Stylist’s deputy production editor Jenny Tregoning finds peace, pagodas and patisserie in the city of Luang Prabang in Laos.
Hands up if you never took a gap year. Welcome to the club. While most of my friends jetted off to south-east Asia post-uni for island-hopping, temple-touring and rum-fuelled full moon parties, the timings never quite worked out for me (yes, I know: #firstworldproblems).
I did, however, glean info on the backpackers’ return (don’t drink the mushroom shakes; do stock up on DEET) and time after time, Laos – specifically the laidback city of Luang Prabang – came back as the highlight.
Perched at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, and surrounded by lush green mountains, Luang Prabang is one of the best-preserved cities in Asia. A Unesco World Heritage Site with a population of just 24,000, it is home to 33 stunning Buddhist temples. The city is a fascinating blend of Lao culture and colonial architecture due to 61 years of French control, while the pace of life is as languid as the flow of the Mekong which sweeps its way past.
Yet despite its popularity with backpackers, landlocked Laos has flown largely under the tourist radar, overshadowed by neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. But things are changing. The Rosewood moved in to Luang Prabang earlier this year. And affordable luxury hotel chain Avani, where we were staying, opened in March, attracting young travellers who want to upgrade from hippy hostel to boutique hotel.
A stone’s throw from both the night market and Mount Phousi – the jewel in Luang Prabang’s crown; a short, steep climb that rewards you with stunning vistas – Avani+ Luang Prabang couldn’t be better located.
The design is minimalist, with white walls and warm teak accents. Large balconies overlook the pool (a novelty in central Luang Prabang; it had to be cleverly landscaped so passing novice monks wouldn’t catch glimpses of unclothed bodies), and there’s a spa and restaurant serving Laos-style dishes – try the nam khao, a crispy salad of moreish deep-fried rice, coconut and peanuts.
It’s impossible to talk about Luang Prabang without mentioning the monks – all 1,500 of them. Each morning, saffron-robed Buddhist devotees, some as young as eight, process silently along its streets collecting alms (donations of sticky rice) from locals and tourists to provide their sole meal of the day. It’s a special moment; do power through the 5am wake-up call to experience it.
Due to its French heritage, the city is as known for its coffee and croissants as it is its khao soi (a traditional noodle soup with bolognese-style pork topping). Popping into Le Bannetton bakery for an almond-croissant-pain-auchocolat- hybrid is compulsory. Spend the morning exploring the ornate pagodas and gilded Buddhas of the many temples (16th-century Wat Xieng Thong is a highlight), as well as the former Royal Palace. For hand-woven souvenirs, women’s cooperative Ock Pop Tok is the place. Take a tuk-tuk to the craft centre slightly further out for a chance to see the master weavers at work.
From Luang Prabang, a 45- minute drive takes you past rice fields to Kuang Si Waterfall, the perfect place to cool off on a humid July day (Laos has two seasons: the warm, wet season from May to October, and a cooler dry season from October to April). A roaring 50m cascade flows down and then on through the jungle, opening up into several shady pools. On the way, stop by Laos Buffalo Dairy – a social enterprise that provides income for local farmers in return for delicious buffalo mozzarella and ice cream. Tours cost £5 and allow you to milk, feed and give the pampered buffalo a quick scrub down.
For the ultimate in meditative contemplation, book a sunset cruise along the Mekong (£27). There’s nothing like it to clear a city-addled mind. They also keep you topped up with prosecco, which helps.
If you’re short on time, Avani can organise a longtail boat tour of the city’s canals (£59 each). It’s a great way to get a flavour of the real Bangkok, and means you can stop at stunning out-of-the-way temples such as Wat Rajorasaram.
Not even the sensory overload of Bangkok could dent my state of zen after such a blissful trip. The backpackers might have got there first, but I have a feeling Luang Prabang won’t be their secret for much longer.
Rooms at Avani+ Luang Prabang from £146 per night, including breakfast; rooms at Avani Riverside Bangkok from £96 per night, including breakfast; https://www.avanihotels.com/en/