Enfolded by low, wooded hills, Luang Prabang languishes amid a gauzy tranquillity on a peninsula in the Mekong. Long regarded as the country’s preeminent cultural and religious capital, the town served for 15 centuries as the abode of Lao royalty and retains a delightfully traditional feel. Stucco French villas and wooden colonnaded houses, festooned with scarlet bougainvillea and the foliage of overhanging mango and jackfruit trees, line its quiet streets, along with a wealth of delicately gilded temples and monasteries.
Luang Prabang’s elegant religious and colonial-era buildings provide a wonderfully picturesque backdrop for the many stylish cafés, restaurants and boutiques that flank its avenues. Grandest of all the old piles is the former Royal Palace – a graceful fusion of Lao and European styles housing a glittering throne room and exhibitions of heirlooms. Recitals by the Royal Ballet of Laos are also staged here thrice a week. Dressed in vibrant brocaded silk, elaborate headdresses and masks, the troupe dances to an accompaniment of live music by a traditional orchestra – a magical experience.
For a matchless sunset view over Luang Prabang’s exotic roofscape, ascend the long flight of frangipani-lined steps leading from opposite the palace to the hilltop pagoda of Wat Chom Si, from where the 360-degree panorama extends to the surrounding mountains. After dark, the main street below is closed to traffic as dozens of market stalls pop up, selling handloom silks and wood carvings fashioned by local Hmong artisans, as well as mulberry paper lanterns, basketware and antiques.