Luang Prabang is Laos' former royal capital, and during French colonial rule was a favorite spot of colonalists looking to escape their duties and live the good life. These days it's an expat haven, and it's easy to see why. The city has a feel all its own, blending supreme peacefulness with an often hip & artsy vibe. It's located right on the banks of Mekong River, where it meets up with another river, the Nam Kha. The whole entire city was deemed as a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its purely unique blend of French colonial & Laos architecture, its lush gardens and abundant coconut trees, and it's 32 gorgeous wats (temples), all of which have managed to hold up remarkably well despite Laos' recent disastrous history that seemed to destroy nearly everything in sight except this city.
One of the best things to do in Luang Prabang is wander around checking out the temples, which seem to pop out of every corner. Each one is a little different from the other, but distinctly Lao. Wat Xieng Thong was particularly impressive, and it was easy to spend an hour there in awe of its beauty. All the walls are covered in gold
paintings, diligently executed to depict scenes of both Buddhist legends and village life. Hundreds of Buddha statues dwelled on the insides, some reclining, some smiling, some meditating; some are only an inch-high, while the biggest is about 10 meters tall. Even more remarkable were the colored glass mosaics shining on the outside of the buildings, where artisans painstakingly constructed everything from trees, to farming and fishing scenes, to elephants, lions, tiger, cattle, and birds.
Every night from 5pm on, eight blocks of the town are closed off and a handicraft market is set up. I have never, in all of my travels, seen a craft market so spectacular. The sheer size of it is staggering, with women setting up their stalls on both sides of each block, right up next to one another. Walking the whole thing takes about 45 minutes (I do this pretty much every night), and is a visual overload of rainbow colors and staggeringly beautiful patterns. The variety of items available is equally amazing, ranging from silk scarves to quilts, handbags to fisherman pants, silver jewelry to slippers. But the real kicker is the exceptional quality of the items; I have seen plenty of handicrafts all over the world, but none so well-made as these.
And there's the food. Because of the French, every morning I consume a delicious fresh baguette, with or without eggs depending on how gross they do or do not sound. In addition to finding yet more stands to devour som tam (papaya salad a la Laos) and Lao noodle soup for under a dollar, there is a completely vegetarian buffet available for only $.50! Every night I load up with locally-grown bamboo shoots, tofu with mung beans, fried noodles, peanut cucumber salad, squash, green beans, and whatever else can be piled onto the small mountain that is my plate. Accommodation is running me about $1.50 a night, so if I manage to avoid spending money at the craft market, I can get by on around $4 a day!