LUANG PRABANG, Laos -- Leave your watches and calendars behind when you come to this dreamy river town. Luang Prabang is a mural of the 1950s, somnolent and undisturbed, a place where the ghosts of French Indochina still whisper in the breathless heat of summer and the mighty Mekong River rolls past palaces and villas of royalty long dead or banished into exile.
Luang Prabang (the ``r" is not pronounced) was once the home of Laos's royal family and the capital of this landlocked, impoverished country where 80 percent of the roads are unpaved. But the capital was moved to Vientiane in 1563 and the monarchy was abolished when the communists took power in 1975. Luang Prabang languished, isolated from the world by a history of war, mountainous terrain full of jungles and rivers, and a government decree that restricted tourism until the late 1980s.
Then, in 1995, UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural arm, declared the town of 16,000 a World Heritage site and said it was the best preserved ``city" in Southeast Asia. It was what Chiang Mai in Thailand and Siem Reap in Cambodia and Hue in Vietnam had been a generation or more ago: the seat of royalty and a spiritual heart of the nation. Luang Prabang was out of the closet. The first backpackers trickled in and found 32 magnificent Buddhist temples, six modest guest houses, and an atmosphere of timelessness that invited simply hanging out.
I rose with the dawn my first day here and staked out a seat on the patio of a coffee cafe on Sisavangvong Road. At the next table, a man with an Australian accent was reading a week-old edition of the Bangkok Post. It was 6 a.m. The sound of temple bells drifted from the pagodas, waking novice monks from their sleep. Soon they poured out of the temples by the hundreds, barefoot, heads shaved, rice bowls in hand, each group following an elder who led the daily pilgrimage for alms -- sticky rice, vegetables, sometimes small donations of money -- from respectful denizens kneeling on the sidewalk.
The monks' robes turned the town into a sea of saffron. I followed them at a respectful distance as their procession turned by the old royal palace that is now a museum and moved along the banks of the Mekong, a few hundred yards from the spot where it is joined by the Khan River. They walked in utter silence and did not look at or acknowledge the people who filled their bowls.
Luang Prabang still feels like a place best suited for monks and backpackers, with excellent European bakeries and coffee shops lining the main street, Sisavangvong, and a produce market that wraps food in banana leaves instead of plastic bags. One restaurant offers Internet access to anyone ordering an entree of more than $5. Dozens of pleasant, air-conditioned guest houses are tucked in side streets and alleys. Their rooms rent for $30 or less a night. An hour long massage costs $3 in most spas. You can hail a tuk tuk -- a motorcycle taxi attached to a passenger carriage -- and ride anywhere in the town for a dollar. American currency is accepted everywhere.
But with the recent advent of splendid boutique hotels and restaurants offering distinctive Lao and French dining -- grilled marinated buffalo with mint on bamboo skewers and steamed chicken with coconut milk, ginger, and shallots linger in my memory -- Luang Prabang has found a new market in upscale travelers, who arrive on nonstop flights from Vientiane, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok. Yes, that was Mick Jagger checking into Pansea's La Residence Phou Vao not long ago and wandering through the hotel's 6 acres of bougainvillea and frangipani .
So far Luang Prabang has avoided the fate of Siem Reap and Chiang Mai. Development has not run wild and is compatible with the colonial facades and low-slung buildings adorned with wooden shutters that define the town's character. No multistory chain hotels mar the landscape and the closest thing the town has to a department store is the night market where merchants selling handicrafts and silk and cotton embroidery spread their goods out on the blocked-off main street each evening. It is some of the finest needle work to be found in all Southeast Asia.
My wife and I stayed at one of the newest boutique hotels, the 24-room Maison Souvannaphoum, named ``one of the world's best new hotels" by the editors of Luxury Travel magazine. Once the summer residence of a Lao prince, the Maison has a colonial air with ceiling fans, an inviting bar, and a fine restaurant that opens onto the pool and a garden. The spacious rooms with balconies and the top-flight spa are decidedly modern. A security guard in a crisp blue uniform snapped to attention every time I walked through the front gate and held his position until I had returned his salute.
The best way to explore Luang Prabang is by bicycle, which you can rent at many hotels and downtown shops for a few dollars a day. My wife and I found a guide ($35 for a full day), rented three bikes, and headed into town on mercifully flat streets devoid of traffic. We stopped at Wat Xieng Thong, a pagoda built in 1560, and peered into its scarlet and gold royal funeral carriage house. We passed golden Buddhas and clusters of Internet cafes and slipped down to ride along the banks of the Mekong, which farther south divides Laos and Thailand and flows 2,600 miles from Tibet to the South China Sea off Vietnam's coast . Ninety million people along the way rely on the river for their livelihood.
On the ride back to Maison Souvannaphoum I stopped at the office of the national air carrier, Lao Aviation, to confirm our return flight to Vientiane. The clerk looked at my ticket and said, ``That flight's already canceled." Could I change to the evening flight? ``Yes," she said, ``but it's full." I shrugged. What the heck, I was only hanging out anyway and I could hang out some more. Luang Prabang 's lazy, hazy style is infectious. ``Baw pen nyang," as the locals say: Never mind. I'd get a $3 massage and worry about the ticket tomorrow.
Contact David Lamb, a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va., and former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Vietnam, at firstname.lastname@example.org.