Luang Prabang makes a great first impression. It has all the ingredients to satisfy visitors– a bustling but not crazy street scene, a lively night market, a variety of restaurants, those magical Mekong sunsets and a romantic fusion of east meets west architecture. The old town is UNESCO heritage listed boasting beautiful street scapes combining a strong French colonial influence mixed with traditional Lanna temples whose secrets are guarded by ornately carved dragons. Add in the mystical sound of banging drums calling the monks to prayer and you have one of Asia most charming towns.
After two days on the slow boat from Chiang Rai we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. The slow boat dropped us about 15km out of town and from there you have basically no choice but to take a tuk tuk into town. The only thing I remember about that ride into town was that school was out for the day and it seemed every child in Laos were riding their bicycles, sometimes 3 on one bike, home. These kids must do this every day but we were astonished, this was no quite country lane, this was a very busy, very crazy main road and these kids were sharing the road with trucks, motorbikes and cars – we experienced one of those ‘oh my god, kids would never be allowed to do this in back home’ moments, but that’s Asia for you and no one bats an eye. We arrived in town, thankfully without witnessing any accidents, said our goodbyes to our travel companions and set off to find home for the next few days. Side note- our driver tried to drop us off god knows where but luckily we had a young couple with us who knew the area and argued with him until he took us somewhere a little more central, we found this was a pretty common occurrence in Laos, so be prepared to stand your ground and ensure drivers take you to where you want to go.
One of the first things we learnt was that Laos is more expensive than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. This was something we weren’t expecting, if anything we expected it to be on the cheaper scale. But while we found accommodation to be relatively on par things like food, transport and tours were definitely pricier. There’s also not as much room to haggle, I don’t know if they just don’t have that culture yet but I bought a few things at the markets and came ready to test my haggling skills, skills I’d spent the previous month honing in Thailand, only to find that they didn’t really get it. I still managed to get a slightly cheaper price but it was nothing like the fun, fast paced bargaining I’d encountered in other SE Asian countries. Laos is still cheap though and if you head off the tourist strip away from restaurants that serve western food you’ll be able to find some cheap eats. We should also remember that Laos is a developing country, one that is 20 odd years behind its neighbours in this tourism thing, and while we say more expensive, realistically it’s still ridiculously cheap.
We started and ended our time in Laos in Luang Prabang, this wasn’t really planned it was just the way things worked out. We spent eight days’ total here and honestly, I think it was a few days too many, you could easily round out the highlights in two or three days. We saw a lot of incredible things in and around Luang Prabang and enjoyed our time in the city touted as the ‘most romantic city in Asia. I’m a bit behind on the blog so I honestly can’t remember everything we did while we were there but have pulled together some of our highlights-
Luang Prabang tuk tuk drivers are relentless. I swear I started dreaming of tuk tuk drivers chasing me asking over and over ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’. Regardless, if you do nothing else, at least go to Kuang Si Waterfall and if you have time you should try and squeeze in Tad Sae as well. You may have guessed that waterfalls are big business in Luang Prabang so of course there are numerous ways to get there. You can hire a moto and make your own way, book a private tour, book a minivan transfer or go with a tuk tuk driver. You can do the tuk tuk either privately or if there are a few people you can split the cost so it’s cheaper. After getting the biggest bruise on my butt (I bruise like a peach on a regular day but this was epic) from bouncing around the back of a tuk tuk in Thailand, I suggested we go for a minivan transfer. This was a great decision as roads in Laos are rough, like crazy rough, sometimes you’ll be driving along and then one side of the road is just gone – #cray.
We paid 45,000 kip for the ride there and back. It took about an hour to drive there, an hour to drive back and we had 3 hours at the waterfall itself. When you arrive you’ll have to pay the entrance fee of 20,000 kip pp before starting the short walk up to the waterfall. Along the way you’ll go past the Free the bears project, an organisation that rescues bears from poachers and traffickers. You can view the bears in their enclosures and read about their plight and the fantastic work being done to help them and if you feel so inclined you can support them by buying a t-shirt or simply leaving a small donation in the boxes provided.
Keep walking along the easy, flat path and you’ll come to Kuang Si’s lower pools. You will stop. You will gape in wonder. The view is so indescribably beautiful and the water such an inviting shade of turquoise that you won’t believe it is real. While it’s tempting to stop and get lost in these never ending pools, trust us and keep walking up the path. Keep walking for about 800m, past more cascading pools and you will be rewarding at the end with a stunning waterfall gushing water, creating a hazy mist with the sun just peeking through. If you’re feeling energetic and have brought along appropriate footwear you can climb to the top of the falls, or you can simply head back down to one of the alluring pools for a swim. We opted for the later, or at least Shane did, I got in awkwardly fell over, decided it was too cold and promptly got out. Shane insists it was lovely, though I’m not so sure.
The Living Land
Anyone who has spent any length of time in South East Asia will no doubt have memories of rice fields stretching far and wide. We realised though we had seen what felt like hundreds of rice fields and eaten more rice than we could remember, we really didn’t know much about how rice farming worked. This seemed like a pretty big oversight for people spending so much time in Asia so we booked ourselves into a day at The Living Land Farm. The tour was slightly pricier than those we’d normally book but the experience was well worth it. We went through all of the stages of rice farming, from ploughing with a reticent water buffalo named Rudolph, to planting, harvesting and milling, right through to husking and grinding the rice to make rice flour. The whole thing was interactive so you could try your hand at each step or not if squishing through the mud freaked you out and best of all they brought out a whole host of yummy rice products for tasting at the end!
Luang Prabang is at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. There are a multitude of tour operators offering boat tours to the caves and whisky village both of which we avoided as it just sounded like too much of a tourist trap. We also felt like after two days on the slow boat, we’d seen enough of the Mekong for now but if you wander down to the river near Wat Xieng Thong you’ll find various boat operators, if you’re keen on a boat trip try to take one at sunset, few things I’ve seen in life compare to those Mekong sunsets.
If Boats aren’t you’re thing and you still want to catch a sunset over the Mekong there are loads of restaurants along the water front. All of them are more than happy to let you sit for a few hours sipping a beer Lao and taking in the views. We did this one night and met some of the friendliest locals who invited us to join them for a few drinks, absolutely gorgeous people and one of my fav memories of Luang Prabang.
Apparently there are 34 temples in Luang Prabang. By the time we arrived we felt complete temple exhaustion. We did see a couple and honestly I was a little more intrigued by the Laos temples than the one’s I’d seen in Thailand. Wat Xieng Thong seems to be the must see and I can certainly see why. Considered one of the most import Wat’s it was built in the 1559 and was the site for many import historical events in Laos history including coronations and religious events. The detailed mosaics scenes, gold stencil design and tiered red roof make this temple a standout and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far.
At the top of some 300 odd steps sits the temple on top of Mount Phousi. After a hot and crowded walk to the top we joined about a hundred other people who all had the same idea. The temple itself is nothing special, what people pay their 20,000 kip entrance fee for is the view. Come at sunrise or sunset and you’ll be jostling with crowds of tourists, but when the light hits at just the right moment you’ll be glad you came. A panoramic view over Luang Prabang on one side and a stunning view of the Mekong on the other at sunset is hard to beat, so despite the crowds I’d recommend this one.
Royal Palace & Museum
Shane is not that keen on museums so I took myself to this one for a few hours to feed my inner nerd. I love museums and history, I love learning about something I know nothing about and Laos is a country I really didn’t know much about, so naturally I jumped at the chance to visit the museum. What made it all the more interesting is that it wasn’t that long ago that the monarchy was over thrown, with the last King being booted out in just 1975, there’s something I find fascinating about the way these communist governments and monarchies existed until the inevitable overthrow. I wandered through the museum viewing royal life as it was in the 70’s, looking through reception halls, the throne room and royal sleeping chambers. There is a reception room which features murals depicting everyday Laos life and a really intriguing series of works depicting Laos folk stories which were brilliant.
Tak Bat- Alms giving ceremony
We got up before the dawn to see the traditional alms giving ceremony on our last day in Luang Prabang. It was somewhere in the 5am’s and Shane kept trying to chat to me, clearly forgetting that I do not function at all before 7am. After a few grumbled responses, he got the hint and led me down to Wat Mai to sit and wait quietly for the monks to arrive. We waited for about 15 minutes and then the barefoot, brilliant saffron robe clad monks began their silent walk with baskets to collect the days’ offerings. This is a religious ceremony that takes place each day at around 6am, it’s a beautiful ceremony to witness as the sun slowly blankets the still sleeping town and was very much worth the early start. Unfortunately, it’s no longer as special as it should be, as Luang Prabang becomes a more popular destination, people are forgetting that it is a very meaningful experience for those involved, not just an opportunity for a photo for your Instagram page. As such they’ve had to develop some guidelines on how people should behave when attending Tak Bat which you can see here – these guidelines are up at every hotel and while most people are respectful there are still quite a few numpty’s around, honestly people there’s a time and place for your selfie stick!
Overall, we had really liked Luang Prabang. It is a gorgeous place to spend a few days, it’s easy, nice, and there is much to entertain but Luang Prabang is not real Laos. Maybe 10 years ago it was but these days? – it’s basically the glossy travel brochure version. Luang Prabang does not offer a true depiction of Laos and the lifestyle of typical Laos people, it basically shows you what happens when tourists come to town so while we definitely recommend going, don’t be surprised by a somewhat less than authentic experience in the tourist centre. Go there, enjoy it for what it is, a shiny version of Laos, but then get out and explore the rest of the country! Real Laos is just as lovely if not quite as shiny.