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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrOne of only two UNESCO heritage-listed sites in Laos, Luang Prabang is an incredibly picturesque town brimming with cultural and historical attractions.
By far the most popular tourist hub in the entire country, it’s hard to imagine that this very relaxing riverside town of only 50,000 people was once the formidable capital of a mighty kingdom. Yet that’s precisely Luang Prabang’s most impressive claim to fame.
A brief look at the historyLuang Prabang was initially settled by southern Chinese migrants in the 13th century. The independent Kingdom of Luang Prabang was declared in the mid-1700s, after it split from the much larger Kingdom of Lan Xang which was, at the time, the third-largest in Southeast Asia.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos right up until 1545, when the government headquarters moved to modern-day Vientiane. The Royal Seat, however, firmly remained here and was fiercely protected, which is why you’ll still find the Haw Kham Royal Palace in such exquisite conditions. Many of the treasures found in town today date back from this period, yet the only reason they survived the various sackings which the city suffered, was due to French Protectorate which was gladly received in 1893.
The most revered aspect of Luang Prabang is that of all the cities in the country, this is where you’ll find the most eclectic and best-kept example of fusion architecture; where traditional Laotian temples and houses sit alongside grandiose French colonial mansions.
Nowadays, Luang Prabang is the tourist heart of soul of Laos and attracts more visitors than any other town, city, or village in the country.
What to See and Do in Luang PrabangLuang Prabang boasts enough attractions to keep visitors happily entertained for at least 3 or 4 days, yet one should never underestimate the lure of spending an entire afternoon lounging by the Mekong, savoring an icy cold BeerLao, and enjoying a breathtaking sunset. Don't make the mistake of heading here on a restricted timeline. Luang Prabang is the kind of town people head to for three days and end up staying for a week, so keep this in mind when planning your itinerary.
Sweat it Out to Reach the Mt Phou Si ViewpointEven though Luang Prabang is chock-full of stunning temples and grand colonial homes, the first and most impressive site which entrances all first-time visitors would have to be Mt Phou Si, the imposing 100m, stupa-topped hill which seems to spring up out of nowhere from the tarmac crossroad of the town’s city center. Hiking to its peak and admiring the multitude of Buddha shrines along the way, not to mention soaking up the startling 360-degree views at the top, is the very first activity you should plan to do here.
Ogle the Treasures of the Haw Kham Royal PalaceTo best understand Luang Prabang’s transition, from seat of a regal kingdom to bustling tourist hub, one should probably start at the beginning. Visit the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum for a cultural and historical insight into this most ceremonial of societies. Peak a look-see at how the royals lived during the country’s golden years and admire the intricately decorated temple which was built to house the most important religious relic in the land: an 83cm tall, solid gold statue of the Buddhist deity Phra Bang .
Pay Homage at the Wat Xieng ThongHead out for a relaxing stroll in Luang Prabang and, within merely 10 minutes, you’re bound to walk by at least half a dozen golden, sparkling temples, all set within frangipani and bougainvillea-filled gardens and boasting superb riverside locations. Although you may be tempted to explore each and every one at length, let it be known that the much reputed ‘wat-ed out syndrome’ seems to reach most visitors on about day 2 of their visit to Luang Prabang. Yet whether you’re a wat veteran or newbie, and irrespective of your religious inclinations, there is one temple in particular which you should absolutely not miss.
If Luang Prabang really is the jewel in the Laotian crown, then Wat Xieng Thong is what makes it sparkle brighter than all the others. Arguably the most beautiful and significant temple in the country, Wat Xieng Thong boasts a multitude of incredible carvings, mosaics, and statues, all in near-mint condition. If you have time, curiosity, and desire to see only one more wat in Laos, make sure it’s this one.
Cool Off in the Kuang Si FallsThe ethereal, multi-layered Kuang Si Falls are Luang Prabang’s prime natural attraction and found merely 30kms out of town. Once you have explored and discovered every nook and cranny in town, make sure you set aside a day to visit this gorgeous wonder of Mother Nature. Actually, forget that. Even if you haven’t yet ticked all your Luang Prabang boxes yet, head here for the day to enjoy a reprieve from the often-stifling heat of the city, and admire what are often dubbed ‘one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Southeast Asia’.
Attend the Daily Alms CeremonyIf you happen to be staying in one of the many central guesthouses in town, you may be lucky enough to be awoken at first light by the solemn chanting of the town’s resident monks, as they make their morning rounds collecting alms. To many, the alms ceremony is simply one of the various ‘tourist attractions’ in town, yet to a discerning few, it represents an intrinsic part of the local culture.
Buddhist monks have been walking along Sakkaline Road at dawn every day collecting what alms locals could donate, since time immemorial. Yet nowadays, many visitors attest to it having become more entertaining than enlightening. Head here at 6 a.m. and not only will you see the chanting monks, but you’ll also see rows of plastic chairs set up specifically for tourists, as well as a plethora of local food stalls selling pockets of rice and snacks, meant to be donated to the monks. Attending the alms ceremony is certainly worthwhile at least once, yet know that the experience is considered to be utterly subjective.
Splurge on Food and Souvenirs at the Luang Prabang Night MarketsWhile it’s true that every single city, town, and village in Laos holds an impressive night market of sorts, it’s also true that none come close to competing with the ones held in Luang Prabang. Every day, from 5 p.m. onwards, along a seemingly endless stretch of Sisavangvong Road, you’ll find literally hundreds of stalls lining the sidewalk. The eclectic mix of food, souvenirs, handicrafts, and artwork is truly mesmerizing. The Luang Prabang Night Markets alone are what entice many to stay in town for an extra few days.
*Take a Laotian Cooking Class
Laotian cuisine may seem humble and unimpressive at first yet hides a sneaky secret unbeknownst to many: local cooks are in the habit of adapting it to what they consider an ‘unadventurous Western palate’. Order a pork larb or mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves) in any restaurant in Luang Prabang, and the most enthusiastic response you’re likely to have is that it’s ‘nice’. Enjoy the flavors the way the locals cook it for themselves however, and your taste buds will be jumping up for joy for days on end.
Book yourself a spot in one of the many cooking classes held in town (many of the top local restaurants hold them daily) and let Laotian masters teach you just how complex, diverse, and incredibly delectable the local cuisine really is.
Get ActiveLuang Prabang’s main tourist drag is where you’ll find a smattering of tour agencies offering you a wide range of activities, which last anywhere from 2 hours to 5 days. From hikes to remote villages, to bicycle trips, kayaking excursions, and even elephant training camps, there’s much on offer here for those who can tear themselves away from the shores of the Mekong and indulge in a more active vacation. The most popular and well-respected tour agency here is Green Discovery, who operates branches in all major cities, towns, and villages.
Enjoy a Lao Massage. Or not.It’s not surprising that a country as relaxed as Laos would have its own massage style to offer stressed out and overworked tourists, wherever they may be. Traditional Lao massage is one of the most advertised services anywhere in the country and, in particular, in Luang Prabang. Every second shop seems to be a massage parlor and, more often than not, guesthouse owners will offer the services of a mobile masseuse who can visit you in your room and massage you for ‘very, very cheap’. While true that a massage in Laos is always cheap ( ₭50,000 ($6.00) being the usual price) it’s also true that it can be described as ‘odd’ in very many cases. But very, very cheap!
According to old, traditional practices (which obscurely lack any historical info), a good, healing Lao massage will include some kind of acupressure technique using fingertips, wrists, elbows, and knees, a bit of reflexology to the feet and, if you’re lucky, some stroking of dry skin and the occasional stretching of limbs. This Thai-shiatsu-acupressure-Swedish hybrid may appear to be simply a whole lot of styles mushed into one, or may also be a very good (and cheap!) way to relax for an hour. Either way, try it out!
Where to StayLuang Prabang suffers from a near overabundance of guesthouses aimed at the middle-of-the-budget-road backpacker. What this means is that finding a great deal on a comfy bed in a clean and modern guesthouse, right in the center of town, is not all that hard. There are a few very cheap hostels on the western side of Mount Phou Si, and quite a few exceptionally gorgeous boutique hotels scattered about town. Pricey but very, very lovely indeed.
Where to Eat and DrinkThe Luang Prabang Night Markets rate as the number one dining establishment in town, although it should be noted that while the food here is great (and also cheap!) it’s very much in the cheerful street food department. Here, you can savor baguettes filled to the brim with all sorts of ingredients for merely ₭20,000 ($2.40), or pick and choose from a wide selection of street-stalls offering scrumptious banana and Nutella pancakes ( ₭15,000 ($1.80)), mixed fruit smoothies ( ₭10,000 ($1.20)), or triple-fried spring rolls ( ₭8,000 ($0.96)), among many more.
For a more upmarket dining experience, head north of the market until you reach the riverside, and scour the many eateries along the river, looking for one which takes your fancy. The food all along this strip is excellent and fresh, with quite a few places offering all-you-can-eat Laotian BBQ feasts (the cook-your-own kind), which are more expensive than anything you’ll find in the night market but extremely good value nonetheless.
If you prefer a quieter yet equally delicious dinner, then head for the riverside eateries on the eastern side of the town center. This area lacks the crowds, music, and noise, which is ideal if you want to have a quiet, romantic night out with your traveling beloved.
How to Get Out and AboutLuang Prabang is, for most visitors, the most northern point they’ll ever visit in Laos and arguably where they will spend the most time. Reaching this popular hub from Vientiane is always marred by much humming and haring however, as although the distance by road is not all that great (340kms), the windy road and often miserable state of the buses plying the route can make a simple road journey feel like a ride to hell and back. The road is in good-enough condition, but once you see the vertiginous drops on the mountain crossing you may just spend much time hoping the brakes are too.
A 12-hour ride on a bus from Vientiane will cost anything from ₭100,000 ($12) to ₭200,000 ($24) depending on the company you choose and time of day you choose to travel in. The most expensive option is with a VIP bus, which is a relatively new fleet of air conditioned, double-decker buses, which make the whole trip much more enjoyable.
If you want to save time and hassle, then you can always opt to fly to Luang Prabang from Vientiane. There are several flights per day, which last for only 45 minutes and cost approximately $ 200 USD .
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Feb 03, 2015