Clinging to the mighty Mekong River in northern Laos is the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. We discovered so much about Lao tradition and culture, from spicy food, friendly smiling people to elaborate carved temples. This picturesque and endearing mountain town charmed and captivated our hearts. It is truly one of the rare gems of Asia.
Driving from the airport into Luang Prabang we were soon aware of its difference to most other Asian cities. There were no high rise buildings and only a few tourists wandered the small streets and lanes admiring the old French colonial architecture. Most importantly it was the city’s ambiance which distinguished it; peaceful, restful and slow paced. We spent just three days in Luang Prabang and here are some of the things we most enjoyed.
Boat Ride Up the Mekong
Our private boat cruise upstream on the muddy Mekong, past local villages, cows lazing on the river bank and fishermen in tiny shallow boats casting their nets for Tilapia (the local Mekong fish) was just an amazing experience. The slow monotonous puttering of the boat’s motor was the only sound that broke the tranquility and silence of the river.
We arrived at Pak Ou limestone caves right on the river bank and found hundreds of gold lacquered and wooden Buddha images in every shape and size crammed into the crevices of the cave. Pak Ou continues to be of great spiritual significance to the Lao people.
The return boat ride to Luang Prabang, following the mountainous river banks, allowed us to test the beds on the boat’s deck. Our scenic journey concluded with a traditional Lao lunch at a riverside cafe. Don’t miss the boat cruise it was very special.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Forest trails, a bear rescue centre and refreshing natural pools awaited us at Kuang Si Waterfall.
After a 20 minute drive out of Luang Prabang we arrived at a busy local village marking the start of the walking trail to the waterfall. Our first stop was the Bear Rescue Centre sponsored by The Intrepid Foundation and the Sunshine Coast University in Australia.
The Centre does a wonderful job of protecting and rehabilitating the rare Asiatic Bears. Further along the trail there are mountain water holes.
Here backpackers hurl themselves into the icy cold water from the rocks above. The upper waterfall is not for swimming but is certainly the most beautiful.
The water spills down the cliffs over limestone rocks and settles gently in calm turquoise rock ponds lit with shafts of filtered light radiating through the forest canopy. The waterfall is a must see and if cold water does not worry you, take your swimmers.
Night Market (Secret Markets)
The Luang Prabang Night Markets, or the Secret Markets as the locals call them, suddenly spring up on Sisavangvong Road in front of the Palace each evening at about 4pm. Surprisingly, in the morning there is no trace of the vast amount of human activity that has taken place the night before.
It is hugely popular with tourists, especially as an after dinner stroll. The markets are set out under tent like structures with local vendors sitting on two metre square mats in four neat rows along the road. The mats are piled high with goods like clothes, traditional indigo hand-dyed materials, brightly coloured paper lanterns, strange snakes and spiders in whisky bottles as well as an amazing range of local products from hand made bags to brilliantly coloured lacquer ware.
We also found the Night Food Market in one of the narrow lanes. At about 11pm most stall owners start to pack up and in the morning the market has disappeared and the road is busy transporting tourists to various sites around town. This tends to be a nightly ritual and a fabulous source of local entertainment for visitors and you are bound to find a treasure, souvenir or gift you didn’t know you had to have.
Tamarind Cooking School
We met our group at Tamarind Restaurant at 4pm for our evening cooking school. Nine of us piled into the back of a local songthaeaw (a local pick up truck/taxi which holds about ten people) for the 15 minute jolting ride to Tamarind Cooking School in a rural mountain setting surrounded by gardens and fish ponds.
The covered open air verandah with a dozen preparation tables and traditional coal fired cooking pots was where we would learn our new Lao culinary skills.
We were first shown how to make purple sticky rice, the base for our dessert, followed by traditional Lao dips, how to steam fish in banana leaves and cook chicken in fragrant handmade lemongrass baskets.
We finished off with our purple sticky rice in coconut sauce topped with fresh tropical fruit and mint, just delicious.
The four hours passed quickly and we were soon returning to town in the songthaeaw. During the school we had closely connected with our classmates who came from very different parts of the world. This was a fantastic experience and one we would be happy to repeat and highly recommend to fellow travellers.
On our first night we walked out of our hotel and straight away found Manda de Laos Restaurant. To put it simply this was a ‘wow’ restaurant serving Loa food with a French touch. Immaculately set, candlelit tables lined a spectacular world heritage listed fish pond which was the perfect recipe for a fabulously romantic dinner. The food was delicious and fragrant, the service attentive and the wine, although expensive as always in Asia, offered a wide selection from old and new world vineyards. This place is not a cheap option but as soon as you walk in and see the magnificent setting you’ll be glad you made a booking. This is a must. Make it a celebration.
The next day our guide recommended Coconut Garden and Blue Lagoon restaurants. We tried in the evening to get into both without a reservation but they were full. We walked almost to the end of the eating strip and found The Three Nagas in the Sofitel Hotel. The original Three Nagas restaurant was the former home of Lao royalty, a Lao/French style house more than 100 years old with beautiful wooden floors, ceilings and shutters and a colourful vintage car which guards the front of the building. This is where French meets Indochina food and it was superb at very reasonable prices. The staff were friendly and attentive and wore traditional costume. Our lesson from our dining experiences is to make a booking as good restaurants get very busy in this town.
The outdoor riverside cafes are outstanding for reasonably priced, healthy and delicious Lao food. We found even the simplest choice of food here to be of a high standard, whether it be the chicken noodle soup, fried rice, smoky morning glory, deep fried fish or prawns. It is also incredibly cheap and the restaurants are sometimes full to capacity, so be sure to book ahead whether it be for lunch or dinner.
The National Museum was once Laos’ Royal Palace. Walking down the colonnade of tall palm trees you first notice the blend of Lao traditional and French colonial architecture. The Palace was built for King Sisavang Vong and his family during the French colonial era. In 1975 there was a revolution in Laos and the the Royal family was dispersed to the country and the palace taken over by the communist government.
The palace was then converted into a national museum and opened to the public in 1995. The interior is interesting but not amazing by western royal standards. The front area is for receptions and has a photograph of the king and Moa Tse Tung partying. The throne hall is in the middle with some impressive displays of gold Buddhas and traditional gold swords. The back wing is where you find the Royal family’s bedrooms, living areas and a music room stacked full of classical instruments and masks. An odd thing about the Museum is the opening hours, 08:30-11:00, 13:30-16.00 everyday. Time your visit carefully.
Mount Phou Si
We left our climb up Mount Phou Si, a high hill in the centre of the old town of Luang Prabang, until early one morning as our guide warned us about the 900 steps to the top. The climb is not as bad as we thought and when we arrived at the summit we had a 360 degree view of Luang Prabang.
Up here you can appreciate how the town is bordered by two rivers, the Mekong to the Nam Khan. Sunrise or sunset would be the ideal times for great photographs. This is not a mind blowing tourist attraction but still a ‘must do’ as it does give you a great view over the whole cityscape. If you have an hour to spare and want to raise your heart rate, then it should be on your list. Don’t schedule the aerobics for later, it won’t be necessary.
We were impressed by the variety of architecture while walking around Luang Prabang. The most striking structures were the three major Wats (Temples) close to the centre of town.
Firstly Wat Mai with its five tired roof and its lavish, richly decorated gold exterior. When we arrived Monks were holding a ceremony so we did not get the opportunity to see the inside but an emerald Buddha sits surrounded by an ornately decorated red interior.
Wat Xiengthong with its roof sweeping low to the ground represents the classical Luang Prabang style.
Located at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers the Wat and surrounding buildings are of great significance being the site for the coronation of Loa kings. Dont miss the mosaic ‘tree of life’ sculpture on the rear outside wall of this Wat.
Wat Visoun is the oldest and most important temple in town. It features a spectacular multi layered roof and two side galleries. In the grounds sits a weather worn greyish stupa which resembles a huge Lotus flower, but our guide told us the locals call it the ‘watermelon’ stupa.
All three Wats are easily accessible and offered us further insight to Lao spiritual life.
Gay life is not very open in Luang Prabang (no rainbow flags) but Lao Lao Gardens which has a restaurant and a beer garden is gay owned and welcoming.
We booked our stay in Luang Prabang through Getaboutasia.com