Upstaged by its popular neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is every bit as beautiful and relatively untouched. We're turning our attention to Luang Prabang, a sleepy river town full of natural beauty and Indochine charm. Our guide is Erica Gragg, founder of Escape to Shape, who visits regularly for her fitness and wellness retreats.
LUANG PRABANG, Laos – What's better than stumbling upon a place that feels familiar and worlds away? That invites you to slow down while offering new discoveries with each sip, stroll, and bite? Luang Prabang, a sleepy river town in the small country of Laos, is a seemingly untouched gem. Nestled on the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, it blends Indochine glamour, Asian simplicity, and European sophistication. An easy flight from Bangkok, this old-world and elegant UNESCO-protected community is an awesome escape.
WHAT TO DO
Hike Waterfalls: A dip in the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Kuang Si Falls is sure to refresh. The site is popular with tourists, so head to the higher pools to better experience its beauty, peace, and tranquility. Hiking to the Kuang Si Falls through small Hmong villages and rice fields is one of my favorite things to do because it offers a glimpse into Lao daily life. Contact Tiger Trails Outdoor Adventures and make a special request, as this day hike is not typically offered (but should be)!
Give Alms: It would be impossible to visit Luang Prabang without encountering the saffron-robed monks and novice monks that stroll the streets, and the ritual of giving alms is truly a memorable experience. Ask your hotel to point you in the right direction for arranging an offering. Rice is typical, but fruit is always appreciated and considered a real treat by the monks, who rely solely on what they are given in order to survive.
Cook: A palapa in the midst of rice fields makes an inspiring backdrop for a full day of educational (and delicious) lessons in Lao cooking. At Tamarind, you will learn the secrets of traditional Lao delicacies, from laab to khao niaw.
Relax: While the word "spa" might be a bit misleading, L'Hibiscus (Sakkaline Rd; +856-30-96-35-079) is locally owned and operated, clean, efficient, and truly relaxing, offering massages from authentic Lao massage therapists. Few things are as enchanting as having your feet rubbed to the sound of 50 monks chanting across the street. So book a foot rub for 4 p.m. Relax. Enjoy. Repeat. Daily. At $8 a pop, the treatment is addictive. The hot stone and Lao massages are great as well.
Bike: The weaving village of Ban Xieng Lek is on the opposite side of the Nam Khan. Follow the dusty dirt road as it meanders along the river and lookout for people weaving at their looms. Stop to chat and seek treasures. Do not miss the one-of-a-kind textile creations at Patta Textile Gallery, or the opportunity to talk to Patta herself.
Dance: Depending upon the time of day, Utopia is either a great place to relax and chill or a great place to drink and dance. There are a variety of activities on the menu (yoga, volleyball, dancing). Show up and choose accordingly.
WHERE TO STAY
Apsara Rive Droite: The region's most picturesque private villa and boutique hotel is situated on the other side of the less famous river (Nam Khan). The rooms are well-appointed, the bathrooms are spacious (with luxurious bathtubs), and the pool is lovely. It's a perfect home away from home while in Luang Prabang. At your disposal: Private water taxis and bicycles add to the adventure and charm!
Satri House: This colonial gem just outside of the heart of Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to relax away from the hustle and bustle (it's still just quick hop from the action). It has an expansive pool, lush gardens, and exquisite design.
WHAT TO EAT
Traditional Cuisine: Snag a table outside Three Nagas and enjoy the traditional Lao cuisine, some of the best around. Southeast Asia is full of do-it-yourself hot pot restaurants, but Dyen Sabai has atmosphere and style, making it a true pearl. Located on the opposite side of the Nam Khan at the other end of the charming walking bridge, it's an ideal spot for a chic, relaxed, riverside dinner.
Botanicals: When you are ready for a change in cuisine, order off L' Elephant Vert's innovative raw plant tasting menu, which even carnivores will appreciate. Fresh, locally grown vegetables and herbs and creative presentations round out this little jewel of a restaurant.
Sweets: Almond croissants at Le Banneton Café are the perfect grab-n-go snack after giving alms to the monks on Sakkhaline or other surrounding roads.
WHAT TO BUY;
Souvenirs: The Night Market is fun to peruse, and you may find a treasure or two, like trendy, brightly colored Hmong embroidered purses. Be weary of the influx of Chinese-made crafts and keep your eyes open for vintage finds. There are many charming, well-designed boutiques that line the main street, Sakkhaline Road. Wander in and out of various textile shops, jewelry stores, and clothing stalls. Most, but not all, sell goods that are locally made.
You'll find beautiful Tree of Life artworks made of colored sand on handmade paper in the village of Ban Xieng Lek. With vibrant green, glistening gold, and a few pops of color, these works come in a variety of sizes and serve as wonderful reminders of your travels in Laos.