In Laos, both Vientiane and Luang Prabang emerging as the next potential hot spots for globe-trotting tourists.
The Southeast Asia circuit — Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — is thick with travelers encountering familiar faces at the next required stop. (If it’s Tuesday, it must be Ho Chi Minh’s Tomb) The crowds are beginning to head to Laos as well — with both Vientiane and Luang Prabang emerging as the next potential hot spots for globe-trotting tourists. However, the beguiling ancient capital of Luang Prabang, nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, is still a place that feels as if it is on the cusp of discovery. It is a town where one minute you are checking your e-mail messages at an Internet cafe next to giggling novices and the next you are walking on a bridge across the Nam Khan with views of farmers silently working in the lettuce fields with nary a tourist bus in sight.
1) Scale a sacred mountain
Mount Phousi — visible from most of Luang Prabang — provides an easy orientation to this compact city of roughly 30,000 people. Hike up the snaking, steep 328 steps — or 355, but who’s counting? — to reach Wat Chomsi (and an abandoned Russian antiaircraft gun). As the blazing sun mellows, a softer light reflects on the gold-leafed roofs of the town’s more than 30 wats, or monasteries. The setting is transporting, almost meditative, especially if Buddhist novices are taking turns pounding on the ritual drum. It is situated on the town’s main artery, Sisavangvong, across from the National Museum.
2) Street life at the market
The sprawling night market, next to the National Museum, is beautifully art-directed. A red canvas canopy covers each vendor, an lamps glow over Laos silk scarves and Hmong embroidery. Unlike Vietnam, which has a surplus of propaganda souvenir shops, Laos has yet to reach that stage of irony, so only a few hammer-and-sickle T-shirts are on sale. A small lane nearby is packed with food stalls serving marinated, banana-leaf wrapped fish or roasted flattened pig face. (I’m sure it was delicious.) A United Nations-worthy group of diners share picnic tables and bottles of Beer Lao. Open from 5 to 10 p.m.
3) Alms for the monks
Giving alms to the streaming line of monks as dawn breaks is one of Luang Prabang’s main draws. Busloads of tourists stake out prime real estate with carpets and footstools, and the photo-mad among them stalk monks. Ask anyone in town where the best lookout spot is, and you’ll get a different answer every time. But options abound: near the Villa Santi (Sakkarine Road, near Ban Wat Sene), visitors may preorder a package of sticky rice and chocolate biscuits large enough to feed 300 monks (175,000 kip, about $20 at 8,773 kips to the dollar; dollars are readily accepted). A roadside entrepreneur on Chao Fa Ngum Road sells a basket of sticky rice for $1. The scene can feel a bit contrived — until you spot a scene like this on a recent visit: a young Korean student solemnly and gently placed a piece of fruit in a bowl as the silent procession of the monks weaved through the side streets, where locals knelt beside elaborate homemade offerings.
4) Arts and crafts time
Stroll down Sisavangvong, past the cafes and outdoor adventure tour outfitters, dipping in and out of shops, and keep going as the street name changes to Sakkarine Road. (As will soon become apparent to anyone trying to navigate the streets of Laos, street names and spellings change almost without warning. This one is also known as Sakline or Sakkaline.) Caruso Lao Home Craft is as much gallery as store (60 Sakkarine Road, 856-71-254-574). The owner, Sandra Yuck, seeks the finest works from carvers, turners, silversmiths and weavers. Be warned: no bargaining on prices. (A small black-and-white turned ebony bowl was $60. Handwoven silk textiles, derived from traditional Lao patterns and reinterpreted with contemporary colors are $50 to $600). Fibre2Fabric Gallery (71 Ounkham Road; 856-71-254-761) is a nonprofit exhibition space with curators on hand to explain displays of textiles from the minority groups of Laos. It is financed, in part, by Ock Pop Tok Gallery, which is next door and which sells textiles. Monument Books (2 Thou Gnai Thao Road; 856-71-254-954) sells trendy Luxe city guides and classics like “Travels in Siam, Cambodia, and Laos, and Annam,” by Henri Mouhot, the explorer best known for rediscovering the ruins of Angkor Wat for Westerners and who is buried near Luang Prabang.
5) Sticky rice, whole fish
Landlocked Laos does not have the culinary reputation of Thailand or Vietnam, yet Tamarind Restaurant makes the case for a national cuisine (Kounxoa Road, generally lunch only, except for special banquets; 856-71-770-484). It serves grilled fresh fish, local greens and vegetables, plenty of fresh herbs, and the ever-present padaek, or fish sauce. The windows and doors are open to a view of Wat Nong, and, in the late afternoon, chanting monks provide the soundtrack.
6) Cruising on the Mekong
Travel down the Mekong River on any variety of boats to the Pak Ou caves, which shelter hundreds of images of Buddha. It’s not just the destination; it’s the journey. Glide past limestone cliffs and terrace farms, fishermen wading with nets and boats streaming from China laden with motorcycles. Boats can also stop at a weaving village or the Lao Whiskey Village (a mini-distillery that can be touristy or interesting, perhaps depending on the rice whiskey shots consumed). A group boat from town costs from $5 to $20. Walk along the street by the Mekong to find transport. (The street is known in various sections as Souvanbanlang and toward the end of the peninsula as Souvannakhamphong.) Two hours upriver, one down.
7) What's fresh and local
Be sure to reserve if you want a table at 3 Nagas because this popular restaurant is often fully booked (Sakkarine Road; 856-71-253-750). The menu at 3 Nagas is based on what’s local and fresh that day, from buffalo meat to Mekong River fish. Salads are made from lettuce and mushrooms grown across the river and with actual flavor. Luang Prabang is not a late-night town. The basic options are to stop at a cafe or the Hive Bar (on the road tracking the Nam Khan River at the junction of Phousi Road and Chao Siphouphan Road), which has a D.J. and a lounge vibe.
8) Palatial Surroundings
Grab a quick breakfast of fresh French baked goods and strong roasted Laotian coffee at JoMa Bakery (Chao Fa Ngum Road; 856-71-252-292) then wander to the nearby National Museum (also known as the Royal Palace Museum, Sisavangvong Road; 856-71-212-122; 8 to 11 a.m. and 1:30 to 4 p.m.). The palace, built in the French era (1904), was the Laotian royal family residence until its members were forced into exile in 1975. The private rooms have Art Deco furniture, feeling reminiscent of Bertolucci’s “Last Emperor,” plus stunning Buddha statues, royal costumes and hauntingly old copies of Paris Match.
9) Lingerat at a Wat
Avoid the tendency to get on the wat conveyer belt. Yes, Wat Xieng Thong with its elaborate paintings and carvings is an eye-saturating feast, and yes, Wat Wisunarat (or Wat Visoun) is the oldest continuously functioning wat. Wat Mai once housed the golden Pra Bang (or large Buddha image that gives the town its name). The checklist can be overwhelming. Spend time in the courtyards talking to novices eager to practice their English, enjoy the fluttering of freshly laundered orange robes hanging on the line to dry or meditate in an empty sim, or temple. At Wat Pa Phai (or Phapai) on (Sisavangvatthana Road near Sakkarine Road), enter a gateway covered in bougainvillea, framing a novice who is stroking a cat on his lap, with one hand while chanting from a book held in his other. Try practicing being in the moment, and refrain from whipping out the iPhone for a photo.
A visa is required for Laos and may be obtained at the airport upon arrival ($35, plus two passport-size photos). Sitting at the front of your plane is advisable, and so is running directly to the visa counter because lines are long and time-consuming. November to March has the best weather, drier and less hot than the rest of the year.
There are no direct flights from New York to Laos. One efficient route is flying direct from Kennedy Airport to Bangkok on Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com); on which economy fares are approximately $1,500 for a round trip in June, and connect via Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) to Luang Prabang, approximately $300 one way.
Where to stay
La Résidence Phou Vao, a little more than a mile outside town, has lotus-filled ponds, decadent spa huts and views of golden stupas, or shrines, in the far-off mountains (Phou Vao Road; 856-71-212-194). Rooms are large and luxe, with private balconies, and with local dark woods contrasting with cotton bedding. Rates are $274 (off season) to $574 (for a suite during the season).
A good option in town is the intimate Maison Souvannaphoum Hotel (Chao Fa Ngum Road; 856-71-254-609). The painstakingly restored hotel is the former residence of Prince Souvanna Phouma, former prime minister in the Royal Lao Government. The hotel has four guest rooms in the royal residence, with 20 more in the garden wing. Rates range from , $160 to $280. (Mary Billard - Nytimes.com)