During our first family vacation to Indochina, we all fell in love with Laos … and especially with Luang Prabang. Earlier in the week, we’d plunged into the bustle and excitement of Saigon. For the two days just before, we had enjoyed the deep quiet of life on a luxury junk in Halong Bay. In Luang Prabang, we split the difference. Tucked onto the peninsula where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, this unexpected Laotian town was lively, but with plenty of mellow, too.
When I rave about Luang Prabang, I usually start with the elephants, even though they live a few miles out of town at a 2,000-acre sanctuary on the banks of the Nam Khan. The Lao are great conservationists, and their efforts to protect the elephants are impressive. But the invitation to climb onto their leathery necks was the moment we’d been waiting for. When our mahouts (elephant drivers) asked if we’d like to give our charges a bath, we agreed instantly, thinking it would involve lathering them up and hosing them down as we’ve seen at the San Diego Zoo. Not exactly. We were a bit surprised and totally delighted when bathtime turned out to involve sitting astride while they submerged themselves (and much of us) in the middle of the river.
Of course, we choose our family vacation destination with full immersion in mind, and we wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But it was only the beginning. Long after we dried out, we used our time in Luang Prabang to experience Laotian culture in other ways. One great advantage — the town is compact. Our hotel was the former residence of the Prime Minister of Laos, right in the heart of it all. It was a great spot to retreat for a dip in the pool or a rest before heading out for the next foray — a process that can easily start early in the morning and go right into the night.
Strolling the streets with our expert local guide, Toubee, we appreciated the easy-going vibe. Pink frangipani blossoms were everywhere. We fell easily into the habit of returning a sabaidee — the standard greeting with palms pressed together — that everyone offers you. As we walked, banyan trees, countless statues of Buddha and grand colonial homes all fought for attention, and somehow all managed to fit right together.
Into his teens, Toubee was a novice Buddhist monk, a common form of training for Lao boys. He recommended — and we happily agreed — to let him show us the centuries-old, alms-giving ceremony that occurs daily. It’s an early morning event and well worth it. (A jolt of local coffee before or after helps.) Hundreds of Buddhist monks from the town’s temples walk barefoot, single-file through the streets. The locals kneel at the side of the road and drop bits of sticky rice into the alms bowls that the monks carry. When Toubee asked if we’d like to participate, we were reluctant at first. But he provided us each with a mat, a basket of rice and a sash to cover our shoulders, as well as instructions on how to offer alms respectfully.
Afterward, you should visit the morning market. Yes, you’ll see things that you won’t ever spot at home. (Fried cicadas and live frogs, anyone?) But for us, that was the point. You don’t have to buy your lunch there, but you do get a really amazing look into local life. The Night Market is just as revealing but completely different. Starting at about 5 p.m., hundreds of vendors fill Sisavangvong Road with tents where they sell handicrafts from beautiful embroidered silk to silver bracelets, handbags to intricate woodcarvings and much more. It’s a friendly, low-pressure setting, and the prices are low. Haggle if you like, but for us, a lot of the pleasure was in the fact that the purchases we made were supporting local families and craftspeople.
There are plenty of fantastic reasons to go to Indochina. You need to see Angkor Wat, explore the rice-paddy villages near Danang and chill out on China Beach. But be sure to add Luang Prabang to your family vacation bucket list, too. It’s a little shard of paradise that offers you a deep dive into the laid-back personality and rich culture of Laos. Elephants included.