Luang Prabang

By ROBYN ECKHARDT

Fifteen years ago Luang Prabang was off the beaten path to all but the most intrepid travelers. Today this northern Laotian city receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

David Hagerman for The Wall Street Journal Monks at Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang, Lao

Yet it remains one of Southeast Asia’s most atmospheric towns. Thanks to its 1995 listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang’s colonial-era townscape is still largely intact.The city’s compact Preservation Zone, situated on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is ideal for a walking tour.

8:30 A.M. BREAKFAST

The Bolaven plateau in southern Laos produces some of Asia’s best coffee. Order “strong kafé Lao”. The local brew is taken with sweetened condensed milk. Find Luang Prabang’s best glass at Café Lao (Chao Fa Ngum Road), a mostly locals joint across from Wat Ho Siang.

9:15 A.M. TALAT PA KHAM

From Café Lao, walk to Talat Pa Kham, the peninsula’s morning market. It boasts about 300 vendors who sell from wooden stalls and patches of tarp-covered concrete. The market sprawls the length of Souvannalath Road and crosses three perpendicular lanes. The first lane is a great place to try nem kao, steamed rice crepes rolled around chopped pork and mushrooms and eaten with a lime-chili-fish sauce dip.

10 A.M. HO KHAM PALACE MUSEUM

Formerly the residence of the Luang Prabang royal family, Ho Kham or the “Golden Palace” was built shortly after the French declared Laos a protectorate in 1893. As palaces go the Ho Kham is rather modest. The Throne Room, with its gilded furniture, crimson walls, and, of course, throne, is appropriately kingly.

1:30 A.M. TRADITIONAL ARTS & ETHNOLOGY CENTER

A five to 10 minute walk will bring you to the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center in a lovingly restored colonial bungalow. The petite center displays a collection of textiles, household objects, religious artefacts and handicrafts of the various ethnic populations that comprise the majority of Laos’s population, with informative signage in English and Laotian.

1 P.M. LAO-FRENCH CULTURAL CENTER

One of Luang Prabang’s most beautifully restored colonial buildings now houses the French Language and Lao-French Cultural Center (Sisavangvatthana Road). The ground floor is cool, quiet, and home to rotating art exhibits.

1:30 P.M. LUNCH

Tamarind is a sweet little cafe where good bets include the jaeow platter, several dips to eat with fresh and steamed vegetables, kai pen and sticky rice, mok (fish fillet steamed with mixed herbs in a banana leaf) and stuffed lemongrass.

2:30 P.M. GOOD DEEDS AND RETAIL THERAPY

Halfway up the block is textile gallery Ock Pop Tock. Founded 10 years ago , the business supports Laotian weaving skills while providing sustainable employment to rural residents. The shop displays many reasons to lighten your wallet including silk wrap blouses in jewel tones and ornately embroidered wall hangings.

3:30 P.M. BOAT RIDE

At the bottom of the hill, find a small wooden structure advertising boat trips. Book a one-hour trip with no stops. You’ll float past the tip of the peninsula, where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong, taking in glimpses of Laotian river life.

5 P.M. WAT KHILI

Wat Khili boasts a whitewashed chapel built in the boxy style of Xiang Khouang province. The Buddha image is reputed to have broken into a cold sweat in 1958, perhaps foreseeing the coming Indochina War, during which Xiang Khouang was so heavily bombed few traces of its traditional architecture survived.

5:30 P.M. WAT XIENG THONG

Across from Wat Khili is Wat Xieng Thong,which enjoys a bucolic site on a small hill overlooking the Mekong. Built in 1560, restored in the 1960s, and once the recipient of royal patronage, it is arguably Luang Prabang’s most beautiful wat. Every evening at 5:30, a bell calls monks to prayers. Their soothing chants are a fitting way to end a day in one of Southeast Asia’s most serene cities.

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