By Mark Johanson | May 12, 2011 11:54 AM EDT
Sure, it was New York Times number one destination in the world for 2008. Sure, it’s the Wanderlust Travel Awards winner for Top City in 2010 and 2011. But, nobody seems to be listening – and that’s a good thing. Somehow, despite all the accolades and gushing reviews, Luang Prabang, Laos remains a quiet town on the verge of superstardom.
Once an extremely private nation, Laos swung open its doors to travelers in 1989 and is fast becoming a tourists’ favorite on the Southeast Asian circuit. The former royal capital of the ancient kingdom of Lane Xang (the Land of a Million Elephants), Luang Prabang has long been a backpacker favorite and is transforming into a world-class destination. The small city isn’t about bright lights and flashy hotels. It’s a place for 5-star relaxation at a boutique hotel, riverside culinary indulgence, and Buddhist serenity.
Laos is a poor country, but don’t mistake poor for unsafe. The two words are not so easily intertwined. Cloaked in a Buddhist ideology, this predominantly rural republic could hardly exude more chill. The typical streets are awash with smiling faces and welcoming “Sabaidee.” Long hours of back-breaking work and the scars of colonialism are lost on the friendliest faces of Southeast Asia.
The historic center of majestic Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. The great city, growing with sophistication, stretches from river to river across the Royal Palace (abandoned with the revolution) and a sprinkling of 16th century temples. Dignified monks cloaked in tangerine far outnumber tourists fighting for space under shared yellow umbrellas, while the bald-topped next generation trains at the city’s dazzling temples, spilling out onto the streets at daybreak to gather alms from the kneeling public.
Luang Prabang is a nerdy tourist’s intellectual paradise. Oozing old-world charm, the dreamy backstreets and riverfront pathways overflow with art, architecture, religion, and history. Across the dirt-green river and beyond the latticed riverside gardens, Luang Prabang is surrounded by a handful of craftsmen’s villages. Woodworkers, potters, papermakers, knitters, and dyers prepare their works for the evening market, making Luang Prabang the premier place in Southeast Asia for authentic, genuinely handmade textiles and goods.
Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabang’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage City. Its fusion of traditional Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries make for a unique blend of two distinct cultural traditions.
Beyond the city limits, Laos is a thinly stitched quilt of ethnic minorities. In fact, thirty percent of the country’s population is non-Lao-speaking, non-Buddhist “hill tribes” with little or no connection to traditional Lao culture. Government education ensured a limited knowledge of foreign lands, so much of the culture – including elaborate ethnic attire – remains visible in the 21st century. Within reach of the mountainous north, there are several opportunities in Luang Prabang to learn about the diverse ethnic tribes and to give back through volunteering.
With improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer the isolated oasis it used to be. That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliff sides), but they’re there – mostly. You can arrange a slow boat from Chiang Mai, Thailand, but the easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is to fly. The recently modernized airport is just 4 kilometers from the center of town. There are daily flights from Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines and several carriers make the hop over from Bangkok throughout the week.
Someday soon, the secret is going to get out. How many more awards can this romantic city win before people take notice?