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Laotian Temple Town

Luang Prabang, Laos © Charles & Mary Love

Luang Prabang, declared a World Heritage Site in 1995, has recently started appearing on the radar of adventurous travelers—particularly those seeking a novel and exotic alternative to  Southeast Asia’s better-known—and more crowded—destinations.

Not long ago, we visited the town, located in north central Laos, as part of a journey that also took us to Burma, Vietnam and Thailand.

The former royal capital is today the cultural and spiritual epicenter of Laos. Nestling on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, it offers a rich blend of Indochinese architecture and Therevada Buddhist temples in a languid, magical atmosphere. A big draw is the daily parade of monks who stream through the streets at dawn to collect their daily alms.

Be sure to check out the Royal Palace Museum, former residence of Laos’ royal family, built in the French era (1904). On exhibit is art deco furniture, striking Buddhist statuary, royal costumes and old copies of Paris Match.

There’s a colorful night market each evening where Hmong tribal merchants peddle their wares. You’ll also find local shops full of elaborately woven textiles as well as attractive silver accessories and jewelry.

Besides the gorgeous architecture and handmade crafts, you’ll enjoy beautiful scenery. A short distance from Luang Prabang are the lovely Kuang Si Falls. You may encounter fishermen there who’ll sell you their functional, beautifully made fishing baskets. It’s also worthwhile to take a small boat down the Mekong to the Pak Ou Caves, which shelter hundreds of sculptures of Buddha. Along the way, gliding past dense palm groves and limestone cliffs, you’ll see farmers at work in vibrant green fields and fishermen working with their nets.

Recommended accommodations include Residence Phou Vao (www.residencephouvao.com), about a mile outside town. It features large, luxurious rooms, lotus-filled ponds and views of stupas and shrines in the distant mountains. An excellent option in town is the intimate Maison Souvannphoum Hotel (www.coloursofangsana.com/souvannphoum), a restored former residence of Prince Souvanna Phouma, once the country’s prime minister.

There are no direct flights from New York to Laos. But you can fly from Kennedy Airport to Bangkok, Thailand on Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com), then connect with a flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com). We’ve flown both airlines on more than one journey and found them excellent.

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