The highlight of Laos, and one of the highlights of Indochina, is the beautiful old city of Luang Prabang. An ancient royal capital, Luang Prabang's cultural importance was recognised by UNESCO in 1995 and it now holds World Heritage status. The small city lies surrounded by mountains at the junction of the Mekong and its tributary, the Khan River.
Luang Prabang has dozens of temples and religious sites, both large and small, with the biggest concentration in the old quarter. Wat Sen and Wat Xieng Thong, the latter built in 1560 and richly decorated with coloured glass and gold, are the most spectacular of the temples. The Royal Palace is now the National Museum, and is well worth a visit. In the centre of the city is Mount Phousi. Climb the steps to the top for stunning views over the city and the surrounding countryside.
In between temple visits, visit the local markets or relax at one of the many small restaurants and cafés perched on the banks of the Mekong and watch the world go by. The countryside around Luang Prabang is dominated by the slow, snaking rivers, paddy fields and green hills. A cycle ride through the fields and villages is the only way to absorb this beautiful scenery and the traditional way of life of the people who still work the land here.
Journeying some 25km upriver from Luang Prabang are the Pak Ou caves, situated at the confluence of the Ou and Mekong rivers. Here, thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues are crammed into two caves carved out of a towering limestone cliff. The images of Buddha range in size from a few centimetres to full human size, and have been placed here over the centuries by devotees, turning the caves into glittering shrines.
The caves can be reached by boat on a day trip from Luang Prabang, or you can spend the night at nearby Kamu Lodge.