Luang Prabang might be one of the most gorgeous places I have ever laid eyes on. From the sloping roofs of gold Buddhist temples to artfully plated French-influenced cuisine to the swirling coffee colours of the Mekong, I was utterly entranced. Partly by circumstance and partly my terrible planning on my part, I only had 24 hours to enjoy this city.
My flight had landed late so it was already dark when my pickup driver arrived (he was late, drunk and had tried to take someone else to my hostel by mistake so had had to turn around and come back to the airport). I was tired, sticky in my travel clothes and grumpy about my pickup-gone-wrong when the car started weaving through the streets.
Suddenly, I was paying attention.
It may have been nighttime, but I could already tell that the city was beautiful. Glowing lanterns and fairy lights hung from wooden villas on stilts. The Mekong glistened black through the trees, reflecting the moonlight. There was a twinkling atmosphere of magic in the air, like I’d accidentally stumbled upon a elvish world in the woods after midnight.
Coming from Myanmar, where the cities were literally concrete jungle – part concrete, part jungle, with an animalistic grittiness and crescendo of life noise to match – Luang Prabang was like a breath of French air on the Asian Riviera. Why, oh why, had I only given myself 24 hours in this picturesque little town? I decided to squeeze as much as I could into those precious hours as possible.
I was ravenous by the time I checked into Downtown Backpackers Hostel. I followed rest of the backpacker crowd to the alley of street food vendors next to the night market for a big helping of local grub. The steaming smells, cramped atmosphere, wet floors, bright colours, loud background chatter and calls of hawkers were exactly how I had pictured Southeast Asia over five years ago before I had ever come East. After nearly half a decade living on the continent, I had finally found the Asia I had envisioned when I first pictured coming here – it was a nice full circle. That was the moment I knew I was going to like Laos.
The alley was set up so you could help yourself to the buffet tables of plates piled high with noodles, rice, vegetables, tofu and spring rolls. Then, the vendors dump everything in a wok and heat it up for you. I washed my portion down with a cold and aptly-named Beerlao.
Having stuffed my face with street food, I walked off my dinner with a starlit stroll around the Handicraft Night Market; a street of treasures illuminated with more enchanting lanterns. Delicate handmade souvenirs included scarves, clothes, lampshades, cushion covers and other trinkets. Despite a large meal, I couldn’t resist buying a bag of freshly-made coconut pancakes that were being sold on the street corner.
I went to sleep partly cursing myself for only leaving one full day to explore Luang Prabang, but partly excited to see what the city would look like when the sun was up.
In the morning I saw that there were plenty of the ubiquitous colourful Southeast Asian tuk-tuks to be found lining the streets, but I decided to explore the sights on foot to better get acquainted with the city. I attempted to beat the heat by starting my morning early with a bit of temple-hopping. Wat Xieng Muan’s intricate interior designs in the Old Quarter were a good introduction, followed by the historic wooden Buddhas of Wat Wisunarat, and finally culminating with the visually stunning Wat Xieng Thong with its classic low-sweeping roofs that I had previously wanderlusted over on postcards and guidebook covers.
Interestingly, Laos is a noticeably more conservative country compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, and especially when it comes to dress, despite the soaring temperatures. I thought I was being conservative by leaving my shorts and vest tops in my backpack and donning a knee-length sleeveless white dress with a modest neckline, but apparently this was also showing too much flesh for sightseeing.
At each temple I visited, the staff at the entrance gate gave me the same eye up and down before politely asking me to cover both my shoulders and calves (not the most scandalous or attractive of body parts to be sure, but I thought it best to be respectful and oblige). I thought I had come prepared by carrying my trusty sarong, but in having to cover shoulders to ankles I was one piece of material short. Luckily most places had me covered with a rental service for wrap-around skirts/scarfs, and I sweltered in three layers of material.
Which neatly brings me onto the subject of Luang Prabang’s brightly-robed monks. I expected to see one or two at the temples, but was pleasantly surprised to spot their bright apricot attire all over town. I learnt that it’s traditional for young boys to spend a period of their childhood living as a monk, and it’s considered a rite of passage before you ‘become a man’. I wanted to say hello or ask to take a picture, but seeing as the monks aren’t supposed to interact with women, I held my tongue.
I was surprised at how much of the colonial French influence was visible in Luang Prabang, most notably in the old Indochinese-style villas and architecture, the relaxed pace of the city and its inhabitants, as well as the excellent café culture. I tried my first Laos-style iced coffee at Indigo House and opted for a sumptuous European brunch at Laotian culinary institution Le Banneton. Sipping on my daily dose of caffeine and casual people watching made me believe I was in Asia’s Paris.
Laos can get wildly hot in the middle part of the day, so when things got too heated I headed inside by taking a trip to the Palace Museum. The Royal Palace is over a century old but was vacated after the 1975 revolution, when it was then turned into the museum it is today. The sparkling details on the mosaic walls kept catching my eye, while the clever way that the afternoon sunlight is captured in the painted murals depicting local life really captured my imagination.
One inescapable fixture of Luang Prabang is the bending Mekong River, which seemed to me to bear a striking resemblance to the chocolate river from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, minus Augustus Gloop getting sucked into it of course. I watched locals who seemed to have the balance of yoga masters as they deftly built a bamboo bridge across it slowly throughout the day.
I wanted to linger that little bit longer by the water’s edge, but with only 24 hours to spare I saved my sunset moment for the peak of Phu Si. The 20-minute uphill climb proved worth it for the view, though I had to battle with all the other tourists vying for the same vista. I took the longer path back down just before sunset and was rewarded with a crowd-free panorama of the sun dipping behind the mountains and the Mekong.
Now that the sun was gone, it was time to eat. I was turned away from Tamarind, one of the best Laotian restaurants in town, for not having a reservation, but luckily had a plan B. I tucked into homemade chips and dips at L’Etranger Books & Tea; a bookstore/café (read: my idea of heaven) with great food and nightly film screenings starting at 7pm. It had been a while (months?) since I had watched a film, so I happily snuggled into beanbags and comfy cushions to watch something with Julia Roberts and George Clooney in their attic after a packed day of sightseeing.
As I headed back to my hostel my feet were weary, but I had had more than one or two postcard-perfect moments during my brief 24 hours in Luang Prabang. I packed my bags for my bus to Vang Vieng in the morning and told myself I’d be back. I’d be back to see the brilliant turquoise waterfalls of nearby Kuang Si, to have an adventure of a boat trip along the Mekong and to try out the numerous spas that could pamper me after days of endless sightseeing like the one I had had.
I meant it when I wrote that Luang Prabang is the Southeast Asia of my dreams.
I’ll be back, Luang Prabang, I’ll be back.