The delights of... Luang Prabang
Doug Goodman, travel photographer and writer, describes Luang Prabang in northern Laos as one of the most delightful places he has ever visited. With its Unesco World Heritage Site designation, and its vast number of temples, markets, restaurants and the kind, gentle, people it made a great impression on him.
Situated on a peninsula, where the Nam Khan river joins the mighty Mekong, the town is one of the most beautiful and well preserved spots in south-east Asia. It's surrounded by mountains covered in palm trees and dense, tropical vegetation, and makes the perfect centre for exploration.
The country has suffered from many invasions from its neighbours and much of its border lands were heavily mined and bombed during the Vietnam war. Fortunately the danger areas are well away from tourist spots. The small town is ideal for walking and cycling, and provides an insight into traditional culture and ceremonies that have not changed in centuries. Traditional silk weaving, paper making, painting, wood carving and jewellery making can all be seen and visitors are able to participate in rice planting and water buffalo-driving at nearby communes.
With a strong French influence in its architecture and cuisine – Laos was once under French control before it became the Lao People's Democratic Republic – the town attracts young people who use it as a centre for trekking and exploring, and as their departure point for bus travel around the country – mainly to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Travel is by road, river or air as there are no railways. Less energetic visitors and those not on a budget can enjoy 5-star comfort as they study the local culture and history, cruise the Mekong river and stay in jungle camps.
Accommodation ranges from basic guesthouses for under £10 per night to more than £100 for a stay at boutique hotels such as the Villa Maly. Best of all, says Doug, is the night market that runs from 5pm to 10pm, where a vast array of clothes, souvenirs, ceramics, jewellery and handicrafts are sold by the locals. You have to bargain furiously and don't pay more than £2 for a T-shirt.
The official Laotian currency is the kip, but US dollars and Thai baht are preferred. About 8,000 kip is equal to $1 and coins do not exist – not surprising when the smallest common banknote is 500 kip, and you need more than 13,000 kip to equal our £1.
Adjacent to the vast market is the food market where locals and tourists gather to eat and drink very cheaply. The smells, noise and overall atmosphere are amazing and you'll be sure to have an entertaining evening. It seems that the general rule is if it swims, walks or flies then it's edible. Be warned that not every dish will appeal – grilled water rat, scorpions on a skewer, crunchy crickets and snake wine are perhaps not to everyone's liking. If you’re searching for a different kind of meal, a French colonial-style restaurant serving traditional Thai food and French dishes will cost under £25 for two. Beer Lao is delicious and cheap, but imported French wine is expensive. The early morning market is for locals to buy their Mekong river fish, unidentifiable meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. It is very colourful, but don't be squeamish when you see what appears to be a pet stall. It's just a display of fish, birds and animals to take home to cook.
Whether you visit Luang Prabang for its temples, food, shopping or as a base for exploration and adventure, you'll agree that it's a truly delightful place.
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