Admittedly my first interactions with Luang Prabang were far from perfect. My arrival at 10:30pm after a seven hour bus journey was followed by heading straight to A&E to treat a broken hand. These aren’t the picture-postcard moments associated with this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but after a few painkillers, a long sleep and a big breakfast I quickly came to love this ancient town that was the royal capital of Laos until 1975.
I’ve enjoyed all of the places I’ve visited so far; the energy of Bangkok, the views from Vang Vieng and the history of Siem Reap but none of them compare to the mix of beautiful architecture, nearby waterfalls, great food and sunset views found in Luang Prabang. Although touristy, it doesn’t feel crowded and the vibe marries with the pace of the Mekong which flows past the town; slow. It’s an easy place to spend a few days and here are a few of my highlights.
The style in Luang Prabang is a fusion of traditional Laos and French colonial buildings. Throughout the town the temples and small shrines add to the spirituality and calmness of the place. The National Museum, which was the royal palace, is well worth the entrance fee with it showcasing items of historical and cultural importance, including the royal car collection and other insights in to what is was like to be a Laos king or queen. It’s easy to imagine what it would be like to be royalty as you walk through the stunning buildings connected by well tended gardens under the shade of the tall trees.
Also worth the effort is the walk up Phu Si, the hill that dominates the centre of Luang Prabang and the place to visit if you’re obsessed with sunsets like I am. That Chomsi is the temple at the top and plenty of other religious monuments are passed on the way up along with views that will take your breath away.
As mentioned the sunset views are pretty special from up here too.
Tip: four storey Indigo House was built just before Luang Prabang was awarded World Heritage status. No new tall buildings are allowed to be built in the city centre so their roof top bar is the highest place to enjoy a beer with a view in the city.
Kuang Si Falls
Less than an hour away from Luang Prabang are Kuang Si Falls, a stunning set of waterfalls that stand out for their bright turquoise waters cascading over several tiers of limestone rock. Tourists can swim in the lower falls and head up to the top to hunt for the source of the river. A bit hot in the midday sun but well worth it for the views. Due to my cast I was unable to take a dip in the cool waters!
Food and markets
Southeast Asia is famed for its food and Luang Prabang features some of the tastiest. There are excellent restaurants at every turn but my favourite place was the food market. Dozens of stalls featuring BBQ’d meats, steaming broths and sweet treats. Most meals total less than £2 including a Beerlao to wash it down as well. Yum!
The night market that sets up from sunset has all sorts of artistic and clothing wares for sale and is a great place to pick up a bargain.
The mighty Mekong
The Mekong snakes past Luang Prabang and there are numerous bars and restaurants that are great places to have a cold drink and watch all the activity on the water, whether it be tourist boats or local people commuting on the ferries. After a hard day of exploring I can’t think of a better place to enjoy a beer as the sun goes down.
Another must is a sunset river cruise. We saved this romantic experience for my friend Hugo’s last night of his holiday and it didn’t disappoint. We got lucky and managed to get a boat to ourselves. The first 20 minutes is spent going up river and then you float back down, gazing into an incredible sunset with just the sound of the water lapping against the boat.
Each day at 5am hundreds of monks collect food donations in silent meditation on the streets of Luang Prabang. Tourists and residents are encouraged to buy food, take a seat on a tiny stool and add their donation to the monk’s baskets as they pass. This ceremony does feel a bit overwhelmed by tourists but its quite a sight to see so many orange robed men quietly shuffling through the streets in semi darkness collecting parcels from generous donors.
So there we have it, some of my highlights from Luang Prabang. A truly stunning town with something for everyone. If you’re in Southeast Asia, don’t miss it.