I broke my own cardinal rule of travel, which is this: If you're going to visit a country, start in its capital to embrace the cultural customs and nuances of a new destination.
For Laos, that would be Vientiane, which sits on a plain that's northeast of the mighty Mekong River. I considered my options to get there from northwest Cambodia, where I had been doing research and writing two articles for a legal publication.
If I backtracked to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, or spent a couple of days overland in dusty and stomach-churning travel, I could do it.
Instead, I took a 90-minute flight to Luang Prabang, the crown jewel of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Breaking those self-imposed rules proved enormously rewarding.
Don't misunderstand: Vientiane has a Franco-Lao architectural melange that's often breathtaking. Its Nam Phu area boasts several excellent Franco-Lao restaurants and spas, and every important tourist site is well within walking distance.
But Luang Prabang offers a range of experiences for spirit and psyche.
During our six days here, my travel partner, George, and I dined well, visited numerous Buddhist temples, rode and fed elephants, shopped for fine silks, local art and other indigenous handicrafts, visited several small mountain villages where life remains pretty much the same as I imagine it was a hundred years ago, cruised the Mekong, and swam in refreshing waterfall pools with limestone formations that would make any sketch artist swoon.
This I now know: No matter how long you plan to stay in Luang Prabang, it will not be long enough.
Laos, a little larger than Minnesota, is landlocked, surrounded by Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Although it has just under 7 million inhabitants, only 55% of its people are ethnic Laotian. The balance is Hmong, Khmer, Iko and indigenous hill tribe peoples. This cultural combination adds to the mix slightly different yet complementary music and dance, food and spices, and, of course, traditional dress. Without traveling far, you can experience some or all of these different cultures.
Laos became a French protectorate in the late 19th century and except for brief Japanese occupation during World War II France remained in control until 1953, when Laos gained full independence. Like Vientiane, Luang Prabang has a strong French influence that blends harmoniously with Laos' Theravada Buddhist architecture and captivating cuisine.
From the airport, it was a 10-minute ride to the main riverfront area. Although there are several guesthouses and hotels a stone's throw from the town's main Sisavang Vong Road, we chose, given the 90-degree heat, a hotel with a pool that was a 10-minute walk from the riverfront.
The downside: To get to town we had to cross a single-file, somewhat-nerve-racking footbridge over the Nam Khan River. (Don't mind the creaking and movement of the floor boards as you walk and certainly don't look down, unless of course being 90 feet above fast-swirling, muddy waters floats your boat.)
To get our bearings, we climbed the 328 steps to the top of Mt. Phousi (sometimes spelled Phu Si or Phousy, Lao for "sacred mountain"), Luang Prabang's best-known landmark. Its three sets of stairs make it accessible from various parts of town and lead you 450 feet up to the summit.
As we entered from the Nam Khan side, the shroud of low-hanging clouds added to the mystical quality. Along the way, several old temples housed Buddhas representing teaching, prosperity, health, peace and even the names of weekdays.
At the top, we were rewarded with a panoramic vista of Luang Prabang and surrounding hamlets, including the gold-domed landmark Wat Pa Phon Pao (sometimes spelled Wat Pa Phon Phao) that UNESCO says "is in perfect harmony in the natural environment."
Back at ground level, we stopped for lunch at one of the many eateries along Sisavang Vong Road. They're a blend of architectural styles and most have only a dozen or so small tables. You can choose from Western fare or traditional Laotian cuisine.
I had laab kai, finely chopped chicken salad and noodles with vegetables, and George enjoyed mok pa fok, steamed fish in banana leaves and fried rice. You can eat like a king in Luang Prabang for just a few dollars — our average restaurant lunch for two was $10, dinner about $20 — and it all goes down well with an ice-cold Laotian beer. (Bottled water is readily available and inexpensive.)
For dessert, we took a calorie-free route and hit one of the many local spas. (There are at least a dozen massage spas on Sisavang Vong Road, more on the many side streets, and most hotels and guest houses also have spa services.) The hourlong foot massage I had that first day (which also included my neck, shoulder and back) was not only exquisite, but at $5 made me rethink what I've often paid stateside for lesser quality.
For a different kind of bliss, we visited Luang Prabang's night market along Sisavang Vong Road. It's a colorful cornucopia of gorgeous textiles (silk scarves, embroidered table runners, quilts) and carved ornamental silver, for which the Hmong women are famous. Good-natured bargaining is expected, and a fair ending price is about half the original quote.
The heat made buying scarves almost unthinkable. Putting mind over matter, we bought more than three dozen for about $8 each. I also purchased a 15-pound sterling silver necklace. Incredibly, Hmong women wear these for several days during the new year celebration; I turned mine into wall art.
At the south end of the night market, the food alley's many stalls offer dollar dinners. For this, you are given a good-sized plate to heap as high as you like for a memorably delicious dinner. We got in line, paid for the two plates and another dollar for a large Laotian beer, and enjoyed various sautéed noodles with chicken and vegetables, several won-ton-like envelopes filled with mysterious though delectable meats and vegetables, marinated salads and fresh tropical fruit. It was one of the best and least expensive meals of the trip.
We spent three more days sampling spas and visiting temples, monasteries and the national museum, once the royal palace of former King Sisavang Vong. Designed by French architects, the single-story, double cruciform-shaped structure is, like many buildings in Luang Prabang, a mixture of Laotian and European styles.
For me, the most interesting room was the diplomatic gift hall. Among the usual dishes, portraits and royal knickknacks is a moon rock, a gift from then-President Richard Nixon.
On our final night we took a sunset dinner cruise along the Mekong River. As a parting gift, the clouds gave way as our boat departed and we were treated to a shimmering array of sunset colors. The beer was cold and the traditional food was good. Before we turned around to head back, several children in traditional dress along the banks of the Mekong put on what seemed to be an impromptu dance display. It was a lovely punctuation to our trip.
Vientiane: A city of temples, Buddhas and French influences
We couldn't come to Laos without seeing charming Vientiane, a 45-minute flight from Luang Prabang.
Its central Nam Phu area is home to most hotels, and it boasts several excellent Lao and Franco-Lao restaurants. Our favorites were Lao Kitchen at 140/01 Rue Hengboun; Xang Khoo Restaurant, Bar & Wine Shop at 68 Pangkham Road; and L'Address de Tinay French Restaurant at Wat Ongteu. There are also several good massage spas along Pangkham Road, a two-minute walk from Nam Phu. And, of course, there are the tourist sites.
Here are the musts from our trip, all within walking distance:
— The Presidential Palace. This Beaux-Arts beauty isn't home to the president, who lives elsewhere. Although you can't go inside, it's worth a look, especially at night. Across the street is the Brunei Embassy, by far the most impressive diplomatic compound I've ever seen.
— Ho Phakeo (sometimes spelled Haw Pha Kaew). This repository houses religious art and, once, the well-traveled Emerald Buddha. It was seized by the Siamese in 1779 and remains in Thailand, so you will have to settle for splendid bronze Buddha sculptures and a beautifully landscaped garden with a plethora of enormous colorful butterflies.
— Wat Si Saket, which dates to the 1800s and is thought to be the oldest temple in Vientiane, a city filled with them. This wat was spared by the Siamese when many of the city's temples were torched. Wat Si Saket contains more than 6,800 Buddha sculptures housed around the perimeter of the small temple in the compound's center.
— Patuxai Monument (Victory Gate). In case you momentarily forget that Laos has a French heritage, resulting from 50 years of French occupation, there is this impressive monument inspired by Paris' Arc de Triomphe but with Lao kinnari motifs. (In Southeast Asian mythology, kinnaris are half-bird, half-woman creatures, a traditional symbol of beauty, grace and accomplishment.) As you enter, make sure to look up to view the colorful reliefs adorning the ceiling. Best to go in the morning to avoid the heat and walk up the stairs to the top for a rewarding view across Lan Xang Avenue.
— The Talat Sao (which means morning market), where locals shop for textiles, jewelry, ornate silver belts, clothes, food and appliances (don't forget to bargain); the riverfront at dusk, where locals stroll along the edge of the Mekong and crowds engage in open-air aerobic dance classes to contemporary Western music; and the popular night market adjacent to the riverfront for tourist T-shirts, Buddhist art and knockoff items.
A view of Laos from atop an elephant? Worth the trek
George, my traveling companion, had never gotten closer to an elephant than reading Babar, so from Luang Prabang, we booked a full-day excursion to Pak Ou. Kai-ying, our English-speaking guide, and a driver picked us up at our hotel in an air-conditioned minivan and headed north for an hour on a mainly paved road.
At the Pak Ou Elephant Reserve we met Eva, a gentle Asian elephant. Eva dutifully carried us for over an hour through a village dotted with tiny homes. Seeing us, children playing outside gleefully practiced their one word of English (hello, hello, hello).
Eva then took us into the lush areas edging the Mekong River, where a few cows and chickens meandered and we often had to duck our heads on the hilly areas to avoid low-hanging palm fronds. Seeing this part of the world from atop a majestic elephant is even more breathtaking than by foot.
At the ride's conclusion, we gave Eva her just reward: green, unpeeled bananas that she gently took from our hands and immediately devoured whole, along with entire coconuts she deftly split in half with her front foot.
From there we took a motorized long boat across the Mekong and entered the venerated Pak Ou Caves at the base of a towering limestone cliff. Inside this home of river spirits thousands of Buddha statues stand precariously in the cave's crevices. Although the caves are not as impressive as others I've visited in Asia, the cool darkness was a welcome respite.
Driving about 20 minutes farther, we came to Xang Hai (Laotian for "jar making"), nicknamed Whiskey Village. Here, local women make 50 proof whiskey that is said to increase sexual virility. This whiskey, made from sticky rice in enormous glass jars, takes about three weeks to ferment.
Items locals consider delicacies, such as whole scorpions, bear paws, spiders, geckos and snakes, are added to the liquid. We were offered whiskey samples to taste (called lao lao), through bamboo straws, and although admittedly curious, I worried about leaving my children orphans, so we passed. I don't think it hurt business, which appeared robust.
Driving an hour southwest through tropical greenery and rice paddies, we arrived at the multitiered Kuang Si waterfalls and pools.
After lunch, we started on the trail. At the entrance to the lower pools is a bear reserve started by an Australian organization. The Asian black bear, or moon bear, population in Laos is declining as a result of illegal hunting, human confrontation and deforestation. (In Asia, bear bile is used in traditional medicine, and bear paw whiskey and soup are seen as status symbols.) We saw two dozen orphaned, rescued and happily frolicking bears.
From there we continued up the easy trail to the first of three swimming ponds where the refreshingly cold water flows over otherworldly limestone formations. We stopped at the second pool and found its waters ideal for taking the sizzle out of the heat (as did many saffron-robed, iPhone-carrying monks).
We enjoyed the views, swapped travel stories with other visitors and swam in the pond for the better part of the glorious afternoon.
THE BEST WAY TO LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
From LAX, Thai Airways, China Airlines, EVA, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Korean, All Nippon and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Luang Prabang. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,420, including all taxes and fees. Laotian visa on arrival: $36 plus one passport-sized photo.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 856 (the country code for Laos) and the local number. All mobile phones have 20 as the area code.
WHERE TO STAY
My Dream Boutique Hotel & Resort, Ban Meung Nga Village, Meung Nga Street, Luang Prabang; 71-252-853, www.mydreamresort.com. Lovely hotel with marvelous staff and swimming pool in tropical setting on a residential street. Doubles $60 a night, including buffet breakfast and airport pickup and drop-off.
Ibis Vientiane Nam Phu, Namphu, Ban Xieng Ngeung, Chantabury District, Vientiane; 21-263-201, www.ibis.com. Pleasant hotel within walking distance of all tourist sites, riverfront, night market, restaurants and watering holes. Doubles $72 a night, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO EAT
Night market food alley. Not to be missed, if only for a photo op. Delicious, traditional Laotian cuisine prepared by each stall's proprietor. Dinner for two, including ice cold Laotian beer, $4.
Coconut Restaurant, 5 Sisavang Vong Road, Luang Prabang; 71- 212-617. Both Western and traditional Laotian cuisine. Lunch for two $8, including soft drinks.
Le Café Ban Vat Sene, Sakkarine Road, Ban Vat Sene (opposite the Ecole Primare), Luang Prabang; 71-252-482, bit.ly/1nJfdz0. This lovely restaurant has prix-fixe Western and traditional Laotian menus and an excellent selection of a la carte dishes. We had delicious buffalo fillets served with green salad, French fries and sautéed vegetables, coconut flan and Chilean wines ($44 for two, including wine). It also serves thin-crust pizza that rivals that found in New York.
L'Elephant Restaurant Français, Ban Vat Nong (behind Hotel Villa Santi), Luang Prabang; 71-252- 482, elephant-restau.com. French-Laotian fusion restaurant. I had an incredible, traditional Laotian eight-course prix-fixe tasting menu and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. George chose Western fare: grilled pork filet accompanied by garlic-infused mashed potatoes, sautéed vegetables, fresh, homemade baguette and South African Cabernet. ($50 for two, including wine.) The most beautiful and expensive restaurant in Luang Prabang, but memorable and reasonable by Western standards.
Lao Kitchen, 140/01 Rue Hengboun, Vientiane; 21-254-332, lao-kitchen.com. Outstanding Laotian food. Dinner for two, including beer, $15.
Xang Khoo Restaurant, Bar & Wine Shop, 68 Pangkham Road, Nam Phu, Vientiane; 21-219-314. Lovely Franco-Laotian restaurant owned by Frenchman Arnaud Poire. Laotian lunch for two, including beer, $8, or three-course, French prix-fixe menu, $6.
L'Adresse de Tinay, French Restaurant, Wat Ongteu, BanWanchan-Chanthabouly D., Vientiane, 20-5691-3434, ladressedetinay.com. Contemporary, French bistro with prix-fixe menu and a la carte dishes, $50 for two, including wine.
TO LEARN MORE
Embassy of Laos, 2222 S St. N.W., Washington; (202) 332-6416, laoembassy.com.
For general information and trip planning, tourismlaos.org