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You might be one of only a handful of visitors on any given day at Shangri-Lao, an elephant sanctuary in the misty northern wilderness. (Ellen Himelfarb)
You might be one of only a handful of visitors on any given day at Shangri-Lao, an elephant sanctuary in the misty northern wilderness. (Ellen Himelfarb)

Lovely, languid Laos – but for how much longer before tourists take notice? Add to ...

You wouldn’t expect the guests to keep coming after the lights flickered out, white-knuckling it along the rickety bamboo footbridge over the Nam Khan River to the Dyen Sabai restaurant. But they poured in through the pitch dark: parents carrying children on their shoulders, students, shoeless travellers in Thai fisherman pants.

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As it turned out, Dyen Sabai was the perfect place to be at that moment in all Luang Prabang. Without the artificial light we could see across the river to the colonial town at dusk and the summit of Phousi Hill, plus the occasional longboat chugging along. The gentle chatter of our fellow diners swelled as they leaned on cushions by the low tables. The Beer Lao, impossibly cold, kept coming. And without the flickering light bulb above our table, the mosquitoes chose to leave us be.

Dyen Sabai is something of a right of passage for visitors to Luang Prabang. It ranks with waking at 5:30 a.m. to watch saffron-clad monks walk the palm-shaded streets to collect alms; or exploring the incense-clouded temples; or climbing Phousi. Sitting here, picking at plates of fresh vegetable rolls and sesame beef, I feel a sense of privilege. Not because this place is particularly grand – it isn’t – but because in five years, or even one, this way of life may be extinct.

The introduction of a private airline called Lao Central, plus the recent news that Lao Airlines is doubling its capacity and China Eastern has increased direct flights into the capital city of Vientiane, means Laos is about to be inundated with tourists from across Asia. The country’s No. 1 destination, the town of Luang Prabang, has been designated a UNESCO heritage site, so any new hotels and restaurants will likely spring up right here across the Nam Khan river.

Of course, Luang Prabang deserves to be noticed by its billion and a half neighbours. (Lest I sound smug, with two small children I’m clearly enjoying the early fruits of development.) Still, the town’s impossible beauty rides on its serenity, the ability of those monks (more than 1,000 in a town of 50,000) to carry out their spiritual routines away from flashbulbs. It depends on streets where bicycles outnumber cars, and a river on which boats rarely pass one another. The largest group to turn up in Luang Prabang these days is a dozen Aussies on the back of a pickup.

When we visited last year, the only way into Luang Prabang was by air from Hanoi, which itself took some getting to. So we were relieved to find, after settling in, that the pace was almost soporifically slow. The historic inns in the centre of town tend not to have pools, contributing to a swelter factor that only compounds the sluggish rhythm. You get up, pad to a shaded terrace, nibble on an egg, French bread and cantaloupe and nip at strong Laotian coffee (the northern hills are dotted with fair-trade growers).

Then you hit the few main streets of the old town. I’m not exaggerating when I say it took us most of our first day to progress eight or 10 blocks from the eastern reach of Khem Khong Boulevard, where the teak cottages of our hotel, the Mekong Riverview, climb up a berm fronting the river. There are that many things to see, to eat and to buy.

Fewer than 10 yards from the breakfast terrace is Luang Prabang’s most impressive Buddhist temple, Xieng Thong, or “Golden City,” which was the name of this town until it surrendered its capital designation to Vientiane in the 1500s. Xieng Thong is a complex of temples, shrines and monasteries with low ski-jump roofs and gilded reliefs. Inside you can tiptoe barefoot past kneeling monks and view centuries worth of religious artifacts, including a series of reclining Buddhas. And unlike in, say, Bangkok, where you’ll elbow past tour groups three deep even to glimpse the gilded relics, nobody else is around: a local father and his small daughter, perhaps. For now.

Already signs point to a changing tourism landscape. Sri Lankan hotelier Jetwing opened its first Laotian property last winter. Xieng Thong Palace is a cluster of five-star cottages facing a rare swimming pool that creeps around the property, so it’s never far from your verandah.

Then there’s the new generation of boutiques, schooled in the art of display and well connected among the weaving, silver-smithing and wood-carving artisans organized by European NGOs. Prices are aimed not at those Aussies in the truck, but rather at the expanding middle classes.

And between these shops are restaurants that serve fresh fish and sticky rice on banana leaves, coconut soups and spare ribs on terraces cooled by ceiling fans and icy fruit shakes.

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