UNESCO Town

Hello Luang Prabang, jewel of the north! I’d read great things about you in The New York Times, admired photos of your French colonial architecture, shady riverside restaurants and plethora of wats (temples). You’re so beautiful! So interesting! If you were on Facebook, you’d have, like, SO MANY FRIENDS.

It’s true – Luang Prabang, with its history as a popular French colonial hang out, is a much-photographed destination and well preserved from the days of the French occupation in the early part of the 20th century. The entire city was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995, and as such, it can’t be altered in any way without UNESCO’s permission. So, for example, if a homeowner feels like repainting his house, he can’t just grab a brush and start priming – he has to notify the proper authorities. Sounds like a drag, but dang, the city looks good.

We were met at the airport by out northern guide, Silasak, who took us to Maison Souvannaphoum, our lovely plantation-like hotel, once the official residence of a Laotian prince. We’d be there two nights initially, but would return at the end of the trip for three more days before going home.

elephant room key

It was already late afternoon when we arrived, so we languished in the A/C for a few hours, then cleaned up and stepped out for dinner.

You can shop and eat in LP during the day, obviously, but it’s so much more fun (and so much cooler) at night. The evening markets feature everything from homemade packaged snacks to fresh fruit slushes, made-to-order noodles to full-blown buffet-style meals.

those were SUM noodles (about $1 a bowl)

crispy salty peas, what looked like pumpkin seeds, kabocha squash and other deliciousness

banana-leaf-wrapped packages (usually sticky rice with banana or steamed meat or fish)

things to add to your stir-fry

the picture I didn’t get: a typical street buffet ($.75 – $4) as photographed by the writers of the terrific Ryan & Jo travel blog

And then, of course, there’s the Handicraft Night Market, which closes down a main thoroughfare from 5-11 p.m. every night with dozens and dozens of merchants selling all sorts of handmade items (blankets, bags and pillows in Hmong appliqué patterns), Tshirts, paper lamps, silver jewelry, Lao-style pants and tunics, carved teak bowls and implements. It’s a lot of the same merchandise repeated vendor to vendor, but still interesting and beautiful and very inexpensive. (And not mass produced.) Most of the restaurants were further down the same street, so we found ourselves walking through the low-lit, quiet stalls every night we were there.

Hmong blankets for sale

night taxis further down the main road

There were also a lot of tourists, probably because Luang Prabang gets a lot of press and caters to tourism. I noticed a lot of young, 20-something couples walking around – French, Australian, British, Japanese, American – and even some families with small children. There are dozens of guesthouses in all price ranges to choose from, and cuisine to suit just about every palate.

That first night, we ate Lao-European fusion at a restaurant down the road from the night market, and it was amazing – such fresh, vibrant flavors! Most of the fruits and vegetables you find in Laos are grown locally without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and allowed to mature in the year-round sun before they’re harvested and immediately brought to market. There’s none of that bland mass-market taste. We ate kai pan river seaweed fried in sesame oil; eggplant with lemongrass, coconut milk and chilies; chicken stew with some kind of spicy bark; dhum makhoong papaya salad (but without the infamous fermented fish). Our magnificent meal was definitely pricier than the $.75 vegetarian buffet we’d passed on the street, but was still less than what we’d pay for a couple of large take-out pizzas back home. Oh, the irony.

a satisfied customer

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