Staying Calm Luang Prabang, in Laos, is Southeast Asia the way it used to be.
By Brian Palmer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A group of six old women kneel in the middle of the street and chat amiably as the sun rises over Luang Prabang, a quiet town in central Laos. Their conversation stops when a rail-thin Buddhist monk in a weathered saffron robe appears. The women remove the lids from pots cradled in their laps. The monk slides the top from his large alms bowl. The first woman drops a golf-ball-sized dollop of sticky rice into the monk's bowl. The next woman does the same, and then the next. At the end of the line, the monk chants a brief prayer, turns, then walks swiftly down the road to his temple, Vat Xieng Thong.

That's about as exciting as things get in Luang Prabang. The town's selling point, rather, is serenity. Just look at the options a traveler has for the rest of the day: tour the markets, visit temples, float down (or chug up) the Mekong River, sample Lao cuisine, do absolutely nothing.

All are excellent courses of action, and increasingly rare in tourism-mad, backpacker-choked Southeast Asia. Luang Prabang's civic leaders and Laotian government authorities recognize this, and have taken steps to preserve the town's traditional Buddhist character, particularly in the historic district, home to 30 temples that predate the French colonial presence. In 1995, Unesco designated Luang Prabang a World Heritage site. This cooperative effort between the Laotian government and the United Nations has managed to control construction by imposing tough building codes. While the results have been underwhelming--the team's first effort, Ban Xieng Muang Heritage House, is a modest-looking traditional Lao home off the main street--the next project (Vat Pafang, a breathtakingly dilapidated temple) is quite a bit more ambitious.

Luang Prabang has always held an important place in Laotian history. It was the seat of the royal family until the communist regime dispatched the monarchy in 1975. Their old residence, rechristened the Royal Palace Museum and open for just two hours every morning, houses a large collection of royal and religious objects. (Visitors also get a mini-history lesson on the Laotian monarchy--as told by the victorious communists.)

While there's concern that the restoration will bring increased tourism, it beats the developers who have wreaked havoc on Thailand's Chiang Mai or Boracay in the Philippines. Were it not for the restrictions set up by Unesco and enforced by the government, says Santi Inthavong, owner of the Villa Santi hotel, "I can see perfectly well someone from Hong Kong coming in with $5 million and boom!"--another soulless Southeast Asian tourist trap.

"Without them I wouldn't have moved here," says Oliver Bandmann, a German expat who runs a gallery/cafe/paper store in the old Alliance Francaise building. The town has grown in the past three years, he says, with restaurants and shops crowding out residents on the main stretch of Thanon Photisalat. Problem is, there are certainly more to come: The airport authority is lengthening the runway to allow jets, their bellies full of tourists, to land right smack in Luang Prabang.