There certainly are no rules against using technology or updating your Instagram in Luang Prabang. But the ancient Laotian city—designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 for its cultural, architectural, and religious heritage—feels like it exists in a bit of a time warp. The royal capital of various kingdoms over the past 2,000 years, Luang Prabang is an enchanting and serene place. Fewer than 50,000 people now inhabit the town, which is dotted with French colonial–meets–Lao traditional architecture, multi-roofed temples, and simple wood-shingled homes shrouded in fringed palms and shredded banana leaves.
Things move at a seductively slow pace here; even tourists avoid rushing as they make their way through the dozens of lovingly preserved Zen monasteries and ornate, gilded Buddhist temples. On the fast-flowing Mekong River, which sidles right up to town, long, narrow boats bob in the same lazy rhythm they likely have for seven or eight centuries. Even the air feels restorative, thanks in part to the proliferation of wild flamboyant, mango, and palm trees. It’s a place that invites travelers to take a personal retreat: to disconnect, breathe in deeply, and focus instead on inner peace, wellness, and relaxation.
“Mindful, spiritual, holistic experiences are not created in Luang Prabang,” says Tom Rutherford, the general manager of the celebrated Amantaka hotel and spa, “[they] have been at the core of the people who live here. You can feel it—it’s tangible.”
For centuries Luang Prabang has been the historic center of Lao Buddhism, a special form of Theravada Buddhism, in which monkhood plays a central role. In fact, many local residents and staff members at top hotels participated at some point in their lives. Monks—teens to elder—in their saffron-colored robes are still a constant presence, and following a revival of this type of practice, 1,200-plus young novices and monks are now studying in Luang Prabang, according to Rutherford.
To that end, the only way to start a retreat in Luang Prabang is to witness the ancient predawn tak bat ritual during which hundreds of monks in vibrant cloaks process wordlessly through town collecting offerings of sticky rice and fruits like mangosteen. This act of giving and receiving alms represents a symbiotic relationship between locals or tourists seeking spiritual redemption and the monks, who rely on this donation for sustenance. Some pass in front of Amantaka; guests staying in the property’s whitewashed colonial suites can pick up almsgiving supplies in the lobby before walking to the sidewalk for the procession.
At the new Rosewood Luang Prabang, an English-speaking monk-in-residence, Sommaiy Chantavon, takes interested parties to nearby Phanom Village for the rite. There, gossiping local grannies replace tourists, and a couple dozen monks chant Buddhist scripture as they receive their offerings in front of a wing-tipped temple. The excursion concludes with a short water ritual that symbolizes the life-giving nature of the environment.
Beyond each morning’s iconic tak bat, there are many ways for travelers to approach contemporary Buddhist life. To start, there are wondrous ornate temples to wander through, such as Wat Xieng Thong, with its Technicolor glass mosaics, and other holy sites, including Wat Visoun, nicknamed “the watermelon stupa,” to contemplate. Or visit the Buddhist Archive of Photography, housed since 2005 in a traditional building near a monastery, for a deep dive into 35,000 historic images taken or collected by local monks over the past century. Amantaka works with artist Hans Berger, the archive’s founder and an expert on monastic life, to offer their guests even more meaningful ways to experience this side of Luang Prabang. They can bring lunch to novices studying in a less-visited temple, be blessed with fragrant water by a monk before ancient Buddhas at Wat That Luang, or partake in a private meditation with monks inside temples close to the hotel.
At its spa, Amantaka offers these multisensory Brahmin-inspired community affairs; an elder master of ceremonies (called the mo phone), sitting alongside a couple of compatriots, chants to the spirits and ties strings on everyone’s wrists in part to promise good luck.
Immersion in the lush natural surroundings is another fundamental part of the local brand of mindfulness. Climb to the rounded shrine, or stupa, atop the 500-foot Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang’s sacred highest point, for sunrise or sunset; cruise down the Mekong to Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden for yoga and an eyes-open meditation practice among the tropical flora against a symphony of cicadas; tool around on the bicycles provided by most hotels in town, and swim in the limestone-bottom waterfalls of Kuang Si, where the water glows aquamarine.
At Amantaka, therapists use a multitude of heady methods and materials—including shirodhara, the Ayurvedic practice of running warm, herbal oil over the third eye; a cleansing burning of frankincense near the sacral chakra; and hot jade stones—in holistic facials that go beyond the complexion to incorporate and affect the entire body and the mind. In other treatments, blind masseurs give rhythmic, traditional, oil-free massages, finding the most sensitive, knotted-up sites by feel, and rhythmically using their body weight to release the tension.
In any other place, the instinct might be to rave about these restorative experiences on Twitter or Instagram, and publicly bask in the afterglow. But there’s a reason this captivating place is still rarely splashed across social media. The city’s quiet power engenders a more private appreciation of its spiritual and somatic self-care rituals. It turns out, Luang Prabang is not about selfies, it’s about silence.
>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Luang Prabang