If there is one destination in Indochina that deserves your time and money, then it must be Luang Prabang.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until the middle of the 16th century.
Today, Luang Prabang is considered to be the heart of Laotian culture, beating the capital city Vientiane as the preferred destination.
Depending on your itinerary, you can choose to spend just two nights, doing a whirlwind tour of its highlights, or take it easy and stretch your stay for a week (or more) and see it at your own pace. Either way, you will be richly rewarded with sights and sounds that are unlike any other place.
Catch the sun set over Luang Prabang
Climb about 355 stairs up Phu Si hill and you will have made it to a vantage point to catch the sunset. Once you have caught your breath, weave your way through the crowd of other tourists, and grab yourself a good spot. I suggest you make it atop at least an hour or so before the sun sets.
As the sun turns from a bright white spot to a golden orange ball, suddenly the mood changes. If you are shooting a video, about two minutes should suffice till it drops below the hills. If you are taking photographs, then I suggest you take as many as you wish. You never know which is going the be the one.
It is also a vantage point to see beyond your immediate surroundings, with excellent views of the beautiful mountains and the Mekong River in the distance.
Admission fee is LAK 20,000 per person.
Walk across to the other side on the bamboo bridge
The center of Luang Prabang is small. It has got just four main roads. Easily covered by foot, one of these roads leads you to a small gated park, which is also a good place to click photographs. Look carefully, and you’ll see a pathway leading to the bank of the Mekong River.
There’s a lady sitting there who’ll collect a fee for you to cross the bamboo bridge to go to the other side. Once you’ve crossed the bridge, walk a little further to the small temple,Later, sit on the rocks and catch the views of the boats streaming up and down the river, carrying passengers.
Keep in mind that there are two bamboo bridges. Both are washed away during the annual monsoons, and then rebuilt immediately after the water starts to recede.
There is a fee of LAK 5,000 that you need to pay to cross over. This goes in helping rebuild the bridge after the next monsoon.
Discover Luang Prabang’s hidden gem
Kuang Si Falls is about 30 odd kilometers from Luang Prabang, and is about an hour’s drive, depending on conditions.
It’s unlike any other waterfall I’ve seen. From the bright green colours, to the way it flows down, across three tiers. For those looking for Instagram or selfie moments to capture, you’ll get lots of opportunities. And if you fancy taking a dip in the pool, then by all means, do so. There are changing rooms. Just make sure to carry your swimming shorts.
For the more adventurous types looking to pump up their heart, go ahead and climb up right to the top. From there, you can get to see parts of the waterfall and stream and a scenic panoramic view of the area beyond. I also recommend wearing the right kind of footwear. Unfortunately, I did see a few other tourists slip and slide away.
If you’re into animal conservation and protection, there’s also a bear rescue center immediately after the entrance. There a few rescued beers chilling in their enclosure. While I’m not the zoo kind of guy, it’s interesting to see how they’ve done it up nicely, giving the bears ample space to do their own thing. Pick a souvenir or tee, if you feel like it, or wish to contribute.
Entry fee to the waterfalls is LAK 20,000 per person.
Take a walk around a UNESCO heritage town
Got time on hand? Why not take a leisurely walk and explore the old quarter? You will see lots of buildings and temples that are excellent examples of the fusion of traditional Lao and colonial European architecture . In fact, look closely and most of them will have special UNESCO approved plaques mounted on the walls or doors.
Feel up to it? Then stop by for a cup of coffee or your favourite beverage and watch as life ambles by at its own pace. Or why not hop into a souvenir shop and buy some handicrafts to take back with you.
Shop at the night market
Instead of sitting at your regular bar, or just chilling in your hotel room, why not take a walk through the night market? It’s a nightly event, starting at around 6pm and going on till well past 11pm. The only traffic you will have to worry about are the throngs of people walking up and down the street in search of a good deal. No vehicles are allowed at this time.
It may be the same stuff that you see in most of the stalls, including ceramics, silk scarves, bamboo lamps, apparels, handicrafts and handmade souvenirs. The prices may also be more than you anticipated for a night market. Haggle politely and you should get most of what you want at a price that you are comfortable with. If you are still not satisfied, then move along. There are other stalls selling the same products.
If shopping is not your thing, then why not sit at any of the roadside cafés or bars, with a coffee or a beer? It’s also an excellent way to watch people, which happens to be one of my favourite pastimes.
‘Fine dining’ at the night food stalls
At dusk, walk into a narrow lane towards the end of the night market (behind the Tourist Office), and you will be treated to a sight that is sure to whet any carnivore’s appetite (and herbivore’s too).
Take your pick from a selection of local fare, including BBQ meats and seafood, noodles, rice or just about anything that your taste buds fancy.
The dining experience is also interesting. No fine dining. Expect to share your communal table with other hungry travellers from across the world, looking for a good meal. It’s the best way to catch up and exchange notes and toast each other’s health with Beerlao.
The Whiskey Village
Okay, this may not be for everyone. Some might not enjoy the taste, while others may find just the sight of snakes and scorpions fermenting in the alcohol a little, well, hard to digest.
I went to the village as part of a package tour that also included a visit to the Pak Ou Caves.
This local whiskey is made from sticky rice which through different processes of filtration is steamed, boiled and then cooled. What finally comes out is a liquor that packs a punch. It can be pungent and harsh, especially the ones with the snakes and scorpions. Nevertheless, it’s still something you should try, if you are game.
However, there’s more than just the stalls selling whiskey in various sized bottles and ingredients. There are also silk, cotton scarves, dresses and other fabrics being sold here. Walk around and you may be lucky to see it being weaved on the looms. They aren’t expensive, especially when you convert it into your currency, and my suggestion is that you pick up a scarf or two, either for yourself or to take back as gifts.
Combined with a visit to Pak Ou Caves, the price for this half day tour can start from LAK 100,000 per person.
Take a boat ride to Pak Ou Caves
Fancy a boat ride on the Mekong? Why not do a half-day trip to Pak Ou Cave. It’s combined with a visit to Whiskey Village. Some of you may enjoy the cave, while others may find it, well, boring. To each their own, I say.
The tour is roughly around four hours, with the ride to the caves itself taking about two hours. Once you arrive, walk up the stairs and you will come to the first cave called Tham Ting. Just be careful as it is dimly lit. Make your way higher and you come to the second cave called Tham Theung, which is larger and darker. Both these caves are full of Buddha statues, about 4,000 of them.
If the caves are not what you expected, or the least bit bothered about, then now is an excellent time to sit at one of the restaurants, order a Beerlao, and gaze at the mighty Mekong as it joins the Nam Ou River.
Combined with a visit to Whiskey Village, and who you book your trip with, prices can start from LAK 100,000 per person.
Watch the alms giving ceremony
If you can wake up much before dawn, then try and get to the main thoroughfare in Luang Prabang. You will see hundreds of barefoot Buddhist monks walk in a single file through the street, collecting food donations. It starts with the senior monks first, with the children monks bringing up the rear.
There is currently an ongoing debate as to whether they are actual Buddhist monks. In fact, there is an opinion that it has lost its relevance and authenticity. However, as a source of good income, the government actively encourages it.
Watch from a distance, behave and be courteous, and you will be rewarded with a truly humbling experience.
Explore the many Wats around town
It is not for nothing that Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. Walk through Luang Prabang, and chances are that you will find a well-maintained Wat in every corner, on every street, in every lane. There are more than 30, with some dating back to as far as the 16th century.
The carvings on each of them is unique, and a sight to behold with their intricacy. Each of them is beautifully built, boasting intricate carvings of snakes at entrances and on roofs, along with sculptures and paintings. The golds and burgundy on the Wats add a nice touch.
Time permitting, visit the Royal Palace Museum too. Built in 1904, there are galleries with murals depicting Laotian life through the time. Check for opening hours before you make plans to head here. You are also not allowed to carry quite a bit of personal items, including cameras or bags. Most important, remember to dress appropriately.
Enjoy views of the Mekong River with a Beerlao
Tired of walking around? Had an overdose of culture? Then maybe it’s time to head to any of the restaurants and bars along the river, order a Beerlao, sit back, raise your legs, and soak in the atmosphere.
Take your time, and you will see families heading home to the other side of the river. While one of them gets the engine to start, another will push it deeper into the waters and point it in the direction they are heading. And once all that is in place, and everybody is on board, they are off.
On a good day, you may even get to photograph a Buddhist monk taking photographs.