Laos’ cultural capital is a fascinating blend of historic temples and French-era colonial architecture. If you’re looking for a dose of culture, away from Asia’s tried and tested destinations, look no further.

5:30 am is rush hour in Luang Prabang. Tourists crawl out of bed, locals line up with freshly prepared food; in no time the city is a sea of saffron. About 200 Buddhist monks congregate in the main street and walk through the adjoining streets. The alms giving ceremony has been a tradition in this city since the 14th century. Locals shower the monks with rice, fruits and traditional sweets. Laotian Buddhist tradition recommends that monks should collect food for at least one meal a day. I was among the swathe of tourists who found a vantage point to capture Luang Prabang’s most defining image – the alms-giving ceremony. The first rays of the sun complement the ochre robes of the monks. Its surreal, despite all the buzz there’s a sense of calm.

Abhorrent in a city where traditions still reign supreme. It’s the same magic and respect for traditions that you will find at the Wat (temple) Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang’s most iconic shrine. This temple was my

first stop on my self-conducted bicycle tour of the city. Bicycles are the easiest way to get around Luang Prabang – no ride is longer than 3 km, most hotels offer cycles free for guests. Built in 1560, on the orders of King Setthathirath, this structure is one of the finest examples of Lao temple architecture with its two-tiered roof, precious mosaics and a dramatic ‘tree of life’ glass montage on the rear temple wall. An ambitious restoration in the 1960s with gold leaf gilding and gold lacquering restoration has returned this temple to its glory days. It’s located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers; this is where Laos’ kings were coronated.

The Chariot Hall or Royal Funerary Chariot Hall is the most recent structure within the temple complex, it is home to funeral carriage of King Sisavang Vong who passed away in the 1950s. One of this hall’s highlights are the flower motifs and scenes from the Lao version of Ramayan – Phra Lak Phra Lam. You’re never too far away from Hindu legends in Luang Prabang. Mount Phou Si located in the heart of the city, is a Buddhist shrine that brings believers from across the world. One local legend suggests that it was Lord Hanuman who transported this mountain here. He couldn't have picked a better place; this mountain offers panoramic views of the city and the Mekong River. Once you’ve offered your prayers and caught a sunset, you can amble down the hill in time for the evening market.

The Luang Prabang evening market is a stark contrast from the hustle of similar markets in Vietnam and Thailand with tourists packed to the gills. Quite a lot of the produce comes from Vietnam and Thailand but do keep your eye open for fine local silk stoles, silver jewellery and lamps. The market is also a hub for local culinary delicacies. Don't leave town without sampling Larb, a meat salad and the unofficial national dish. This is not for faint palates though. Whether it’s shopping or dining options, Laos has a range of choices. There’s street food, traditional restaurants that are local hangouts like ......
Pin Kai Zap and then there’s a long list of hipster restaurants and cafes that are for Luang Prabang’s own set of evolved travellers. I had a terrific meal at l’Elephant, I’d also recommend a chilled glass of Laotian coffee at Joma Bakery. A strong shot of coffee, condensed milk and milk foam come together in this version.

 

Most of Luang Prabang’s dining and sights are within easy access. Do make time to visit temples like Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, and walk through Sakkaline road where colonial-era buildings from the French occupation take you back in time. If you have time for a half-day trip, I’d certainly recommend the Kuang Si Falls, that's just 45-minutes from the city but a world away. But Luang Prabang is not about ticking off lists or social media stardom. Plan a visit if you have at least a three-day weekend where you slow things down. Cycle without a destination in mind, sip a coffee in a

heritage building (the town is a UNESCO world heritage site) or watch Buddhist monks go about their daily routine. Everything moves on super slow-mo mode in Luang Prabang.
Know Before You Go: 
> Best Time to visit: November to May. The city’s dry spell usually lasts through these months.
> Getting there: Luang Prabang has frequent connections from Bangkok, while many flights frequent from Singapore.