Luang Prabang (ຫລວງພະບາງ) slows your pulse and awakens your imagination with its combination of world-class comfort and spiritual nourishment. Sitting at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), nowhere else can lay claim to this Unesco-protected gem’s romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine.
Over the last 20 years Luang Prabang has seen a flood of investment, with once-leprous French villas being revived as fabulous – though affordable – boutique hotels, and some of the best chefs in Southeast Asia moving in. The population has swollen, and yet still the peninsula remains as sleepy and friendly as a village, as if time has stood still here.
Beyond the evident history and heritage of the old French town are aquamarine waterfalls, top trekking opportunities, meandering mountain-bike trails, kayaking trips, river cruises and outstanding natural beauty, the whole ensemble encircled by hazy green mountains.
Like a rural scene from an old Asian silk painting, Vang Vieng (ວັງວຽງ) crouches low over the Nam Song (Song River) with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green paddy fields. Thanks to the Lao government closing the river rave bars in 2012, the increasingly toxic party scene has been driven to the fringes and the community is rebooting itself as an adrenaline-fuelled adventure destination with some impressive accommodation options on tap. While the town itself is no gem, as concrete hotels build ever higher in search of the quintessential view, across the Nam Song lies a rural idyll.
Spend a few days here – rent a scooter, take a motorcycle tour, go tubing or trekking – and soak up one of Laos’ most stunningly picturesque spots. But explore with care and enjoy it sober, as the river and mountains around Vang Vieng have claimed too many travellers’ lives already.
Si Phan Don
Si Phan Don (ສີ່ພັນດອນ) is where Laos becomes the land of the lotus-eaters, an archipelago of islands where the pendulum of time swings slowly and postcard-worthy views are the rule rather than the exception. Many a traveller has washed ashore here, succumbed to its charms and stayed longer than expected.
Down here the Mekong bulges to a breadth of 14km – the river’s widest reach along its 4350km journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea – and if you count every islet and sandbar that emerges in the dry months the name, which literally means ‘Four Thousand Islands’, isn’t that big of an exaggeration.
From its sleepy tuk-tuk drivers to its cafe society and affordable spas, this former French trading post is languid to say the least. Eminently walkable, the historic old quarter of Vientiane (ວຽງຈັນ) beguiles with glittering temples, lunging naga (river serpent) statues, wandering Buddhist monks, and boulevards lined with frangipani and tamarind.
Meanwhile, with most of its old French villas now stylishly reincarnated into restaurants and small hotels, Vientiane is achieving an unprecedented level of panache with a distinctly Gallic flavour. For the well-heeled traveller and backpacker the city acquits itself equally well, be it with low-cost digs and street markets, or upscale boutique accommodation and gastronomic eateries.
Whether you spend your time in Vientiane lounging over a novel in an old-fashioned bakery, shopping in silk shops or swigging Beerlao while drinking up the fiery sunset over the Mekong, once you leave you’ll miss this place more than you expected.
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