Luang Prabang, Laos

[ 2 ] August 2, 2012 |

Buddhist, colonial, majestic, quaint, sleepy, yet incredibly alive; Luang Prabang (LP) is a city of mixed superlatives. As many travel bloggers attest, this is a city that draws you in, slowing your pace of life down until you realize you’ve just spent a week in a place where you only really intended to spend a couple of days.

It’s just one of those cities in the world that are just so amazingly comfortable – great food, nice affordable places to stay, and enough sightseeing to keep you interested. I would put it in the same category as Ubud (Bali), Jinja (Uganda), Cape Town, and Madrid. In terms of spending a week, or two, or three – you just can’t go wrong. Comfortable on the wallet and the psyche, these places are comfortable respites for any weary traveler.

Sights and Attractions

While the amazing food and affordable accommodation (more on those below) make Luang Prabang an easy place to spend a week or two, the primary draw for most travelers are the sightseeing attractions surrounding this mythical city.

With a population hovering around 60,000 it is amazing to think that this was the former capital of Laos until the communist revolution of 1975. Above all else the city retains a strong French colonial feel sprinkled with Buddhist temples and novice monks.

That said, most of the cities attractions could be experienced in a day.  If you only have 24 hours to spend in Luang Prabang – I would suggest spending it this way:

5:30 am – Sunrise at Phou Si Mountain

I know waking up early sucks – but this is worth it. Check what time sunrise is, set your alarm and actually wake up.  Phou Si is situated on the northern side of the downtown peninsula – you can’t miss it. While the 15-minute climb to the top is undoubtedly steep, the entire climb is on a bricked pathway and the vistas offered at the top are well worth the 20,000 kip admission fee. At the top of the mountain you can see the entire city and valley below. Best view in the house is the understatement of the century – and assuming you don’t find yourself in a rainstorm or extremely cloudy skies, you will not be disappointed that you sacrificed a few extra hours of sleep.

View from the Top of Mount Phou Si

Switchback Stairs up to Phou Si

6:00 am – Morning Alms

The collection of the morning alms in Luang Prabang is a tradition that dates back centuries.  As long as there have been novice monks in Luang Prabang, there has been the collection of alms. From 6am to 7am every morning, all the novice monks (monks in training) in the city walk the city streets to collect alms (aka, offerings primarily consisting of rice) for the day. While this daily activity has become somewhat of a tourist attraction, leading to some unsavory fishbowl behavior by camera touting tourists, to those respective of the custom it can be an incredibly introspective and reflective practice. So remember to break out that telephoto zoom lens you’ve been carrying around in your luggage, keep your distance and watch the locals interact with the monks as you enjoy this special and unique cultural experience.

Morning Alms

Local Man Giving Rice to Novice Monks During Morning Alms

Man Giving Rice to Novice Monks

Local Women Awaiting Novice Monks during Morning Alms

8:00 am – Breakfast

As a culinary capital of Southeast Asia, one is not short on breakfast options in Luang Prabang. My suggestion would be to indulge your culinary taste buds in a French style breakfast at Le Banneton Café. From their real butter flakey pastries to the friendly smiles offered by the staff, for under $5 USD you will not be disappointed.

9:00 am – Royal Palace (Haw Kham)

From 1953 to 1975, the Royal Palace (Haw Kham) in Luang Prabang was the home and epicenter of the autonomous and sovereign kingdom of Laos. Today, the Royal Palace is home to a temple (Haw Pha Bang), museum, and theatrical performance venue. A visit to the Royal Palace shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half and is well worth the 20,000 kip entrance fee. While the other buildings are interesting, the Palace itself is the star of the show. The most interesting parts I found were the royal bedrooms (paused in time around 1975) and the various diplomatic gifts from other countries on display in the receiving rooms located in the front of the palace.

Outside the Royal Palace

Roofline of the Royal Palace

Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace

View of the Royal Palace

Sculpture inside Haw Pha Bang Temple

Inside Haw Pha Bang Temple

View of Haw Pha Bang

Looking up at a Statue of the former King of Laos

10:30 am – Kuang Si Waterfalls

After taking in the sights at the Royal Palace, wander eastward on the main road toward Joma Bakery.  Outside Joma you will find a number of tuk-tuk drivers faunching at the bit for the opportunity to take you to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. If you are lucky enough to round up a group of 6 passengers, you should be able to negotiate a tuk-tuk driver into taking you to the falls for 30,000 to 40,000 kip per person. If not, you should expect to pay 150,000 kip to hire your own private tuk-tuk for the afternoon. The journey to Kuang Si takes around 45-minutes and is actually quite gorgeous as it twists 30km through the very remote Laos countryside.

Once arriving at Kuang Si, expect to pay a 30,000 kip entrance fee, to see both the falls and the bear enclosures. Yes I did say bear enclosures. Despite the strange setting, there are a few separate enclosures housing both Asiatic and sun bears which have been saved from poachers – or so the sign says. We counted a good dozen bears which all seemed to be very healthy and well taken care of. Before you know it you will have spent a good half hour mesmerized by the slothful behavior of these fascinating creatures. Good pit stop, now on to the falls.

The falls themselves are surprisingly impressive. With a travertine bottom, the water seems to radiate a cool turquoise color – similar to what you can expect to see at the famous Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.  As the trail takes you alongside the river following the many levels of the falls, it takes a good two hours to walk the entire length. There are three or four pools below various sections of the falls that are designated as swimming areas. While a touch on the cold side, a quick dip into the water is a must. One such swimmin’ hole even offered a rope swing for those willing to brave the climb. Being a self-proclaimed rope swing expert, after I tested the depth below the swing to make sure I wasn’t going to break my neck or twist an ankle, I took a few turns on the swing and was very happy I did so – it was a blast.

Entrance to Kuang Si

View of the Grandest Part of the Falls

Alison in front of the Falls

Section of the Falls

Gigantic Tree in Kuang Si Area

Pat Enjoying the Rope Swing at Kuang Si

Tuk-Tuk to Kuang Si

View en Route to Kuang Si

4:00 pm – Tamarind Cooking School

After 3 or 4 hours of traipsing around Kuang Si, make your way back to town. After a quick shower and change of clothes, venture toward Tamarind Café. Tamarind is an amazing expat run restaurant offering some of the most positively reviewed Lao food you can find in Luang Prabang. While a great choice for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, why not try your hand at making some of their famous dishes yourself. Tamarind offers both full-day daytime cooking classes (250,000 kip) and evening classes (200,000 kip). Aside from the price, the primary difference between the two options is that the evening classes skip the trip to the market. Having seen our fair share of local produce markets on our journeys we opted for the slightly less expensive evening classes.

The classes themselves are held at their “farm” which is located about 30 minutes outside of Luang Prabang, on the banks of a river. It’s a beautiful location. Our instructor for the evening, as is typical, was one of the actual chefs at Tamarind. The entire class takes around 4 hours and takes every bit of that to pull of the four amazing and unique dishes you are tasked with. First up was jeow mak keua an eggplant and chili based salsa that has an amazing smokiness due to the charred eggplant and chili used. After that was mok pa a steamed fish in banana leaves, followed by ua si khai or chicken stuffed lemongrass, and finally khao gam a purple sticky rice and coconut sauce desert dish topped with fresh fruit.

Joy, Our Instructor

Work in Process

Mortar and Pestle – Making Salsa

Posing by our “Stove”

Cooking up our Stuffed Lemongrass Stalks

The Final Spread

9:00 pm – Night Market

With bellies full, we headed back to town.  Night already having fallen, we were a bit mystified and disoriented to find that Luang Prabang’s main street had all but disappeared, replaced with a seemingly endless string of red roofed tents. Made for people much shorter than I, with my head cocked sideways we roamed through Luang Prabang’s night market for the next hour. From crafts to t-shirts, you can find a little bit everything in the night market. Some items are unique hand made treasures while others are mass produced piles of junk. My neck happy to be free of the “big top” we sauntered out of the night market and headed for our guesthouse.

Entering the Night Market of Luang Prabang

Alison Browsing the Night Market

Inside the Night Market



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Category: Blog, Destinations, Featured Posts, Laos, Pat's Blog

Comments (2)

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  1. Gina says:

    Such great pictures! I’ve heard Luang Prabang is amazing, it’s definitely at the top of my list of places to visit and this post made me want to go more!

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