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What to Do and Where to Eat in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang's morning ritual

Here’s the secret to Luang Prabang, Laos: Early risers and night owls have it best. Tucked into a crook in the Mekong River, the small, time-capsuled UNESCO World Heritage town comes alive in special ways at the unlikeliest of hours.
Luang Prabang's morning ritualDawn: Breakfast Brigade
Just before sunrise each day, the town fills with a color guard of orange and yellow as the hundreds of Buddhist monks who live in Luang Prabang’s many temples snake their way through the streets seeking the alms that will be their food for the day. It’s a beautiful, real and essential part of their lives.
It’s an undeniably beautiful, moving scene, which can make it an irresistible photo opportunity, but we tried to not be the intrusive tourists setting up spotlights and tripods to document the scene. Instead, we tried to participate in an observant way, handing out food alongside the townspeople. No early risers, my boyfriend and I raced behind schedule to procure rice from our hotel kitchen for the monks. As quietly and unobnoxiously as possible, we knelt alongside Laotian people, doling out rice to the men, who ranged in age from young boys to elders. Every so often, we’d see one of our neighbors sneak a candy bar or ramen noodle pack into the boys’ steel bowls. We tried to respectfully capture the Kodak moment, but mostly lost ourselves in the beauty of the procession.
The procession ends in just a few minutes, leaving the townspeople to commence their day.
Vegetable MarketFrom there, wander to the excellent little Joma Cafe to try the buttered, flaky French pastries, which were likely perfected during the country’s time as a French colony. Get them with a hot coffee or try a coffee milkshake. Just outside town, the vegetable market is also at its best in the early morning, with piles of blistering birds-eye chiles, lanky Asian eggplants and plump, magenta mangosteens that burst with tart, finger-staining purple juice.
Luang Prabang Night MarketDusk: To Market
There’s plenty to do by day in Luang Prabang, but don’t blow your energy before sunset. Night holds a few final treasures. Hike to the top of Mount Phousi to watch the sunset. In the short time spent gawking at skies streaked with pink and violet, the town becomes a sprawl of lamp-lit tents for an evening market of textiles, books, purses, carvings and kitsch. We loaded up on lanterns, fabrics and a purse.
More importantly, a night food market fires up at dusk, serving the city’s uncanny hybrid of French-Southeast Asian food. The labyrinthine
sprawl unfolds into all nearby alleys, like an unstoppable tidal wave
of edibles. Look for a cart making inexplicably wonderful variations on banh mi sandwiches that incorporate Laughing Cow cheese (another holdout
from the French?). There are tons of grilled finds, including blood sausage,
vinegar-dipped chicken skewers and assorted vegetables. Our choices were approved by a friendly local cat, so we knew we’d done well.
Coconut DivetsThe strangest, most snackable find was nori-like dried river weed, which is culled from the nearby Mekong and sun-dried to make chips dipped into a fermented garlic-chile sauce. End the night market with my favorite find of the entire trip: sweet coconut-milk batter, ladled into sizzling Madeline pans to become hot coconut pudding balls. Pair it all with a Beer Lao.
Night: Sauna Gram
From there, the only place to wind down the night is the town’s Red Cross
sauna. Dirt-cheap and not for profit, the sauna is the fastest way to literally get close to Laotian locals. Unlike the dry, woody saunas of American gyms, this one is barely larger than a stall shower, with benches lining the walls around a sizzling-hot steam-producing bucket in the center of the floor, and no lighting. There’s zero visibility. Men and women retreat to separate facilities, then pack in like warm, wet, slippery sardines (with the ladies slathering themselves in yogurt as a moisturizer). It’s half uncomfortable, half incredible and it made me feel like a cave-dwelling milk maid. Obviously it’s the best end to a day in Luang Prabang.
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