Laos is pretty much off Hongkongers’ travel radar. Despite its proximity to favorite destinations Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, we know very little about this small country. Luang Prabang, the second largest city in Laos (it’s more like a town, really), remains the closely guarded secret of avid backpackers. It is often described as Asia’s last Shangri-La, untouched by modernity. Laos is, however, slowly building up services that cater to travelers. So before everything gets annoyingly touristy, take the time to fly south. Luang Prabang is located on the confluence of Mekong River and Nam Kahn River, surrounded by fields upon fields of the most luxuriant shades of green. Before the Communists took over in 1949, Luang Prabang was the royal capital. The monarchs might not have been super rich, but they were never miserly when it came to building Buddhist temples and monasteries. There are over 30 temples packed into this small city; basically, you can see one every few steps. These temples, along with the Royal Palace, are miraculously intact. Coupled with the French colonial buildings, Luang Prabang has a fascinating mix of architecture. Strict limits are imposed when it comes to modern-day development, ensuring that the peaceful townscape will remain well-preserved in the future. On my flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang, I had a long chat with a gentleman who was born in Laos but fled to the United States during the Communist takeover. During the Vietnam War, he said citizens suffered terribly—Laos was the most-bombed country and even today a lot of landmines remain hidden underground, a threat to farmers and kids at play. My seatmate hastened to add, however, that people are not vengeful, tending to forgive and forget. Laotians are friendly, but not in an overly enthusiastic way. Unlike in many other Southeast Asian nations, hawkers aren’t pushy—they might ask you to buy a little something, but you will never be pestered. Perhaps the best explanation for the national character is that the country is deeply influenced by Buddhism, which is practiced by more than 80 percent of the population. Many males become monks because it is believed that doing so will bless their families. The motivation to become a monk, though, is not purely spiritual; it can also be prompted by pragmatism. For boys who are born into poor families, monastic life is the only way to get a comprehensive education. In Luang Prabang’s biggest temple, Wat Xieng Thong, I met a young monk named Onsei. Just 17 years old, he comes from a poor family. Having spent a few years in the temple, Onsei is now able to speak English and wants to study economics at university. Every morning, the monks wake up before 5am. Their famous alms-giving ceremony is a stunning picture of solemnity. The first sunlight of the day shoots through; believers kneel down in silence and wait to give their offerings. After some time, the monks arrive, a wave of orange robes. There’s no question that Laos is poor—GDP per capita in 2010 is estimated at US$986—but it seems that the peace of mind of its citizens remains intact. Spend a few days in Luang Prabang and try to grab on to some of that serenity—at least until the flight home. What to See Don’t expect scenic spots galore. However, there are a few places that are definitely worth a visit. Because of its small size, the city is best explored on foot. Wat Xieng Thong The biggest temple in Luang Prabang, you’ll get your fill of Buddhist statues here. At Wat Xieng Thong, you can also meet monks and see them in action. If you are eager and curious, approach one and start up a casual chat to learn more about Buddhist traditions. Royal Palace Laos is not a rich country, and the Royal Palace is not as glamorous as Beijing’s Forbidden City and the like. But it’s worth a visit to see what life was like when monarchs ruled Laos. In the red hall, check out the mosaics, which depict traditional festivals and the interesting myths. Night Market This bustling area is lined with food stalls and is home to a lot of cheap dining outlets. All-you-can-eat buffets are the perfect spot to sample papaya salads and barbequed food. But the best option available here is the soup noodles. They’re made of rice, just like our own ho fun, but much chewier and springier. Where to Stay Alila Luang Prabang The luxury villa, which contains only 23 suites, opened just last October. Located in a quiet neighborhood, it’s the obvious choice for travelers seeking a bit of seclusion. Because it was built on a heritage site, every effort was made to preserve the traditional buildings. Guests can choose among suites that offer a private garden or a pool. Unit 4, Ban Mano, Old Prison Road, Luang Prabang. Satri House This boutique hotel is situated in the heart of the city. The 25 rooms are beautifully furnished. The owner has an eye for detail, as each room is a bit different—all adorned with vintage items, radiating sheer elegance. 057 Photisarath Road, Ban Thatluang, Luang Prabang. For the above hotels, you can reserve a room using Mr & Mrs Smith, a booking service specializing in boutique hotels. There are three types of memberships for the service, and it’s possible to sign up for as little as US$20 per year. If you use them, you can also get special deals, like a free spa treatment or airport transfers. For more information, call Mr & Mrs Smith’s toll-free number.