Up in the northern mountains in Laos, Luang Prabang sits very pretty on a tiny peninsula adrift between the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers.
This former royal capital's tiny layout shines with the golden spires of Buddhist temples, religious artistic creations, gorgeous French colonial buildings, and an increasing selection of great cafes, bars, shops and restaurants. Last year it celebrated its 20th anniversary of UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
Luang Prabang is very small so there's no need to plan in great detail. Part of the appeal is wandering the frangipani and bougainvillea-lined roads, pulling in at the French-style cafes, taking in the dazzling artefacts at the wats "temples", getting a massage - or three, drifting back and forth across the Nam Khan River, and drinking beer at the riverside bars - all without watching the clock!
I stayed at the Burasari Heritage Luang Prabang hotel during my stay, a collection of beautiful teak colonial buildings set facing the Nam Khan River, in the heart of the peninsula. My room was very stylish, decorated in ethnic minority textiles, and I had a balcony overlooking the sun-drenched banana palms lining the Nam Khan River.
This river road is much quieter than the other side of the peninsula - the Mekong River road. I took breakfast every morning in the small cafe - all marble-topped tables, whirring white ceiling fans, recycled doors, and antique telephones - overlooking the hotel's appealing black vintage Mercedes Benz used to ferry guests around town.
Wanting to recover from jet lag as soon as possible, I booked in quickly to the Burasari Spa next door to the hotel for the must-have ginger zinger massage. I submitted first to a salt and lemon foot massage followed by a coconut masque for my hair. Reclining in a warm bath of essential oils was obligatory before my wonderful, restorative massage using compressed ginger and herbs.
In the afternoon, I toured the city highlights, on foot, walking the brick pavements, passing the occasional hammer and sickle communist flag, peering and wandering down alleys that slope gently down to the Mekong, and breathing in the sticky air perfumed by frangipani and other blossom.
My favourite wat is Wat Xieng Thong, a stunningly beautiful 16th-century layered-roof temple at the end of the Luang Prabang peninsula that was once known as the Temple of the Golden City. It's the most exquisite example of the sacred architecture that graces this former royal capital. The Tree of Life Mosaic - glittering in jewel colours - which covers the back of the sim is simply divine. I could easily spend hours looking at all the glass details of the animals, birds and folk tales.
At the other end of the peninsula is the early 20th-century Royal Palace used by the Lao royal family from 1904 until 1975. It's a fascinating glimpse into a lost world (Laos' monarchic rule ended when the Pathet Lao communists started to run the country in 1975). The royal symbol of Laos - a three-headed elephant under a parasol - is still embedded in the gable on the facade of the palace. In the grounds of the palace is the sparkling gold and emerald green Haw Phra Bang that enshrines the small golden Phra Bang statue. In fact, Luang Prabang's name derives from the Phra Bang, and Luang Prabang means "capital of the golden buddha Phra Bang".
In front of the palace is the holy mountain of Phousi. Climbing Mt Phousi at sunset to see the dusk views of the town and Mekong River is very popular but very busy.
Every visitor to Luang Prabang usually wakes early one morning during their stay to witness the alms giving. The monks of the 35 wats of Luang Prabang walk through town at day break every morning to receive gifts of food - mainly sticky rice. There are strict rules on participation and observation so as to not disturb the monks from this ritual. All the monks from one wat approach alms givers in a line at once and there's quite an art in handing each monk a chunk of sticky rice in rapid fashion! I discovered I was not as quick as I thought I was going to be!
After taking part in the alms giving I headed to Le Cafe Ban Vat Sene for a French breakfast. Sitting out on a pavement table opposite the dreamy, custard cream and RAF grey shaded French-built school, I breakfasted on Lao coffee, baguette, jams, and pain au chocolat. France's culinary legacy is very notable in Laos. And, just to add to the French aura, Chez Matt's Wine Bar is now open in town where wine and cheese pairings are "de rigueur". I could easily see why so many foreigners continue to make their home here.
After my morning feast, I headed out to the Hmong village of Ban Khua Ti Ning, three miles south of Luang Prabang, to learn how to make khaipen, a popular Luang Prabang snack, with Backstreet Academy. Khaipen is a very moreish dried river weed snack and is the perfect accompaniment to Beer Lao. There's nothing better than a Beer Lao at sundown at one of the many bars lining the Mekong River road with a plate piled high with the light-as-a-feather khaipen wafers. I learnt from Ms Sheevang that the river weed is collected from January to April every year.
During my class we soaked our intensely green batch in water and then bashed it to get rid of the sand. Meanwhile hog plum and tamarind were bubbling on the stove. Once we felt the weed was clean enough we spread the river weed out - in paper thin fashion - on a bamboo canvas and poured the hog plum and tamarind sauce over it. We then layered our khaipen canvas with garlic, tomato slices and sesame seed before laying it out to dry in the sun for the two days it takes to dry. I didn't have time to wait to devour my own homemade khaipen so we munched on some prepared earlier.
After filling up on this popular local snack, I wanted to try something a little different. There are plenty of international restaurant options in Luang Prabang so I headed for the main cluster of shops and restaurants on the main road to La Casa Lao, which serves up Spanish tapas and Lao finger food. I eat fried calamari, patatas fritas served with a tangy mango chutney, followed by delicious mango spring rolls as a sweet twist on a savoury dish.
I spent the afternoon browsing the beautiful threads at Anakha "the Blue House", the jewellery designs of Fabrice Munio at long-standing Naga Creations, the stylish gifts at Caruso Lao, and the eclectic treasures of the Pathana Boupha Antique House before heading to Kop Noi, inside the L'Etranger Cafe which sells Fair Trade gifts including bamboo straws, jewellery, and cotton blankets from Oudomxay province.
After happily browsing for hours, it was time to look for a great spot to eat with winning views and guaranteed Beer Lao. Just before sunset on the Mekong road, dozens of long tables are set up for the popular Lao DIY barbecue meal known as sindat. I took my place eager to start cooking up the beef and needle mushrooms that are popular at the sindat tables. A cold Beer Lao plus plenty of sindat while watching the sun sink behind the mountains across the river is the perfect end to a day in Luang Prabang.
Inspired by my shopping spree, I headed out the next day to the Ock Pop Tock weaving centre, south of Luang Prabang, to try my hand at weaving on a loom. Ock Pop Tock has a beautiful riverside location with a cafe and a couple of rooms to rent (a favourite spot to sleep in the city). Lao weavers always make it look so easy but I had to concentrate really hard to make any advance on the threads on the loom! I decided I would never have the patience to stick with it!
After all that hard weaving work it was time for a well-earned swim. There's no better place for this than the dazzling turquoise blue pools at the Kuang Si waterfall, south of Luang Prabang. The earlier you go in the day, the better, before it becomes crowded with swimmers. It's an impossibly beautiful waterfall with brilliant white plumes of water tumbling over rocks and decked pools, and it's a very romantic spot. After a swim, I went to see if I could spy the bears at the Free the Bears enclosure, close to the entrance to the falls. The Free the Bears foundation looks after Asian black moon bears that have been rescued from wildlife traffickers. It's quite a thrilling feeling being right up close to their enclosure watching these huge furry creatures eat and play.
Back in town I treated myself to a cocktail at new Manda de Laos which sits next to several lotus ponds in the grounds of the Maison Dalabua hotel. Reclining into the comfort of the russet coloured bank of cushions, I ordered the Tuk Tuk Grabber - a mix of Hanoi vodka with dragon fruits, lime and grenadine, a powerful tipple for mid afternoon! Seeking to recover from the mid-afternoon cocktail, I headed to the Saffron Cafe on the Mekong road. Saffron serves up Luang Prabang-grown Arabica coffee but I actually prefer the coffee from the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos where most of Laos' coffee is grown.
After dusk, I went to graze at the night market - tucked down a narrow alley - at the post office end of the peninsula. Diners jostled among steaming pots and tables. You can just point at what you want and sit down or stand. I ordered some fried fish and chicken skewers and spotted some khaipen - which I was clearly now addicted to!
After dinner, I wandered up and down the stalls of the lantern-lit night market that stretch some distance from the post office area to the Royal Palace. I bought some t-shirts and some purses embroidered with cute elephant motifs.
My final tipple of the night was at the fashionable boho bolthole the Icon Klub where the friendly owner Elizabeth has been serving great cocktails to locals and visitors for years. My raspberry vodka cocktail coolly slipped down a treat.
The more time I spent in Luang Prabang, the more I realised there was more to see and do, exploring the town's secret corners, or heading out of town for adventure. I definitely know I will go back. It's kind of impossible not to be seduced by this sacred city.