Luang Prabang has always been a place where, literally and metaphorically, different waters flow gently into one another. Located where the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers meet, tribal and colonial cultures have been mixing here since at least 700 A.D. In 1995, UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site, citing the fusion of architectural styles as contributing to "a unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape." These days, Luang Prabang has one foot in traditional Lao life and one in modern luxury.
The joy of exploring Luang Prabang comes from slowing down and allowing enough time to let the city's blend of cultural influences wash over your senses. Begin your day early by watching morning alms, the daily ritual in which novice monks receive their food from devoted townspeople. Afterwards, go to the morning market in the alleys behind Sisavangvong Road or to a French café for breakfast. As you walk the lanes of the UNESCO-protected peninsula, you’ll see traditional wooden Lao structures next to French colonial brick houses and centuries-old Buddhist temples (like stunning Wat Xieng Thong). Once the afternoon temple drums finish, climb to the top of Phousi Hill and watch the sunset over the lush green banks of the Mekong.
When shopping in Luang Prabang, look for the handmade artisanal crafts that are unique creations of the tribes who still inhabit Laos. Storefronts along the streets and alleyways of the peninsula display colorful weavings, intricate wood carvings, and a wide range of silver goods. In the evening, part of Sisavangvong Road closes and becomes a busy night market. Under a canopy of tents, you can rummage through the mixture of high quality and low quality items displayed in the narrow lanes. As Luang Prabang grows wealthier, high-end boutiques are emerging at upscale hotels and in a few other places around town; they tend to sell ultra-luxe versions of traditional Lao crafts and textiles.
Lao food is often compared to northeastern (Issan) Thai food, but it’s a distinct cuisine. Sticky rice (khao niao) is a Lao specialty, served in a small basket with most meals. Roll a pinch into a small ball and dip it in jeow bong, a sweet and spicy chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. Another great dipping food is kaipen, a dried river weed coated in sesame seeds. Soup lovers will delight in khao piak sen, fresh rice noodles in chicken broth, garnished to taste with a variety of sauces and spices (take a rice cake and crumble it in the bowl to eat it like the locals). Fresh fruit shakes and coconuts can cool you off if you’re overheated from exploring, and a Beerlao is rarely more than a few steps away.
Laos has a population of just over six million, but Lao people are not one homogenous group: They’re made up of at least 50 distinct ethnicities and regional cultures. Most speak the Lao language, and share a relaxed and tolerant attitude in everyday interactions with people. You’ll see this laid-back approach in Luang Prabang, where locals tend to speak softly and avoid high-pressure sales tactics. Modesty in dress is important; men usually wear collared shirts and many women wear the traditional long sinh skirt. This quiet reserve does tend to melt away when people get together over a meal; and on special occasions like weddings you should prepare to hear booming music late into the night.
Lao is the official language and the currency is the kip. High season begins in October, peaks in the cooler months of December and January, and drops off as temperatures rise at the end of February. A visa-on-arrival is available at the airport for most people. (The price varies by citizenship but is usually about $35.) Go to the flat-fee van counter outside of baggage claim for transport into town (around $6 for up to three passengers). The main tourist area is called the Peninsula by locals and its main streets run roughly parallel to the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. ATMs are plentiful on the Peninsula and tuk-tuks should charge about $2-$3 per person to take you around this part of town. Electricity is 220 volts.