I’ve lived in Asia for five years now, and I absolutely love it. Sure, the weather, the beaches, and the friendly people are amazing. But deep down, I’m a huge nerd, and I totally geek out on culture, history and the like. So, between the countless temples, ancient cities, Buddha’s, bustling cities, and other historical points of interest, I literally have endless possibilities to sate my fascination.
But there is one place I’ve visited in Asia that is really like no other, and should be on every southeastern traveler’s lifetime bucket list: Luang Prabang in Laos.
Laos is pretty damn remarkable as a country, itself, as the poorest nation in southeast Asia and also one of the rare Asian countries that’s completely landlocked. It’s also far less modernized, commercial, or spoiled by western tourism than its counterparts like Thailand, Vietnam, etc., and it really just opened up to modern ways a few decades ago. A good number of travelers touch down in Vientiane, the capital city, and then make their way around the countryside with buses of broke partying backpackers. But if you only have a few days or even a long weekend to add Laos to your itinerary, I highly suggest flying right into Luang Prabang.
What you’ll find is small city that was the ancient royal capital up until 1975, way in northern Laos where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet. It was also the spiritual epicenter of ancient Laos, as well as the hub of Laotian Buddhism. In fact, the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that walking around Luang Prabang, you’ll feel like you were transported back through time 100 years – maybe like it used to be walking through Havana, Cuba before it opened up. The whole city seems to be shrouded in an exotic mist of yesteryear, like you’re in walking around in a painting, not real life.
Laos was also colonized by the French in the 1800s, so the architecture of the nice buildings is still untouched and unchanged from the colonial era, with wide verandas, deep porches, white pillars, flower boxes, yellow fresco walls, and balconies. There are also some incredible vintage automobiles form the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, before the Vietnam war turned every country in the region into a living hell for civilians.
But amid the mind-boggling poverty and simplicity of the mountain people, you’ll also encounter a surprisingly cosmopolitan and even funky community, with incredible restaurants, art galleries, craft boutiques, coffee shops, vintage bicycles, night markets, and even a few bars.
You need little more to fill your days than just waking up and walking all around, and it’s perfectly safe to stroll anywhere in town or even just start following roads, bridges, and rivers far into the countryside. I found myself snapping pictures nonstop – of the people the nature, and the architecture, and visited several iconic Buddhist temples there, too.
The locals are incredibly friendly if not a little bit shy at first with the alien-like foreigners, but I even was invited to sample a strange homemade wine concoction made with fermented animals and insects that knocked me into a feverish dream like state back in my hotel after only two shots!
In an upcoming post, I’ll go into the top things to do and see in Luang Prabang, but book your ticket now!