This week’s dream
Luang Prabang—Laos’ former royal capital
The magic of Luang Prabang is “all in the details,” said Andrew Nelson in National Geographic Traveler. The ancient royal city is changing fast as foreign tourists discover its temples and palaces, but the spirit of the people is expressed by the small artful gestures you encounter at every turn. Walking the side streets, you see white plumeria blossoms set reverently atop fence posts and doorstops, each one an offering to the Buddha and to passersby. Stop for breakfast at an open-air restaurant and the owner will welcome you with a big bowl of broth plus “piles of mint, basil, and lettuce leaves in a dozen shades of green.” I visited the city with Van Nolintha, a friend who was born in Luang Prabang and is now an acclaimed Raleigh, N.C., chef. He says his grandmother always told him, “You should care about the details—they’re sacred.”
Luang Prabang occupies a narrow peninsula created by the confluence of two rivers, and it’s embraced by green mountain ranges. The mighty Mekong is its lifeline, still busy with fishing boats. But “as romantic as it is, Luang Prabang is also part of the in-your-face 21st century.” Stuck in traffic in a taxi one day, I watch teenagers on motorbikes flash by, including a girl riding sidesaddle with her face pressed to her cellphone. I learn soon enough that the city goes quiet in the heat of midday and that vendors start arriving with their goods at the night market in late afternoon. One evening, I wander amid the crabs, fish, textiles, and jewelry, then join Van on a slender boat that he’s rented for a party on the Mekong.
Development has thinned the jungle that once crowded the riverbanks, driving away the tigers and rhinos that hid there. Though locals can still try to summon luck by buying songbirds at the base of sacred Mount Phousi and releasing them at the summit, and though the socialist government remains a brake on progress, I worry how long old, delicate Luang Prabang can last. But not Van. “Whatever happens, the city will always be a portrait of generosity, grace, and beauty,” he says. “After all, that is our way.”
At the boutique hotel Satri House (satrihouse.com), doubles start at $240.