I don't think I've ever used the word "charming" to describe
anything especially not a city. But Luang Prabang, Laos, demands
to be called just that. Charming. Quaint, picturesque,
and enchanting too.
Two Rivers Converge
Luang Prabang sits on a small peninsula that juts out into the convergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Rugged green mountains completely surround the city.
A Trip Back in Time
If you can ignore all the motorbikes, a stroll through Luang Prabang feels like a walk through history. Crumbling colonial architecture gives way to ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries; towering palm and banana trees shade the dirt lanes; novice monks in saffron robes pad down narrow alleyways; field workers in traditional straw hats tend tidy, terraced gardens beside the river; simple, narrow cargo boats laze up the Mekong; giggling schoolgirls coast past on Chinese bicycles; street-side vendors sell fresh fruit juices for pennies.
Real Bread, Real Coffee, Real Cheese: Thank You France!
Luang Prabang is packed with fantastic restaurants, including a few full-on French bistros that offer incredible multi-course menus at prices that would have Gérard Depardieu coming back for fourths. Even the cheap hotels serve great food. Most restaurants have sidewalk seating where you can linger over a Beer Lao and watch the beautiful people go by.
A UNESCO "World Heritage City"
After their initial survey, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Luang Prabang the "best preserved city in South East Asia."
Luang Prabang has since been added to UNESCO's World Heritage list, which
entitles the city to UN funds for preservation. A team of international and Lao architects now work full-time to restore temples, protect historical sites, and monitor new development. This is good news for the city and its admirers, as World Heritage status guarantees that the city will be forever free of McDonald's restaurants and K-Mart superstores.
Ready-Made for Romance
Luang Prabang is one of those cities that seem custom-tailored for romance. It's impossible to spend time there and not envision romantic strolls, candle-lit dinners with real wine (a rarity in Asia), lazy mornings in the faded but still splendid colonial hotels, and shared sunsets over the Mekong.
The city inspires so much idealized daydreaming that I decided to leave early. It's my favorite city in Asia, but I had to get out of there before it made me too soft.
Thanks to UNESCO, though, I can always return under different circumstances and enjoy the city's untainted charm.