LAIDBACK IN LAOS

Gorgeous French – colonial architecture intermixed with the heady smell of incense and the gentle chime of temple bells – the sleepy town of Luang Prabang in Laos is a traveller’s delight.

pak ou cavesThere aren’t many things that persuade me to vacate my bed at Sam, in fact — aside from a poorly-timed flight — I can think of none. So, it’s with  some surprise that I find myself leaping  sprightly out of said bed when my alarm sounds, splashing cold water on my face and jumping into an awaiting Tuk Tuk, camera in tow. But there’s a good reason for my zealous early moming behaviour.  I’m about to witness something very special, an ancient tradition that is unique to Laos: daily alms giving.

A few minutes later, I’m standing on the corner of one of the main streets in the centre of the sleepy Laotian town of Luang Prabang. Soon, just before sunrise, a procession of saffron-clad monks silently collect offerings of alms (ubiquitous sticky rice) from the assembled faithful and crowds of tourists laden with cameras.

After the monks disperse, we make our way to the nearby Moming food market where the locals get their daily provisions. Amidst the bowls of eye-wateringly hot chillies, dried buffalo meat and fish caught fresh from the Mekong, there’s also produce that errs on the exotic side, with live moles, snakes and frogs next to dead bats, buffalo toes and steamed wasp larvae all for sale.

EAT : Speaking of Laotian cuisine, to get a true understanding — and taste — for it, your first port of call should be the chic intimate eatery, Tamarind. This modern restaurant combines yummy Lao specialities with a comprehensive menu that also provides a detailed explanation of the ingredients and how they’re eaten. Start with the tasting platter of specialities (accompanied by the ubiquitous sticky rice), which includes Luang Prabang sausage, dips, relishes (jeow) and other local favourites — a selection of Tamarind’s most popular menu items. Other standouts include the herbed fish steamed in banana leaf and fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken.

For dinner with a view, head to Utopia. While this tourist haunt does have prices that err on the inflated side, all is forgiven when you are soaking in the view of the river at sunset on comfy lounge beds.

luang prabang

STAY: Luang Prabang may offer one of the most authentic and unspoilt experiences in IndoChina, but that does not mean that travellers need to slum it out when it comes to accomodation. No, the popularity of Laos and subsequently, Luang Prabang as a tourist destination – particularly within the luxury traveller market – has seen a glut of 5-star properties open their doors.

La Residence Phou Vao is one of the most well-established. set in lush gardens on the small hill of Phou Vao with beautiful views overlooking Mount Phou Si and the golden dome of the town’s most famous temple Vat Chamsi Stupa, the hotel offers 32 spacious rooms and two laves suites. Wide verandahs, elegant interiors and panoramic views over the surrounding lush countryside intermingle to create the perfect retreat. And for those that have had their fill of Laotian cuisine, the hotel’s Phou Savanh restaurant offers a tempting European menu in addition to standard local favourites.

For an even more unique experience, take advantage of the ‘Baci blessing’ offered by the property. Arranged by appointment, this traditional act is totally unique to the area. During the ceremony, a group of 10 local villagers, led by the village elder, gather around me and each tie multiple thick white cotton threads around my wrists, all the while murmuring a blessing.

amantakaFor hard-core luxury seekers, the grande dame is undoubtedly Amantaka. Situated on a large garden estate, Amantaka is housed in one of the best examples of the French colonial architecture that the town is famous for. Airy and elegant, the resort is within strolling distance of the boutiques, bakeries, restaurants and night market, lining the town’s main street. Out of its two roomy suites, eight have large private pools and the resort’s central garden pool is spectacular to say the least — particularly at dusk when it’s surrounded by candles.

For weary travellers, the Aman Spa is a must-try. Blending a fusion of the best Southeast Asian techniques with Aman’s own range of organic products, treatments include massages, facials, scrubs and wraps. There are four self-contained treatment rooms as well as steam and sauna facilities with hot and cold plunge pools. Opt for the traditional Lao massage, which combines gentle yoga stretches and pressure point massage to relieve tension and relax muscles.

AROUND TOWN: Getting around the town is easily done by bicycle, which most hotels — including La Residence Phou Vao — have available for guests. As Southeast Asia’s best preserved ancient city (UNESCO put Luang Prabang on its World Heritage list in 1995), aside from a smattering of  ATMs and internet cafés, the sleepy town  offers a snapshot at what Asia looked like mid-20th century.

Heady and hypnotic, the streets are   permeated with smells of jasmine, frangipani and temple incense. There are 3O or more temples, or wats, located around Luang Prabang. The most popular is Wat  Mai. But undoubtedly the most famous — and visible — landmark is Mount Phousi. This easy-to-climb hill offers panoramic views and is the ideal place to come for a sunset, pre-dinner stroll.

mekongFURTHER AFIELD: Transport is cheap, so out-of-town expeditions are a must and one of the most popular is Kuang Si waterfall. Located 29 km south of the town, here 50 mtr falls collect downstream into picturesque turquoise blue pools. Day-trippers bathe in the water and walk along the nearby forest trails; there’s also an adjacent bear sanctuary. En route, you can stop at local villages of Lao ethnic minority groups where silk hand-weaving and traditional paper-making make ideal souvenirs.

At the heart of local life is the powerful Mekong — indeed, the town is situated on a peninsula formed by the river. The first French explorers arrived here by boat and present day travellers can shadow their adventures. Hop on board a wooden longboat and cruise upstream to the Pak Ou Caves; two linked caves crammed with thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues.

If you want to continue your adventure on the Mekong, head another hour upstream to the Kamu Lodge. Nestled in the heart of the countryside, this private eco-lodge is situated on the banks of the Mekong River, in a remote valley of rice fields and forested mountains adjacent to a small village.

While the tent accommodation and food is definitely on the basic side, the experience is unique. During the day, visitors are welcomed to participate in daily traditional activities of Kamu people, such as rice planting, harvesting and net fishing.

Courtesy by K.T.

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