A visit to the former royal capital of Luang Prabang is a highlight of any trip to Laos - a World Heritage ‘city' of magnificent gilded temples at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Luang Prabang is the best-preserved traditional city in South East Asia. It's really a small town though, easily discovered on foot or by bicycle, and the sight of saffron-robed monks wandering barefoot each dawn through the quiet, cobbled streets collecting alms from the locals provides a magical sense of Indochina in days gone by.
Luang Prabang is home to one of South East Asia's most authentic night markets, where local hill tribes come to sell their weavings and hand-made silver jewellery.
Out of town, the Kuang Si waterfalls, the Pak Ou caves, the gorgeous views from Mount Phousi and the dramatic gorges of the Ou River all compete for your attention.
The Royal Palace
The French built the Khmer-style Royal Palace for the Lao king Sisavang Vong at the start of the 20th century, in an attempt to bind the royal family into the colonial system of government.
The Royal Palace contains valuable Lao artwork and statues, including the Golden Buddha, or Pra Bang, a priceless 50kg gold statue, which gives the town its name.
A carved throne with a three-headed elephant insignia in the Coronation Room and the well-stocked King's Library are among the museum's other treasures.
Wat Wisunarat, Wat Mai & Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang once boasted more than 65 wats, and while only half have survived, these ornate temples remain prominent landmarks.
The oldest operational temple, Wat Wisunarat, dates back to 1513, although the present building is an authentic reconstruction of the original, which was largely destroyed by marauding Chinese tribes. Next to the Royal Palace is Wat Mai, a royal temple with a distinctive five-tiered roof and an interior of red and gold.
However, the best example of a Lao monastery is, perhaps, Wat Xieng Thong, with its intricate carvings, delightful stone mosaics, gold-stenciled pillars and gardens shaded by banyan and palm tress.
Pak Ou caves
One of the most popular day excursions upstream on the Mekong from Luang Prabang is a trip to the sacred Pak Ou limestone caves.
Over the past 300 years local people have placed thousands of wood, stone and copper Buddha statues here, many of them in the pose of the Buddha calling for rain.
Kuang Si waterfall
Another attraction close to Luang Prabang is the misty Kuang Si Waterfall.
Surrounded by thick jungle, the water cascades over limestone rocks and collects in several tiered turquoise pools, ideal for swimming.
The journey to the falls passes through Hmong and Khmu villages and lush paddy fields. Once there, it's also worth visiting a rescue centre for Asiatic black bears that's close to the entrance to the falls.