There’s a company I came across the other day called Value Added Travel. And despite the horrible name, it seems to be doing good business — which got me thinking. If I were starting a travel business I’d be tempted to name it something along the lines of Guaranteed To Make You Feel Better About Life — a mouthful, I grant you, and a little twee, but doesn’t it describe the reason we go places?
Even the great Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn was underpinned by an innate sense of optimism. In a word, hope. Which is why I have no wish to revisit Vegas and little desire ever to drink beer on the strip in Magaluf.
But give me a regular dose of Luang Prabang and I promise to help old ladies across the street for ever more. It’s that kind of town: sufficiently far away to pack up your troubles without ever feeling unduly remote. Easy on the eye, and easy on the equilibrium too. Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995, it’s ranked right up there with other great treasures such as Angkor Wat and the Great Wall of China. That might be stretching things a little, but Luang Prabang does have 33 temples (at one time there were 62) and 111 historic Lao-French buildings, thanks to the French presence that lasted from 1893 to 1954. Unesco deems it the best-preserved traditional town in South-east Asia.
But that’s not the half of it. If there were a Unesco equivalent that monitored gentleness and humility, then the people here would be held up as shining examples to the rest of the warring planet. Once described as ‘a holy grail for shoestring backpackers seeking higher truth’, Luang Prabang now does chic with a Buddhist twist and it’s impossible to leave without a spring in your step.
We were there in autumn, the perfect time to visit Laos in general and Luang Prabang in particular. It’s extraordinarily accessible. The town is framed by the mighty Mekong on one side and the sleepy Khan River on the other. There are really only three main roads: in between, there are little lanes, where restaurants, cookery schools (lots of them), guest houses, bars, paper factories, rice-cake -makers and artisans of all kinds -beaver away, while monks in their golden robes carry parasols as they file past.
The Vegas and Magaluf crowd wouldn’t like the curfew at midnight because it means the bars close at 11.30p.m. But for some of us, that’s bliss. And even at the colourful night market that takes over most of the main street at dusk, there is no hard sell, no pleading.
There’s an Aman hotel, where we stayed. It occupies what used to be the town’s hospital and is perfectly placed for all that Luang Prabang offers, whether you’re on foot or on one of the hotel’s bicycles.
Luang Prabang is big on excursions. Choose wisely. We loved our dragon boat ride up the Mekong as far as the Pak Ou caves.
On the return leg, as the sun was setting over the lush hills and villagers came down to the waterfront with bars of soap to wash themselves and their clothes, we stopped at a village where women were still toiling at their looms, selling beautiful scarves for £2. We were embarrassed to ask for ten of them, but would have felt mean if we had opted for any fewer.
We skipped the elephant rides in favour of a trip to Tat Kuang Si, a pretty spot 40 minutes from town. Here, you find one waterfall after another tumbling over white limestone into multi-levelled turquoise pools, where you can swim and swing from ropes and generally get in touch with your inner Tarzan.
There’s also a remarkable Asiatic black bear sanctuary on the way to the falls, run by a British couple. All the bears have been rescued from bad guys who kept them in tiny cages and drained their gall bladders of bile to make traditional Chinese medicine.
Speaking of which, we felt longevity coursing through us in Luang Prabang. The food helped. Lao cooking is a blend of Chinese and Thai, with emphasis on local herbs. Most days, we ate lunch at a stall by the side of the road for £1 — spicy noodles with chicken and mushroom.
L’Elephant, near the Mekong, is arguably the smartest place for dinner, with a mainly French menu. At one point, sitting near the door watching the passing parade, we felt we could have been in swanky St Barts in the French Caribbean.
But you are not. You’re in a country that has suffered terribly, but which has survived. You’re in a town where people smile and where there’s a natural sense of community. It’s value added travel, I suppose. And guaranteed to make you feel better about life.