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Luang Prabang: Why you shouldn't overlook the Laotian city when visiting Southeast Asia

The i logo The i 12/10/2018 Serina Sandhu

a group of people in front of a mountain © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd The monks are filing swiftly around the corner towards us, their orange robes a stark wake-up call. It’s 5.45am in Luang Prabang and the morning is brightening.

I’m standing in a row of others along the pavement in the Old Town, waiting to give them some sweet, sticky rice. As the monks approach, I kneel down, open the metal pot of steaming hot food in front of me and shovel a small portion into their containers as they walk past.

This alms-giving ceremony happens every morning at sunrise and is seen as a chance for the local people to gain good fortune.

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Centre of Buddhism

© Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd The city, in northern Laos, is considered one of the centres of Buddhism because of its rich history and legends. It takes its name from a Buddha statue, the Prabang. There are 1,500 monks (including novices) and 33 working temples.

One of those is Wat Xieng Thong (“wat” means “Buddhist temple”). Built by King Setthathirath in the 16th century on the banks of the Mekong River, it is formidable in appearance. Even the most staunch atheists would struggle to ignore its spiritual resonance.

I later climb 350 steps to see another temple Wat That Chomsi, on the summit of Mount Phousi – the staircase can be accessed from the Old Town, opposite the Royal Palace Museum.

I see that mid-morning in Luang Prabang is alive with colour. Against a backdrop of golden temples and luscious green, I watch men, women and children zoom by on mopeds, followed by beeping tuk-tuks.

a group of people at a beach umbrella in the sand with Wat Xieng Thong in the background © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Attracting people from around the world

I am not the only foreigner to have been charmed by the city. Former art publisher Rik Gadella visited 10 years ago and says he “fell in love with Luang Prabang and the special atmosphere”.

Gadella, who is Dutch, decided to stay and created the country’s first botanical garden, which opened in 2016.

“They were building hotels [but] nobody was doing anything to keep tourists busy,” says the 54-year-old, adding that he was “ready for another pace of life”.

His garden, the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, a 15-minute boat ride across the Mekong, is a serene place to spend an afternoon and gain insight into the lives, beliefs and practices of the people of Luang Prabang.

a small boat in a body of water © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd The city’s laid-back lifestyle also drew Australian Susie Martin from the corporate world in Singapore. She and her cheese-loving business partners set up the country’s first buffalo dairy farm.

I take the 40-minute drive out of the centre of Luang Prabang to meet Martin at the Laos Buffalo Dairy. She leads the way around the farm, introducing me to the herd and explaining how the social enterprise is helping and training local farmers.

“Luang Prabang provided a more relaxed feel to everyday life in a beautiful and idyllic setting,” she says. “The people are extremely friendly, tolerant and happy to work with new people and ideas.”

After tasting some mouthwateringly good Buffalo feta – the perfect mix of crumbly texture and sharp flavour – and refreshing lemongrass-flavoured ice cream, I make my way to the nearby Kuang Si falls.

Although I can hear the gushing of water as I approach, the view still makes me gasp. The multi-layered fall is breathtaking.

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Peaceful atmosphere

After just two days in Luang Prabang, I find that the relaxed pace of life is having an effect on me. I have never felt as peaceful as I do on board a boat cruising the mammoth Mekong River. The mountainous, green view is repetitive but soothingly so. I don’t think I would ever tire of seeing it.

Despite the amount to see and do in Luang Prabang, it is often overlooked by travellers for other destinations in South East Asia.

But the people appear keen for more tourists to discover what it has to offer.

a small boat in a body of water © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd “We get the lesson from Buddha to welcome people,” says tour guide Phone Ek Phongsanith. He says people are eager to show off their culture, referring to the offers of cooking courses and the open gates of the temples.

“Laos people are friendly, welcoming, we [do] everything from our heart. We never say no.”

When to go

Luang Prabang’s high season is from November to May, when the weather is dry. But the summer months are far quieter, with the rain mostly confined to night-time.

Getting there

British Airways or Thai Airways fly from Heathrow to Bangkok, with Bangkok Airways flying on to Luang Prabang International Airport. If you’re travelling from Manchester, fly Emirates to Bangkok, with a stopover in Dubai, and then Bangkok Airways to Luang Prabang.

Staying there

Avani+ Luang Prabang is in the centre of Luang Prabang, just a stone’s throw from Mount Phousi, the Mekong River and the night market. The rooms are small but luxurious. Rooms are around £150 a night.

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