The former capital of the Kingdom of Laos, Luang Prabang is a charming, friendly and peaceful settlement on the banks of the Mekong River. With its beautifully preserved architecture, ornate temples and unique mix of cultures, Luang Prabang is the ideal introduction to this still largely undiscovered country.
What to see
There are plenty of reasons why visitors love Luang Prabang, but top of the list has to be its astounding collection of UNESCO World Heritage-protected architecture. The main streets are flanked by both traditional Lao and French colonial buildings, and the small town is home to a huge number of Buddhist temples and monastries. Architecturally, Luang Prabang's temples are among the most sophisticated in South East Asia: highlights include the atmospheric and ancient Wat Xieng Thong ('Golden Tree'); the gold-encrusted Wat Mai; and the small shrines and temples of Phou Si Hill. Once you've had your fill of temples, stop by the old Royal Palace Museum, from where Laos was governed until the communist revolution of 1975.
What to eat
Lao food has a lot of similarities to the Issan cuisine of northern Thailand, but every region of Laos has its own specialities, and Luang Prabang is no exception. Mekong river moss, similar to seaweed, turns up in dishes all over town, and is particularly popular as a deep-fried snack to serve with beer. You'll find orlarm, a mildly spiced meat and vegetable stew, at nearly every restaurant alongside Lao classics like laap (minced meat salad) and the ubiquitous sticky rice. A terrific place to explore the food of Laos in more depth is Cafe Ban Vat Sene, where the Ethnic Feast menu includes dishes from the Hmong, Tai Lue, Akha, Kmhmu and Tai Dam tribal groups.
Where to shop
The night market here has a reputation as one of South East Asia's best handicraft markets, thanks to its excellent range of local products and relaxed, hassle-free atmosphere. Be sure to grab a couple of pairs of 'elephant slipperse (handmade oversized slippers with embroidered elephant designs) as gifts – they're becoming a cult favourite with visitors. Put aside half a day to visit Ban Xang Khong, also known as the Paper & Weaving Village, where you can watch the artisan production of silk and traditional Saa (mulberry bark) paper. And pick up snacks – coconut cakes, pastries and fruit – for excursions out of town (see below) at the morning market
Where to go on excursion
The hills surrounding Luang Prabang are home to an array of ethnic groups, including Yuan, Hmong and Khumu, all of which can be visited on a day tour from town. Stop by the Elephant Conservation Centre – or, better yet, volunteer for a couple of days – in Sayabouri, three hours' drive away. Or take a cruise to the cave Buddha statues of Pak Ou, at the place where the Mekong meets the Nam Ou (Rice Bowl River). And you'll definitely not want to miss the stunning three-tier Kuang Si Falls, just a short drive from Luang Prabang. At the base of the falls, stop into the Bear Rescue Centre, which cares for black bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade.