix of vibrant hand-crafted textiles, home wares and jewelry alongside some authentic local street food and tropical fruits are displayed.

By 11pm, much of the town goes to sleep and its bliss until sunrise again when one wakes up to the almsgiving tradition.

How to get there: Luang Prabang International Airport can be reached by scheduled flights from Bangkok (95 minutes), Hanoi (55 minutes) or Kunming (60 minutes).


When to visit: Laos enjoys a warm, tropical climate year-round. The best time for travel is during the dry season — from November to March — when the temperatures can drop to 15 degrees Celsius in the evening, and stays around 25 degrees during the day. Visitors should wear light but conservative attire during temple visits.


Where to stay:

• Azerai

Renowned hotelier Adrian Zecha chose the heart of the old town of Luang Prabang as his first hotel property under the new Azerai hotel brand. Azerai is a contemporary interpretation of a simple and elegant dwelling for today’s urbane travelers. The hotel is designed around a central garden with its 25-meter-long pool shaded by an old banyan tree and flanked by daybeds and loungers. It has 53 rooms and boasts one of the best spas in town where the therapists are well trained in their craft.


• 3 Nagas Luang Prabang — M Gallery by Sofitel

If you want to experience the colonial charm where past meets present, 3 Nagas is an ideal dwelling in the heart of Luang Prabang. The timeless boutique hotel, composed of three historic houses, is a bewitching place to explore the colorful street markets, glistening temples and cultural sites. Its 3 Nagas Restaurant is one of the most famous in town offering succulent Lao cuisine in a cozy indoor bistro or al fresco courtyards.


• Belmond La Residence Phou Vao

Positioned atop a hill with stunning mountain views, La Residence Phou Vao is a memorable place to stay away from the city center. Set within the hectares of lush greens, the hotel is a blissful retreat where guests can indulge in French-influenced cuisine, open-air spa, or simply soak up the relaxing vibe.


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