When I sat down to make (rather loose) plans for my first trip to Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang was one of the first destinations I came up with.
I had read about its striking beauty, its welcoming nature and its slow pace and, frankly, Luang Prabang turned out to be just like that. If I were to make a list of must-visit places in SE Asia, this town would sit firmly near the top of that list.
Luang Prabang was my port of entry into Laos, where I flew from Siem Reap after spending about seven weeks in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. My first impressions, as the cab I took at the airport arrived into the historic city centre in the evening, were mixed. The streets looked quaint and charming, lined with glittering temples, cute little shops and cozy bar and restaurant terraces. But they felt almost too charming, manicured, almost.
Over the next few days, I confirmed those first impressions. Luang Prabang, a UNESCO-listed site, has been on the tourist trail for a while, and it shows. You can definitely visit on a budget, but the city seems to cater more for the “flashpacker” and upwards crowd. Again, don’t let that deter you if you’re on a tight budget, because there are plenty of cheap eating and sleeping options as well, and the city is well worth visiting for the quality and variety of its attractions.
If you’re interested in art and architecture, Luang Prabang will dazzle you with its array of perfectly restored, gorgeous temples, most within walking distance from each other. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else in SE Asia with so many truly stunning temples, except for Chiang Mai in Thailand. There are also some nicely preserved French colonial buildings in the historic centre.
If it’s nature that you’re after, you will enjoy Luang Prabang’s magnificent views, thanks to its privileged location at the meeting of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. You should also take a day trip to the highly praised (and for good reason, it seems) Kuang Si Falls. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about the falls because I foolishly decided to skip them, for some stupid reason I can’t remember anymore.
I’m starting to think I always skip some must-see attraction in the places I visit in the silly hope that it’ll make me more likely to come back one day. It’s not a conscious decision at all, but I’m beginning to see a pattern here.
Anyway, with two riverfronts (four, technically, but I’m talking about the ones on the old town’s peninsula), you won’t be short of places to relax by the river in Luang Prabang. In the dry season, you can cross the somewhat rickety bamboo bridge at the tip of the peninsula (there’s another one across Nam Kham River, further south) and watch sunset over River Mekong. Alternatively, you can climb up the stairs to Phu Si, opposite the Royal Palace, and watch sunset from the hill.
Later in the evening, go grab a bite and a cold Beerlao at one of the dozens of terraces by both rivers, tastefully illuminated and enjoy the cooler temperatures (cooler than you’d expect, at least when I visited in March, after the searing heat of the day). Or head to the, surprisingly big, night market to buy some handicrafts, and then get yourself a delicious baguette sandwich, some fried rice or some noodles and a smoothie at one of the street stalls by the market.
Whatever you do, don’t expect to party into the night, because, as far as I could tell, the whole city goes to sleep around midnight. I’m sure there are a couple of bars that stay open until later, but this is definitely not a party destination.
And that’s one of Luang Prabang’s greatest features. For all its beauty and attractions, it remains a rather sleepy, slow-paced town. You will see tourists all over, but only the night market seems to get close to what you’d call crowded. This is a place to relax and soak the calm atmosphere in.
Chomphet District – The more “authentic” Luang Prabang
If you want a quieter (if that’s even possible) and more “authentic” experience, just hop on the ferry boat to the right bank of the Mekong and Chomphet District. I was told there were some interesting trekking and mountain bike routes leading to caves, temples and traditional Lao villages (ban).
I suppose if you get up at the crack of dawn and start the route before the heat sets in, this whole area looks really promising. However, I went there on foot and rather late in the morning. The heat was so crushing I only managed to visit a village and couple of temples.
Contrary to what I’d read, I didn’t think much of the views of Luang Prabang from the totally abandoned ruins of Wat Chomphet. Maybe it was due to the fact that it was the end of the dry season and vegetation looked a bit on the dull side. After walking a further half kilometer and drinking well over 1 liter of water in the process, I reached another partially neglected but much more interesting temple (Wat Long Khun, or Koon) with a nice portico and mural paintings.
Fearing that the worst of the heat was yet to come, I decided to head back to the village right next to the boat landing. Luckily, a religious festival was taking place that day at Wat Xieng Mene Saiyaset Tharam, the temple closest to the village. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but I still enjoyed the atmosphere and the feeling of being a total, clueless stranger.
As always, I left Luang Prabang with the feeling that there was more to see and experience than I managed to fit into my short visit. In a future post (or posts, I’m not sure yet) I’ll show you a little more of this city and tell you about the morning almsgiving ceremony, a ritual I hesitated to attend for fear of disturbing it.
What do you think? Have you been to Luang Prabang or are you planning to go soon? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or ask any questions below!