The Mekong, heart and soul of mainland south-east Asia, is the twelfth-longest river in the world, running 4800km from its headwaters on the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan Province of China, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam.
Over 60 million people depend on the Mekong and its tributaries for food, water, transport and many aspects of their daily lives. Its annual flood/drought cycles are essential for the sustainable production of rice and vegetables on the floodplains and along the riverbanks during the dry season. Known as the mother of waters, the river supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries, second only to the Amazon.
Luang Prabang sits on the banks of the Mekong and after decades of war and revolution, the northern Laos city is stirring. For centuries it served as the kingdom's royal capital, but that changed with communism in 1975. Tourists have been allowed entry for just 16 years and as the city has not changed, visitors slot right in to the local way of life. Luang Prabang's main attraction is its historic temples, surrounded by ancient bodhi trees and giant Buddha statues 32 of the original 66 built before French colonisation are still standing. The most impressive is Wat Xieng Thong, elaborately decorated with coloured glass and gold.
The city's mountain-encircled setting, 700m above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River, creates a magnificent setting. Apart from the beautiful temples, it also has around 700 other historic buildings and thanks to it being declared a World Heritage site, will not be lost to "progress".
Sixty percent of Laos' population follows Theravada Buddhism and the town with so many temples has more than 600 monks, who, like all Laos, are friendly and keen to practice their English. The compact city is best explored on foot there are really only three main streets but tuk tuks are available and cheap.
Something to not miss is the dawn procession of the monks. The gathering of alms by monks is carried out in many parts of south-east Asia, but in Luang Prabang, it seems to hold more significance, thanks to the number of monks and temples. Monks leave their temples and wander the streets with bowls and the offerings of sticky rice and other food from waiting donors.
Getaway travelled to Laos with Intrepid Travel. Our crew was delighted to visit Phet the tiger, one of the company's aid projects. She was rescued from a poacher who was heading to China to sell her and her two brothers sadly the males died, but Phet survived, thanks to the kindness of people and fundraising by Care for the Wild International. Phet lives at Kuang Si Falls, which is around 30 kilometres south of Luang Prabang. Visitors can donate money to her continuing care, as well as the other animals adopted by Intrepid.
On the way you will pass through many small villages and once there you can swim and picnic at the lowest level. The falls are wide and cascade down limestone formation into a series of pools with many walking trails.
Twenty-five kilometres upriver at the junction of the Ou and Mekong are two caves, Tham Ting and Tham Phun, also called Pak Ou Caves. They are crammed with thousands of gilded and wooden images of Buddha, left there over hundreds of years by devotees. They once provided a unique place for monks and hermits to dwell and worship and the King of Laos paid an annual visit.
The trip by boat takes around two hours, cutting through jungle and limestone gorges. There are many fishing boats and you will see villagers on sandbars panning for gold. You may want to call in to Ban Xang Hai, a rice-making village.
The lower cave is easy to access and has Buddhas recessed towards the back. The upper cave is reached by a stairway and is very dark. This is the place with thousands of statues of all shapes and sizes. Should your appetite be whetted after exploring Pak Ou, not far on is Ban Thin Hong, a recently excavated cave with tools, pottery and skeletons dating back 8000 years.
A night market is set up every evening in Luang Prabang. Mainly for tourist trade, it is in the main street outside the royal palace and opens just before sunset and ends around 10pm. It mainly trades in hilltribe crafts, mostly from the hmong people some of the world's most beautiful weaving but they also sell T-shirts, jewellery, bed linen and casual clothing. The women who sell the merchandise don't apply high pressure, making a stroll through the colourful markets even more enjoyable.