“Prepare to be swept off your feet.” That’s what friends have always said about Luang Prabang, Laos. But they could never say why, exactly. “There’s no describing it – it’s just got this amazing feeling. Trust me, you’ll fall in love with it! It’s one of my favorite places on earth!” they gushed. I tried not to roll my eyes at their vague rave reviews (and failed miserably). But we all know I have no willpower to resist travel temptations like this, especially with the crazy-cheap airfares I found from Penang (some as low as RM380, round trip). So off I went. And man, they were right – Luang Prabang is magical! It may not be like this for much longer, though.
Before we talk about the coming changes and why I think you should put Laos on your travel list, let’s first talk about what makes Luang Prabang so captivating. It’s the…well…it’s like…hmm…and then there’s the…Oh damn it, I can’t describe its unique vibe and special allure, either! You’ve just got to experience it to understand it. (Ok, I just rolled my eyes at myself).
What is it about this place that makes you fall in love with it? Is it the incredibly heady mixture of beauty, spirituality, and vibrant colors? Is it the adorable French colonial-style buildings set beside the ancient, upturned golden roof-lines of Buddhist temples? The delicious blend of French, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese flavors, and music spilling from the cafes? The old bomb shells used as planters, glowing paper lanterns, friendly smiles, and orange-robed monks?
It’s that rare kind of place where the color palate was subconsciously decided by some higher power and adhered to by one and all throughout the ages. Watermelon-hued bougainvillea elegantly drape over the faded mustard-yellow walls of a villa, a sun-bleached bamboo bridge suspends above the tanned river water beneath, and a million shades of tropical green forest frames the bright baby blue pools of a waterfall.
Luang Prabang pampers all of your senses. It’s a place where you’re just happy to be. A place where you can just… BE.
For many people though (like me), atmosphere may not be enough of a draw for such an out-of-the-way place. If you’re itching to know what there is to do, see and eat in Luang Prabang, here’s a taste of what my friend Lisa and I experienced in this beautiful town and its surroundings:
Monk alms walk
Before dawn every morning, hundreds of monks and novices make an alms walk down the flower-lined lanes. Locals believe that the food they cook for the monks earns them merit with their dead relatives, so they wait patiently on their knees until the quiet monks walk by with their silver bowls and reed baskets in hand. It’s a beautiful, peaceful, solemn experience. Except when annoying, clueless tourists step in front of the monks to get the perfect shot and blind them with their flash bulbs. (I couldn’t take it and had to tell a few people to turn off their damned flash photography – they were all genuinely surprised and realized immediately that they were being douchebags.) So my advice: just sit down and enjoy the experience.
We were lucky enough to meet two sweet elderly local ladies – one 72 and the other 78 – who happily chatted with us while they waited for the monks and allowed us to sit behind them while they offered their alms. Such a gorgeous experience!
Kuang Si Waterfall
You can rent motorbikes for about 100,000 Kip/day ($12 USD) or take a tour to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which is about 1-1.5 hours outside of town. During the dry season, the water is a spectacular baby blue color and you can swim in its beautiful natural pools. How pretty is this place?!
Moon Bear Rescue Center
Right beneath the falls is the Moon Bear Rescue Center – you walk right through it on your way to the pools. These poor babies have been rescued from some awful situations, so it’s good to see them alive and playing. It’s a great cause to support with donations (hint, hint, hint).
Lao Buffalo Dairy
On the drive to the waterfalls, you’ll pass this pretty new and very cool water buffalo program. They provide great care – including vaccinations and veterinary care – to water buffalos, and run a “rental program” for locals. This way, the buffalos are much healthier, happier, and better fed and treated. And as the name implies, they also milk the water buffalo and give you a chance to do so as well, and then they make insanely good ice cream. Try the lemongrass ice cream – deeelicious!
Oh, and I suck at milking. The poor water buffalo kept wiggling, saying in body language: “You’re doing it wrong!”
Temples and bamboo bridge
34 Buddhist wats are packed within the small town of Luang Prabang, which is probably one reason why the town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. More than a thousand monks and novices live, chant, learn, work and pray in these wats. They’re home to many young boys whose families send them off to the wats get an education – something that they couldn’t afford at home – and become monks. It’s quite common. I met several adult male businessmen who started off as monks, got their education through the temples and went on to life as non-monastics.
Visitors are welcome in the temples, but must wear respectful clothing: all knees or shoulders should be covered.
The temples throughout Luang Prabang are ornate and beautiful. The unique glass mosaics Wat Xieng Thong are a special stand-out and definite must-see.
Another unique sight is the handmade bamboo bridge that stretches across the river, which stands for 6 months each year during the dry season. It’s dismantled at the start of the wet season since the rushing river would otherwise take it out. It’s surprisingly sturdy, as I unhappily found out when a very large and very naughty Scottish dude decided to jump up and down on the bridge RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME to test its strength. Luckily, none of us went for a swim…although I did have fantasies of throwing him off the bridge.
For 60,000 Kip ($7.20 USD), get a traditional Lao massage. You change into a simple cotton outfit supplied by the massage shop, and then the therapists press, pull and push on you (without oil) to knead out knots, stretch sore muscles and reenergize you. Speaking as a hopeless massage junkie, I can honestly say that the Lao massages I had here were some of the best and most beneficial massages of my life. Note: there is absolutely no shame in having 4 massages per day. None at all!
Traditional Lao Silk Weaving
Silk textiles are an ancient art in Laos. The intricate designs and weaving methods have been passed down from mothers to daughters for a thousand years. These textiles often play an important role in cultural and religious ceremonies, including for birth, marriage, death and healing rituals. And you can watch the weaving take place right before your eyes – just walk down the alleys and you’ll spot ladies working magic with silk threads, making complicated, vibrant textiles. They’re sold in a number of shops, but prepare your wallet – it can take a month to create a single garment, and the prices reflect the love and time that goes into making these one-of-a-kind creations.
Yummy, beautiful restaurants and cafés
There are so many amazingly good eateries here, it would take you at least a couple of weeks of hardcore, disciplined eating just to get through the best ones. A few of my favorites are:
Zurich Bread Factory – they have the most delicious, crunchy, hot and perfect baguettes in all of Asia. I would sell my husband’s spare kidney just to have one of their baguettes right now. (Not my kidney though – but his, sure! He doesn’t need two.)
Dyen Sabai – walk across the bamboo bridge (in the dry season) to this charming restaurant perched above the river. Everything we ate was delicious – especially the smoked eggplant spread – but I can’t remember the rest since the spicy Lao cocktail I drank packed a punch! Yowza.
Bouang – Right along the main road, this cute little place is fantastic for lunch. The gnocchi in green curry was the weirdest combo I’ve ever heard of, and it completely rocked!
Manda de Laos – This has got to be one of the most romantic restaurants in Asia. Tables are arranged along the edges of a beautiful lily pond that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. (How does that work? Are the frogs UNESCO’d too?) And just about everything on the set menu inspired us to shove every last spoonful into our pie-holes.
The Botanical Gardens – I’ll get to the Botanical Gardens in a minute, but first, I’ll recommend having lunch at their gorgeous, peaceful restaurant right beside their lily pond. The food is delicious, and the setting is breathtaking.
Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens
The recently opened Botanical Gardens is an ambitious project. It’s the first in Laos, and was set up to be a living collection of the region’s flora, while also providing scientific research opportunities and expertise to help Laos develop a sustainable and biodiverse future. Plant nerds (like me) love it – there are species you’ve never heard of, blossoms you’ve never seen, and explanations about local medicinal plants. I’d like to know what this one does:
If you’ve got some energy to burn and an adventurous spirit, you can also do a 1 hour trek through the forest to a cool cave that has a little Buddha statue in it. Note though that there are some tight squeezes and possibly some snakes, which really made my friend Lisa happy, as you can see:
And as I mentioned above, lunch there is damn good and quite pretty.
Volunteer with elephants
There are a few places where you can volunteer with rescued elephants, and one that really stands out is Mandalao Elephant Conservation They truly respect the elephants and teach that respect to visitors as well. You get a chance to feed, bathe and walk with the elephants, learn about their behavior and develop a relationship with them that will make your heart feel like it’s grown 3 sizes bigger. The memories you make there will last you a lifetime, and the fees you pay help these amazing animals. With only about 100 wild elephants left in Lao, Mandalao hopes to one day reintroduce them into the jungle and help their population grow. Such a worthy place to visit, and such an incredible experience to be with the elephants!
Who doesn’t need hippie pants? And gorgeous hand-carved wooden bowls? And paper umbrellas and lanterns? And yummy street food? I hate shopping, so don’t ask me to answer those questions. But judging by all the people gleefully doling out Kip (that’s Laos’ currency…not a dude), the night market is a popular attraction.
So why Luang Prabang and why now?
Even with all these activities, the best thing about Luang Prabang is the feeling you get when you’re just BEING. It’s one of those places where you feel more yourself, more complete, more relaxed than anywhere else. So if you go, do give yourself time to just wander, immerse yourself in the culture, enjoy strolling along the alleys and riverbanks and just be.
China is currently building a railway into Laos, and locals are dreading the impact it’ll have. At the moment, Luang Prabang is mostly blissfully free of those annoying, loud bus tours with gaggles of squawking passengers, but that’ll likely change once the railway from China is built. China’s got a billion people infected with the travel bug, so get to Luang Prabang now before this beautiful little haven is overrun with visitors.
Enjoy your trip, and do let me know what you think of it!