Luang Prabang: waking the Sleeping Beauty of Asia

6 Feb

luang prabang umbrellaLove or loathe China, you’ve got to hand it to ‘em, they know exactly how to plan a major holiday season. Celebrating the lunar new year means you get to take a few days off in arguably the most depressing months of the year: January and/or February. Now as much as staying in Hong Kong and watching the fireworks explode over the harbour appealed, I’d already seen a TV news mock-up of exactly how they’d look about a million times. So where to?

Laos is the only landlocked country in southeast Asia. A tiny, mountainous land jammed in between China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. Often overlooked by travellers in need of a Thai green curry fix or those who fancy staring at the unmarked graves of Khymer Rouge victims, it’s still mercifully under-developed. I can’t attest to anywhere else in the country, but Luang Prabang, in the north, is the most charming little Asian city I’ve ever been to. Honest; I do not use the ‘c’ word lightly.

sunset luang prabang

It was part of French Indochina, but has been wonderfully preserved by a combination of UNESCO and the strict oversight of a single party socialist government – the sort that seems so beloved of countries round those parts. Colonial buildings are filled with craft shops, cool bars and great restaurants serving genuinely delicious (not ‘I’m-only-eating-this-crap-because-it’s-authentic’) grub. There is a strict curfew which kicks in about 11.30pm – unless you head to the out-of-town bowling alley – but even this didn’t put me off. After all, there’s always getting hammered in your hotel room watching News 24.

Thanks to its geography, everything we ate was local and organic (pesticides being too expensive for farmers to use and transport infrastructure basic to say the least) and bloody great. Cooking oil was, or is, expensive in Laos so the cuisine is more about grilled, steamed, or stewed things rather than sautéed, or deep fried.

Local lightly spiced sausages and cured saucisson (cheers France); grilled game, buffalo and river fish know generically as ping; meat or fish stuffed into bamboo with egg and aromatics and steamed to a kind of savoury custard; soups and stews flavoured with local basil (very aniseedy) lemon grass, ginger, lime leaves and local bitter greens; laab salads; and the ubiquitous jaw beong, a fiery-sweet local chilli jam mixed with buffalo jerky that did wonders for my lunchtime chicken baguette. It was all brilliantly fresh, zingy and cheap – even in some of the town’s most expensive restaurants a meal never came to more than £20 a head with booze. On the last day we discovered this list of delights is only skimming the surface of a huge variety of indigenous dishes – understandable give the country boasts over 100 ethnic tribes.

ping laos

Some-ping

As the former royal capital and an intensely religious place, Luang Prabang has some great sightseeing fodder, including over 30 monasteries – the best of which is Wat Xieng Tong, built in 1561. These manage to blend effortlessly with the low rise white washed colonial buildings and the generally laid back, smiley vibe from the locals to create a place rightly described by the French as La Belle Endormie (Sleeping Beauty). Even with the in-pouring of hocking, obnoxious Chinese tourists from across the border – who, our taxi driver told us, were banned from driving in the town last year because they blocked all the roads – the place was still a joy.

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Xieng Thong monastery

So make sure Laos, or at least Luang Prabang, is on your next Asia trip. I don’t exactly agree with one-party states but this is one of Asia’s poorest countries and tourism a fast-growing industry so you could do worse than come over and sink a few Beer Lao in the spirit of foreign aid.

More smug photos to follow:

beer lao

pak ou caves

Pak Ou Caves

cat luang prabang

 

luang prabang

 

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Sunset over Luang Prabang

 

dragons

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