Failing to wake up early enough to see the monks in Luang Prabang “would be like going to the Grand Canyon without peering over the rim,” said David Ebershoff in Condé Nast Traveler. This magical city of 47,000—the ancient royal capital of Laos—is graced shortly after dawn each day by a procession of Buddhist ascetics whose saffron-colored robes seem to slice through the morning mist and jolt a casual observer to mindfulness. A centuries-old daily tradition then unfolds, as pilgrims who’ve traveled through the night from remote villages line the streets to give alms to the monks. This corner of Laos is changing, yet the monks “offer their nation a symbol” of a spirit that appears immortal.
Thanks in large part to tourist dollars, “Luang Prabang today is in a state of renewal.” Houses from the era of French colonial rule have been restored, and the tapping of carpenters’ hammers rings through the streets. Yet even with luxury hotels beginning to pop up, “time travel in Luang Prabang doesn’t require much imagination.” Long one of Southeast Asia’s cultural and spiritual capitals, this city on the Mekong River feels tightly packed with golden temples. “I usually don’t throw around the word ‘fabulous,’ but how else to describe buildings decorated with mirrored water dragons, serpents tiled in colored glass, and hundreds—no, thousands; no, tens of thousands—of gold-leaf Buddhas?”
Despite the beautiful surroundings, a visitor can’t ignore that much of Laos remains “locked in a brutal past.” Three decades after a devastating U.S. bombing campaign failed to crush an insurgency, the ruling Communist party is still capable of “violently punishing dissent.” The countryside, meanwhile, remains desperately poor. But Luang Prabang doesn’t feel like a police state. “As long as people keep coming to visit us, everything will be okay,” a teenager tells me when I strike up a conversation inside one of the temples. That tip proved useful to remember when I visited a nearby jungle sanctuary and paid $60—“20 times the average Lao’s daily income”—to ride for an hour on the back of an elephant. At the Maison Souvannaphoum, a 22-room former royal residence, doubles start at $195 (angsanaâ€‹.com).