It can happen on any Exodus trip: you reach a place that gets under your skin and you just don’t feel like leaving. For me one such is Luang Prabang in the north of Laos. This sleepy little town on the banks of the Mekong was once the capital of Laos, then in the French colonial period it was a sought-after posting which was as far from Paris as possible. At independence Vientiane became the capital, and Luang Prabang slipped into quiet neglect. Its shady avenues, crumbling colonial architecture and numerous Wats (Buddhist temples) give the town a unique charm, heightened by a (mostly) pleasant climate, superb setting amid steep forested hills, and that riverfront sloping down to the Mekong.
In recent years its fortunes have changed. A surfaced road now connects with Vientiane to the south and the border with China way away to the north, and some of land-locked Laos’ trade rumbles along at a leisurely pace, sensibly bypassing the old town. UNESCO World Heritage status means that the historic centre is carefully preserved, with no heavy vehicles and no buildings over two storeys high (our hotel circumvented this rule by digging, and is three storeys high but only two above ground level….). Saffron-robed monks still parade along the main street at dawn, collecting alms from the local people, but in the evening the street is transformed into a dazzling market: it’s definitely there for the tourist trade, but the variety and quality of the weavings make it absolutely unmissable, even for a confirmed shopping-hater such as myself: all my presents for next Christmas bought in one painless swoop.
We were on an Exodus cycling trip (Cycling Laos). We might have expected to arrive in the saddle, but the tortuous landscapes of this part of Laos meant that some of the journey had to be done in the support bus. But we had three nights in Luang Prabang, and a bike is the perfect way to explore this seductive place. On one day we rode out to a local beauty spot, Kwangsi Waterfalls, and had a sumptuous picnic between dips in the pools at the foot of the falls. On another day we pedalled north alongside the Mekong to Pak Ou, site of a remarkable cave full of hundreds of Buddha statues, placed there by local people over many centuries. The bikes went back on the support truck and we drifted downriver on one of the local ferryboats, calling at a weavers’ village on the way.
But back in town, the Luang Prabang atmosphere seeps over you – mooching along the avenues, slipping into the cafes, trying the street food, wandering into a Wat to hear the monks chanting, more shopping. It was quite addictive: not easy to get to, and very difficult to leave. By Phil Normington, Exodus’ Brochure Production Manager