After my recent trip to Laos, I must admit that the people who say Luang Prabang is one of the most alluring and underrated places in Asia, well, they are true. As I didn’t do a lot of research before my trip as usual, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has taken me through surprise after surprise. For such a compact urban area, there are a whole lot of exciting things to do in Luang Prabang, whether you prefer cultural discovery, exciting outdoor activities, some culinary delights for your appetite or even if you just want to lay back, relax (yes, Luang Prabang is a great place for that).
As a small city, it didn’t take much time to travel from the International Airport to the rest of the city. For me, it was just a 4-kilometer taxi ride to my hotel – La Residence Phou Vao. Before the trip, I was going to choose either this one or the Hotel de la Paix which is more central. However, I figured out that La Residence Phou Vao is only 2 kilometers away from the old town area so I can have the chance to wander more around the city. Plus its vintage location on the Phou Vao Hill, overlooking the whole area really intrigued me since I love seeing places from up high. The hotel and room design was nice and simple but able to reflect the model of traditional Lao Villa. After a brief check-in, my Mountain View Suite was definitely up to my expectations, particularly the view. I could even see Mount Phou Si which is not far away from my point.
Mountain View Suite at La Residence Phou Vao
First thing I noticed when wandering through the streets that led me from my hotel to the center of the town was a truly calm and quiet ambience. The streets were also quite clean and there were monks walking in line. Perhaps that’s what you can expect to see when visiting Luang Prabang.
The streets of Luang Prabang (photo: xiquinhosilva, Flickr.com)
It was extraordinary that there are so many places with cultural importance scattered over such a small city. Perhaps that is why Luang Prabang itself is a World Heritage Site. I started with the wats or temples. Located just a few steps from the Mekong River bank, Wat Xieng Thong holds great cultural, architectural and historic value and is considered the most significant wat in the city. Wat Mai is not far away. This largest temple in town features a spectacular five-tier red roof over the glided bar which depicts the life of Buddha. While there are 34 well-preserved wats protected by UNESCO, visiting these two is considered a must do in Luang Prabang. Another interesting fact about these religious sites is that they still house a total number of more than 1,000 monks. They live, pray, meditate and study here. Don’t feel hesitate to talk to them and also don’t be surprised by their English abilities. As a matter of fact, most of the young monks here study English as a subject in their curriculum. Unlike the ruins of Angkor Wat, I do think that wat visiting in Luang Prabang is a more intimate way to get to know about real Buddhism life.
The iconic glided roof of Laos temples
The Royal Palace Museum is another must visit in Luang Prabang. This site used to be the King’s residence until the monarchy was overthrown by the Communist Party in 1975. It was renovated into a museum displaying the royal life in the past. Perhaps the highlight here is the Phra Bang, a golden Buddha statue which is believed to be constructed 2,000 years ago in Sri Lanka.
Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang
As the sun approached the horizon over the Mekong River, I went to climb Mount Phou Si to enjoy the sunset. Though it was quite crowded, the view was truly magnificent.
Mekong River at sunset
After walking quite a lot in the afternoon, I went to eat not long after Mount Phou Si. The Apsara Restaurant was my choice for dinner and I was not disappointed, at all. The menu was not sumptuous but the selection was very nice with several typical authentic Lao dishes to go along with some Western foods. I went for the Lao sour and spicy fish soup and the grilled fillet of local beef. After a satisfying dinner, it was time to explore Luang Prabang nightlife. Though not as vibrant as in Siem Reap, the tourist area at night was still very exciting. I managed to make some new friends while enjoying some beers at the terrace of the Joma Bakery Café.
Photo: Stefan Magdalinski, Flickr.com
The pure tranquility echoes on my way back to the hotel as the locals all seemed to have already fallen asleep while it was only just 10 pm then.
In the morning, I went early to the Kuang Si Waterfalls which is 30 kilometers to the west of the city, on my rental motorbike with some friends on the previous night. This was definitely a must do in Luang Prabang for families or travelers who prefer outdoor activities. In this three tier water, apart from swimming, you can have a nice picnic lunch while enjoying a stunning scene. A natural fish spa after lunch in the newly-opened Khuang Si Butterfly Park was quite fun also.
Kuang Si Waterfalls (photo: Christian Bowman, flickr.com)
Our last stop of the day was the Elephant Sanctuary Village where we were having a leisure elephant camp along the gentle flow of Nam Khan River. We also learned some simple commands and got to wash the elephant. It was an interesting excursion as we have the chance to interact closely with the endangered animals. I spent my last night at Luang Prabang experiencing the night market. You can find various local souvenirs of all kinds here. But my highlight of the evening was the street food market which was virtually a sumptuous local buffet. This is a real heaven for the street food lovers who will want to try them all. At the end of the trip, the only I wish I could have extended my stay at this charming ancient town, to visit the famous Pak Ou Caves, the Ethnology Museum and especially to experience more of Gallic and traditional Lao cuisine. Two days is too short for all the must-dos in Luang Prabang. When the occasion permits, I will definitely return to this charming city for more surprises and delights.