It’s hard not to fall in love with Luang Prabang, especially after Thailand’s all engulfing motorized buzz. The delicate French flair that mixes so gently with the ancient World Heritage sites of Luang Prabang is enough to leave many lingering in its sanctuary. The riverside location helps. Come dusk the lanterns flicker on, providing enough light to make out the enchanting leafy shapes from which they hang.
Luang Prabang is the rugged gem in the crown of northern Laos, sitting snug among a dense mountainous region and adorned with scores of Buddhist temples that have rewarded the town with the title ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site‘. After a three day slow boat ride from the Thai border at Huax-Xai, my boyfriend Billy and I were ready to embrace the city’s sleepy isolation.
Luang Prabang Highlights
The gentle bustle of Luang Prabang’s Main Street is guarded by Mount Phousi, a 100m high hill with Wat Chom Si — a gilded temple — perched on top. Braving the 328 steps to its summit rewards climbers with a 360° view of Luang Prabang’s majestic surroundings. Billy and I huffed and puffed our way to the top about thirty minutes ahead of sunset, which provided us with a good spot before all the other tourists arrived.
As the sun cast its warm coral haze across Luang Prabang and danced across the curving Mekong River, the silhouettes of undulating mountains paled in the distance. Behind us, the airport stood still and tiny cars headed out of town, towards greening mountains. This experience seemed to make sense of the stoic, spiritual essence of Luang Prabang.
Go to Mount Phousi and you will conquer the heart of this town. If it were not for the snap happy tourists elbowing each other out of the way for the ultimate shot, it would have been utterly peaceful.
The colonial era Royal Palace Museum is another attraction not to be missed. The curation is pretty rubbish/amusing but the gilded entrance hall and beautiful Royal Temple is well worth the small entrance fee. It provides a fascinating insight to life in Laos before the communist takeover. The palace was last occupied by King Sisavang Vong in 1975, when the royal family were sent to re-education camps and the government took ownership of the grounds. The small scale of the buildings, in comparison to their Thai neighbours, makes this a unique experience for anyone feeling ‘templed out’.
Shopping in Luang Prabang
If you love arts and crafts, Luang Prabang is the place to pick up a range of handmade items from local tribes, artists and families. The daily night market is a trial for anyone on a budget – the stalls seem endless and the traders sit patiently, smiling ‘Sabaidee’. Piles of paintings, hand-woven silk shawls and beautiful lanterns taunt those purse strings. If you have a boyfriend like mine though, he’ll make sure you get through it in good time.
Eating out in Luang Prabang
Billy is one man who is utterly driven by his quest for the next feed. This hasn’t exactly helped my waistline. Luang Prabang seemed to be the place that I decided to put a stop to this. However, when ambling along the Main Street passed Wat Sop we came across Le Banneton Cafe, a first class French bakery.
Relaxing with a strong coffee and a big buttery croissant, as orange robed monks drifted into the temple across the road, made the relapse totally worthwhile. Meanwhile, Billy sank his teeth into a door-step sized croque monsieur that was dripping with expensive cheese and sprang-up deliciously against the roof of his mouth.
This stop-off went against our rather thin budget, as did another stop at Joma Bakery, which provided a more modern, air-conditioned version of the colonial French bakery.
Eating out on a budget in Luang Prabang is totally doable if you enlist a bit of willpower. There is a vegetarian stir-fry stall at the night market that promises a heaped plateful of fresh veg, tofu and spring-rolls– stir-fried right in front of you. The big selling point: it’s only 10,000 Kip (about 1 Euro). We found that the less obvious restaurants, with nondescript yellow signs, were often the cheapest places to eat — if you’re looking to sample Laos food, they’re also the best. Our biggest regret though was not indulging in a big swirling glass of French red wine, this would have cemented the exotic mix of cultural influences along the tropical, lantern lit riverside.
Night Life in Luang Prabang
During our four day stay in Luang Prabang, I felt acutely aware of the contrastingly crass western ways to the polite, conservative manner of the Laotion people. I found myself wearing a scarf over my shoulders and baggy ‘traveller trousers’ to avoid any fleshy boo-boos. This was also due to the spiritual esteem of Luang Prabang.
However, my perspective was somewhat altered when Billy and I found ourselves drinking with an ex-monk in Lao Lao Garden. Schooled as a child-monk in the Luang Prabang temples, he readily admitted he still finds it hard looking at women. He chatted about each of us deciding what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for ourselves and trusting in our judgement, as he politely tilted his glass before each sip of his beer.
As the night came to a close due to the 11pm curfew, Billy and I were only just getting started. “Is it true everyone has to go to a bowling alley to party here?” I asked the ex-monk, a tad self-consciously. Ten minutes later we were piling into a tuk-tuk and tearing through the darkness towards the legendary Luang Prabang bowling alley.
I was a tad deflated when we walked into a brightly lit bowling alley, buzzing with the clatter of bowling pins and loud chatter. I’m too impatient for bowling and there wasn’t even any music — but what did I expect?! Alas, we got the drinks in and sure enough spotted plenty of travellers from our slow-boat ride.
Breaking a curfew by necking beers in a bowling alley felt rather naughty and somewhat surreal, particularly as the ex-monk ended up walking around wide-eyed with an undeniable gurn. Although I ended up having a great night, I wasn’t fussed about returning the next night — I thought the gimmick may wear off. Guess where we ended up the next night?
The most popular hang-out seemed to be Utopia, where revellers could recline against floor cushions, entranced by a series of projected Youtube videos. Outdoor seating took you closer to the riverside. There was also a volleyball court which went down a treat with our fellow travellers. For a quieter, more bohemian vibe, Ikon Club was a great spot for sampling unique cocktails and having the chats.
Around Luang Prabang
Elephant camps, hill tribe visits and outdoor adventures are all on the cards for those chilling in Luang Prabang. We made it out to the Kung Si Falls via tuk-tuk, which added to the experience. The waterfalls were an impressive aqua marine blue and with a variety of levels in which you can take a dip. A few jack-the lads were hurling themselves off a slippery tree via a teeny rope, which provided some rather morbid entertainment — I was sure I was about to witness their final moments.
Our bold moment involved an attempt to trek to the top of the falls, which led us to a dead-end — unless we were supposed to paddle on through gushing falls? Bear Grills would not have been impressed. We slipped back down through the mud to the beginning of the ‘trail’ where we decided to take the steps instead. Kung Si Falls is also home to a bear sanctuary, with some very sad looking rescue bears looking blankly out at the visitors.
If I went to Luang Prabang again, I would make a point of getting to grips with its beautiful surroundings. The town may lull you into a stupor, but there’s too much adventure to miss.