Before you land at Luang Prabang International Airport, the descent into the valley – threading through the dramatic mountains – will serve as notice that this is no ordinary weekend getaway. Twenty minutes’ drive away, the streetscapes of the old town beckon, an embarrassment of riches that time-travels through the city’s multi-layered history, now a heritage destination to rival – even outclass – other Unesco World Heritage-listed towns in the region like Hoi An in Vietnam or George Town in Malaysia. And while Luang Prabang’s compact center holds myriad wonders, touring its rural periphery is just as rewarding.
So start the weekend by soaking up the laid-back ambience of this utterly unspoilt town – which holds a dazzling range of world-class hotels – before venturing further out. The pursuit of simple pleasures here yields rich dividends: a gentle ascent to the peak of Mount Phousi showcases all the key sights in one widescreen panorama, a dreamlike watercolor of old Indochina. Absorb the sweeping vision of the town’s unparalleled Franco-Lao vernacular architecture, slotted in between dozens of ornate boutiques, pagodas and temples – all immaculately bookended by the sleepy Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. Make time for the sublime 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong monastery a few blocks away, venue for many royal coronations in centuries past.
Explore the markets and restaurants
It’s a short walk from Mount Phousi to one of Asia’s biggest and best night markets. Every evening, vendors – largely from the sizeable Hmong ethnic group – line the principal thoroughfare named for a former king, Sisavangvong Road, to sell handicraft artefacts (textiles, ceramics, even ornaments recycled from “Secret War” bombs), as well as food staples such as fish and vegetables.
A calm atmosphere prevails despite the market’s size, but even greater rewards await at the end of the street, where a plethora of locally run restaurants line up to tempt travelers’ taste buds. In this gorgeously romantic setting, Lao favorites – often plant- and herb-based – are re-imagined at casual-yet-classy diners like vegan-friendly Bouang (Lao for “spoon”), whose dishes are as colorful and inventive as its interiors.