Located in the northern region of Laos, Luang Probang was once the nation’s capital, located in a rich and powerful region due position along the silk road. Legend has it that Buddha would also use the area as a resting place along his travels. Primarily situated on a peninsula where the Nam Khan river meets the mighty Mekong, Luang Prabang is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Most longer term travellers would reach Luang Probang via Northern Cambodia, followed by into Southern Laos and then slowly northward through the normal chaos that you’d experience elsewhere in SE Asia. However reaching Luang Prabang, you’ll find a different kind of tourist. They come here but the bus load or directly from the international airport just outside of town. As a result, Luang Prabang would be place that most people could find polarising, depending on the type of traveller you are.
Many of the homes are now converted guest houses, although it’s evident that a lot more effort has been put into preserving the old school charm and feel. Compared to the other towns in Laos, there is very little rubbish on the streets and there is literally no traffic on the peninsula. It feels like everybody was sent a memo on acceptable standards of behaviour.
I mentioned that a place like Luang Prabang can be polarizing. How did I feel about it? Well I liked it. The main reason was that I was quite ill when I left Cambodia and I needed a place to just chill out and recover, so not having to rough it too much did was I needed. If I would have been here ten years ago then it would have been quite the incredible place, but I was still impressed at how the town’s been able to maintain some sense of order despite the growing number of tourists.
I spent a total of eight days in the town which might be considered a bit of overkill. However I was enjoying the slow pace and catching up with friends who would later arrive. By the end, I was feeling better and yearning for the craziness and buzz of the standard Asian cities. I probably could have done a lot more in my time here and the average traveller wouldn’t spend the same amount of time that I did here. If you have a few days to spare, here is a list of seven things to get involved with.
Check out some of the temples
Luang Prabang was the centre of Buddhism in Laos, hence the incredible number of temples situated around the town. At its peak there were 66 temples but due to war and conflict, that number is now 32, still an impressive number. Unless if you’re a temple nerd, you wouldn’t want to visit all of them. My picks are: Wat Wisunalat, Wat Siphoutthabath and Wat Pak Khan.
If you do go, ensure that you follow a few etiquette guidelines. Remove your shoes inside the buildings, keep you legs and shoulders covered, try not to point your feet directly at the altar or in the position of a monk and women shouldn’t touch the monks.
Sunset at Wat Chom Si on Mount Phousi
Mount Phousi is more of a hill that is 100m high but the steps will test your spirit on a hot afternoon. At the top is Wat Chom Si where you can enjoy the setting sun over the Mekong River. Make time to visit Wat Tham Phou Si half way down on the other side of the hill. It’s a popular location for viewing the sunsets so come an hour earlier to secure a good vantage point. If you happen to arrive on a full moon the look behind you after the sunset for a great full moon rising in the distance over Nam Khan River.
Look up and admire the fusion of traditional and french architecture
The integration and preservation of the two cultures into the architecture is one of the reasons for its World Heritage status. Despite most of the places being converted into guest houses, there isn’t overt signage to spoil it the facades. You can easily spend a few hours exploring the entire town but rarely look up to appreciate it. Also check out the stunning Royal Palace which is now converted into the National Museum.
Swim in the cool waters of Kuang Si Falls and the bear sanctuary
There are plenty of caves and waterfalls outside of town to explore. The best of the waterfalls to see is Kuang Si. Many tour operators and tuk tuk drivers along the main road will try to procure your business but in my opinion, the best way is to see these are to hire scooters for the day and do a self guided tour. It’s pretty easy to find and the cost of the bike rental at $10 for the day is on par with getting a tuk tuk out there and back, and even cheaper with two people. At the entrance of the park is the bear sanctuary where Asiatic Black Bears, rescued from poachers are cared for.
The first pools at Kuang Si that you see are the largest ones where people swim. Don’t be tempted to jump in just yet as the waters is quite cool and it’s best to build up a sweat before you do so. Instead, hike all the way to the top and when you think you have reached the top, you can go even further up to the very top. Make sure you have some good shoes as the surface can be slippery.
The morning Alms giving (Tak Bak)
This is a tradition that has been going on for many years. It is now one of the main attractions for coming to Luang Prabang, but is also in danger of becoming endangered from tourists with a lack of etiquette. Each morning at 5am, hundreds of monks would walk single file down Sakkaline Rd, from the eldest first followed by the youngest monks. Gifts of food, flowers and incense are prepared by kneeling locals or curious tourists and placed in the monk’s alms bowl as they walk past.
The food is ideally prepared at home by those making the offerings. If not, then it would be bought at the local market. Tourists are reminded to respect the space and also not to use flash. Despite these instructions, tourists continue to unknowingly ruin it for others walk within a few metres in front of the monks like desperate paparazzi. Whilst doing my research for this, I was shocked at the number of photos in pitch black using flash. Make sure you respect the space, don’t get in the way and avoid using any flash photography.
Each night, Sisavangvong Road is transformed into a night market. The villages surrounding Luang Prabang are known for their textiles and garment manufacturing skills and these items feature heavily here as well as other handy crafts and trinkets. I even spotted the spoons that were made from old bomb casings during my day of exploration at the Plain of Jars being sold here.The stall owners aren’t as pushy as most other markets and you can see family life go on here with families eating dinner together.
Take a cooking class
The best way to learn more about the food and history of a place is to learn from an expert. I booked a class with Tamarind Cafe which started with a market visit, learning about the various herbs used in Lao cooking and ended at the fermented fish sauce stand. Afterwards we were taken to their outdoor private cooking facilities out of town set amongst a garden ponds and water features. It was a highly interactive class with a well spoken chef who was extremely knowledgable and helped me make sense of all my food observations of eating here in Laos so that I could make the distinctions between Laos and Thai food. I also used it as a way of finding out where to eat locally and to meet some new people as well. In the end I had to get rolled out of the place I was that full.
Would you still go to Luang Prabang even though it’s fairly touristy?