Travel

Southeast Asia’s Underrated Cultural Capital Has Two Magic Hours

Plus sizzling night markets, preserved hill tribe arts, and beautiful buildings surrounded by mountains.

Southern Lightscapes-Australia/Getty Images
Southern Lightscapes-Australia/Getty Images
Southern Lightscapes-Australia/Getty Images

On the shores of the mighty Mekong River, saffron-robed monks line the streets, meat skewers grill over charcoal, and pointed temples or French-style buildings fringe towering palm trees. This is Luang Prabang, the cultural heart of Laos.

A less-visited and wildly underrated Southeast Asian destination, Laos is the only landlocked country in the region. France’s brutal colonization of Laos in the late-1800s ended in 1954, but its influence is obvious in the colonial buildings, cuisine, and the large French immigrant community.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

That’s not to say Luang Prabang isn’t uniquely Lao. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994, the gilded spires of dozens of temples dotting its narrow alleys, street food markets galore, and hill tribe textile stores on every corner contribute to its intoxicating beauty.

While three days is the typical stint here, I spent a month stuffing myself with street food, riding a bicycle around its winding roads, admiring hazy sunsets with a sugarcane juice in hand, and embracing the slow life that personifies this sleepy, lovely riverside town. From a double-magic-hour tradition to local handicrafts that support female education, here’s everything to experience in Luang Prabang.

filmlandscape/Shutterstock
filmlandscape/Shutterstock
filmlandscape/Shutterstock

Get your street food fill

Lao locals are said to consume more sticky rice per capita than any other country on Earth. And while a dollop of rice lands on most dishes, there’s loads on offer here, from Luang Prabang sausage (typically made from buffalo or pork mixed with local herbs) to just about any conceivable meat stuck on a skewer.

The town’s Night Market is the typical go-to, but skirt the crowds and head down the narrow alley parallel for more traditional Lao food. Order a bowl of khao soy (a fragrant rice noodle soup) or a whole-grilled river fish, or pick up a plate for less than $1 and pile it high with various vegetarian dishes marinating in aluminum bowls.

Towards the outskirts of town is Unio Foods Garden (as labeled on Google maps). There are no English menus here, so you may have to whip out Google Translate or point at a picture of the dish you want. Hopefully at least one of your orders includes papaya salad doused in fish sauce, fresh or fried spring rolls, and Lao hot pot.

Rosewood Luang Prabang
Rosewood Luang Prabang
Rosewood Luang Prabang

Where to stay in Luang Prabang

No hotel in town has a better location than Avani+ Luang Prabang Hotel. Once a French garrison, the European-style building sits directly on the town’s main street, across from the Night Market. Outfitted with local art and textiles, each room has balcony views of its massive Banyan tree and the scenic pool decorating its inner courtyard.

The extravagant Rosewood Luang Prabang is just outside town, sandwiched between local villages. Designed by the award-winning hotel creator Bill Bensley, it’s a showstopper for the senses, comprising 23 OTT rooms, suites, and hilltop tents that surround a private waterfall. Rooms include bright Lao patterns painted on the walls, black and white tiles, clawfoot tubs, and elephant figurines that carry throughout the property.

Located atop a hill on the town’s perimeter, La Résidence Phou Vao, A Belmond Hotel makes for a scenic stay. Its infinity pool has sweeping views of a coconut palm jungle and the famous Mount Phu Si, the town’s highest point (and well worth climbing its 300+ steps). Its rooms are shockingly spacious, but the real treasure here is the food. Traditional smoking, drying, and fermenting techniques are used to create the best upscale food in Luang Prabang, sourced solely from local farmers and growers. Even if you’re not staying here, book a reservation.

And a few doors down is the new Souphattra Hotel. This four-star, Lao-owned boutique hotel elegantly blends Luang Prabang pointed roofs and patterns with French-style design. After a long day of sightseeing, its poolside happy hour is a welcome reprieve.

Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock
Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock
Nattee Chalermtiragool/Shutterstock

Learn what US history books don’t say

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States military dropped roughly two million tons of bombs on Laos in a secret mission, making it the world’s most bombed country per capita. It’s estimated that 80 million unexploded ordinances (UXO) still litter the countryside, affecting 25% of villages in Laos. The UXO Lao Visitor Center teaches about the decades-long impact of these UXO, including the hundreds of Lao children and adults still dying every year, as well as how this non-profit is removing or detonating roughly 77,000 ordinances annually. This is an essential stop, especially for Americans.

It’s hard to miss the National Museum of Luang Prabang in the center of town. Its ornate temple houses the country’s most significant Buddha statue, and the former royal palace is a treasure trove of historical items, including fully-intact royal living quarters.

Nearby is the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC). Celebrating the traditions, music and incredible handicraft skills of the country’s 50 officially recognized ethnic groups, TAEC makes for a fascinating crash course in Lao culture. Its gift shop is also a prime place to pick up locally-made souvenirs.

Ock Pop Tok
Ock Pop Tok
Ock Pop Tok

Shop hill tribe textiles responsibly

Textile shops in Luang Prabang are like Starbucks in the US; there’s one on every corner. But not all sell ethical or authentic handmade goods. Ock Pop Tok has a store in town and a Living Crafts Centre along the Mekong River that sells natural and organic blankets, clothing, bags, and jewelry made by Lao women championing an effort to preserve their culture while earning a fair wage.

At Passa Paa, each item, decked out in hill tribe patterns, is handmade by a local Hmong artisan using sustainable hemp and hand screen printing. LaLa Laos is a Lao-owned store selling Luang Prabang-inspired T-shirts, jewelry, and handcrafted textiles. Here, a percentage of the profits go towards funding education for Lao girls.

Ma Té Sai is another social enterprise that sells handmade home goods, clothing, and jewelry from nearby villages. They also sell unique necklaces, bracelets, and homewares made from upcycled bombs that litter nearby provinces.

Rosewood Luang Prabang
Rosewood Luang Prabang
Rosewood Luang Prabang

Experience the town’s two magic hours

Loatians estimate there are more than 100 temples sprinkled throughout the streets of Luang Prabang, giving it a uniquely spiritual vibe. Every morning as the roosters start crowing around 6 am, young monks line the street for the Sai Bat (or Tak Bat) tradition, where they collect sticky rice from devout locals and, increasingly, tourists.

This ancient alms-giving ceremony is done barefoot and in silence by hundreds of monks dressed in Crayola-orange robes. Most tourists will line up along Sisavangvong and Sakkaline Roads to watch the ceremony or sit on tiny plastic stools to give alms to the monks. But in this area, you might witness quite a bit of people crowding and snapping photos in the monk’s faces, which could easily become an episode of “Tourists Behaving Badly.” Instead, walk to empty Kounxoau Road and stand quietly at a distance to watch the procession go by.

At dusk, when the sunset starts to match the color of the monk’s robes, dozens of wooden longboats take to the Mekong for sunset cruises. Albeit touristy, riding one of the boats is a lovely way to spend two hours. Many hotels, like Avani+ Luang Prabang, work with companies like Mekong Kingdoms for a more luxe experience. If you’d rather keep it low-key, walk down to the water’s edge and jump aboard a local’s boat for less than $10. Just remember to bring your own Beerlao.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Katie Lockhart is a contributor to Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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