Countless historic cities have buckled under the weight of tourism and new-world development, but Luang Prabang – the ancient capital of Laos – still manages to feel untouched by time. While the city's growing popularity does continue to bring in heady crowds, boutique hotels and forward-thinking fusion restaurants, those modern changes remain outshined by the city's historic atmosphere and pristine surroundings.
A bevy of ancient temples serve as a living reminder of Luang Prabang's former religious glory. No less than 30 gilded wats can be found scattered throughout the city. Xat Xiengthong, built in the 16th century, is the most famous: it served as the coronation site for Lao kings and features glass mosaics and a reclining Buddha statue inside its Red Chapel. Wat Mai is another marvel, defined by its exterior golden reliefs depicting village life.
The best way to explore Luang Prabang's charms is by bike or on foot. At dawn, you can watch saffron-robed Buddhist monks collecting alms in the streets. A stroll through the UNESCO-protected Old Quarter will reveal Indochinese villas, French colonial architecture and shops selling antiques.
Situated where the Nam Khan tributary meets the Mekong, Luang Prabang is close to both jungles and mountains and offers a wealth of opportunities for exploring outdoors. Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou Caves make worthy day trips, as does Mount Phousi – a hill dotted with temples and crowned by a golden stupa that affords sweeping views of town.