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Luang Prabang, Laos

Sabaidee, gentle reader. Here I sit on my timbered balcony overlooking the main street of Luang Prabang. An interest in phonetics tells me that it is pronounced not Lu-Wang Pra-Bang, but Lerng Prabarng. Much more musical.

We arrived yesterday, flying through mountains and low drifts of cloud to see the golden tips of stupas piercing the jungle canopy. A short drive into town and friend S and I arrived at The 3 Nagas. On learning the name of our hotel, our respective husbands outshone themselves with their wit: “But there are only two of you”. Hilarious.

The hotel is centrally located on Sisavangvong Road, the main strip of Luang Prabang. It is made up of two colonial buildings which are both heritage listed, across the road from one another. Lamache was an icecream vendor for the royal court in a previous incarnation, and Khamboua, a stunning mix of Lao and French colonial styles, was a petrol station. In their new lives they make up a lovely boutique property, Lamache with its mango trees and deep eaves and Khamboua with its lush garden and tranquil pond filled with fat koi. Rooms are spare and dark, with wooden shutters, simple teak furniture and white linen. We are staying in Lamache, where the ground floor rooms have a small semi-private garden filled with tropical flowers and upstairs rooms have broad balconies overlooking the passing parade.  As with most colonial style properties, the rooms are dark and shaded. I think the best rooms are the ground floor rooms of Khamboua, each with a small terrace overlooking the garden and with glimpses of the Khan River beyond. Staff are sweet and shy, hesitant with their English but generous with their smiles. The amiable French manager, Cyril, is visible and helpful.

A block in front of me, and two blocks behind me, the Mekhong and Khan Rivers flow fast and muddy around this tiny peninsula. For the most part, the town can be traversed on foot, and for everything else, there are bicycles for rent for around $1 a day, or the ever present tuk-tuks.

We have been here for two days and although you could see much of what there is to see in that time, we have lapsed into a comfortable routine which suits the languid rhythms of the town, glad of having another few days to relax in this exotic village so far from our daily lives.

Every morning at 6am, the boy-monks, swathed in their tangerine robes, emerge from their frangipani-crowded temples to take alms in the street – sticky rice prepared with care by the local villagers to “make merit”. This is an ancient ceremony with a great deal of etiquette attached to it – a monk will never take rice from a bowl, he must be offered it. The rice should be bought and prepared by the almsgiver (local women sell prepared rice to tourists and this is seen as insulting). An almsgiver must never point their feet at a monk, and so on. Throngs of tourists run alongside the procession, snapping photos like paparazzi with no respect for distance or solemnity.

After breakfast, we take a stroll around the town whilst the air still has a slight coolness. If I could recommend one thing to do in Luang Prabang, it’s to walk the laneways and tiny streets which criss-cross the palm of the peninsula – note the glorious French colonial architecture, buildings pained buttercup yellow or palest pistachio, with Portuguese style ceramic tiles on their verandahs and fretwork on their shutters. This is where the Lao lead their daily lives, with dogs lazing in the street, children snoozing in their mother’s arms and braziers burning over small fires built of coconut husks.

We take in an activity – maybe a boat ride down the Mekhong to one of the tribal villages to buy handmade paper or watch weavers at work. We admire the lush terraced vegetable gardens cascading down the cliffside, workers tending them in their traditional conical hats. We might do a little shopping at one of the French-inspired or owned boutiques or handicraft shops. Then it’s time for lunch – a Laos salad of lettuce, tomato, eggs and cucumber with a mustardy dressing and a crunchy sprinkle of crushed peanuts, fried garlic and shallots. Or perhaps a bowl of fragrant pheu (similar to the Vietnamese pho) soup strewn with herbs and beansprouts. Maybe a baguette and an apple puff pastry from the wonderful French bakery, Banetonne down the road…..and by the time that has finished,  the day has warmed fiercely and it’s time for indoor activities. For us that means a spa treatment or a visit to the excellent local museum, or perhaps to one of the many jungle-clad temples which make Luang Prabang a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Then it’s back to the hotel to lounge on the verandah with a cool drink for a chat, some reading or just a companiable silence as the city starts to awaken from its siesta around us.

Around dusk, cocktail hour starts in earnest and there is no shortage of places to eat and drink. The restaurant at The 3 Nagas is deservedly well reviewed for its excellent Lao cuisine – we had a gorgeous dinner last night of a spicy mushroom custard steamed in banana leaves, red sticky rice, and the local Luang Prabang pork sausage, coarse and sweet and herby. Other options are L’Elephant and Tamarind, on the river.

However the best food in town is to be had at the night markets, where you can pick from piles of chargrilled river perch, the most delicious spring rolls I’ve ever eaten, or tiny half-moons of coconut and rice flour custards. Grab a Beer Lao or a fruit shake and eat at one of the rickety tables nearby.

Although the town generally shuts down relatively early, it’s fun to walk the main streets. The night market itself has a festive atmosphere but there is really nothing of interest to buy unless you feel a pressing need for some strangely puffy slippers with appliqued elephants on them, or a bottle of fire water whisky given added virility by a dead scorpion or snake.

Then to sleep, protected by mosquito nets and dreaming sweetly of another languorous day ahead.