Laos is the hidden jem of South East Asia located a little further up the road or river from Thailand and Vietnam. It was once nearly impossible to get to, but that is changing fast. We spent two days motoring down the Mekong River from Thailand to reach Luang Prabang and traveled under partially completed highway and railroad bridges that will soon transform both the country and the city.
Luang Prabang, which was called Luang Phabang until it changed its name in the 1970s, is the ancient capital of this region and was the home to the Lao Monarch until he abdicated to a socialist government in the 1970s. It has long been a center of power as well as a religious center – it’s many monasteries are dedicated to the teaching and training of Buddhist monks in the region. It was also an important city during the French colonial rule of Indochina between the 1890s and 1950s. As a result Luang Prabang is a kaleidoscope of historic influences that have shaped this small city of 90,000 at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kahn Rivers. It’s this rich history that has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Laos is a very mountainous country. Luang Prabang is encircled by geography and the old town is dominated by Mount Phou Si, a steep hill in the heart of the city. We spent a week here soaking up the French / Laos culture and exploring the areas around the city.
In all of our travels around Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang ranks near the top of our most beautiful cities list. This city still feels “old world”, but we fear that significant change is on the horizon. The Lao Government has taken out a loan with China equivalent to 40% of the country’s GDP to build major infrastructure: highways, a railroad, and major dams; which will transform this country. The government’s goal is to improve it’s economic outlook, which is the right thing to do in the 21st century. But it will begin to transform this country and the city of Luang Prabang in the very near future (they are to be completed in 2020).
Recommendations for future travelers:
Where to Stay: When you go, stay near old town. We stayed 4km outside of town in an AirBnB, which was a large house owned by the local Beer Lao distributor. We had to use Tuk Tuks and bicycles to commute around and while it was fine, we wish we were closer. There are many small guest houses and hotels right in the old city – stay there. AirBnB is still developing in this city – we were probably a little early.
What to Eat: Simply put – eat everything. We loved the local food, especially the local staple Khao Soi, which is a bowl of rice noodle soup with a healthy spoonful of spicy pork and mound of fresh vegetables . There’s amazing restaurants all over town and we ate at all ends of the cost spectrum. For a higher end meal go to Manda de Laos and Tamarind. On the cheaper side ($1-$2 for a meal) go to “Street Food Alley” on the south end of the main street (next to Indigo Cafe). We took a cooking class at the Banana Tree Restaurant where we made six of the local Loa specialties and loved the experience – highly recommend this to future travelers.
What to Do: There is so much you can do in Laung Prabang that we have prioritized a list depending on how much time you have in the city / region.
Climb Mount Phou Si: All tourists make a pilgrimage up the 328 stairs, ascending 150 meters, to get the panoramic views from the top of Mount Phou Si. The crowd builds around sunset to soak in the kaleidoscope of colors settling across the Lao countryside. Once everyone has captured the moment they descend back down the stairs and fan out into the Night Market, which takes over the main street starting around 5pm.
Explore the Night Market: We have been to many night markets in Asia and appreciated the one in Laung Prabang for both the variety and quality of the merchandise. It comes to life every evening around 5pm. It caters to the tourists and is a great spot to pick out several pairs of elephant pants or purchase gifts to mail home (the post office is on the south end of the main street).
Visit the Imperial Palace and many wats: There are more wats per sq-km in Laung Prabang than anywhere we’ve been. We recommend that you explore as many as you can tolerate.
Go to Kuang Si Falls: It’s one of the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. The deep blue water emerges from an underground limestone cave and pours down tiered waterfalls and through deep pools. For more on that experience, read our Kuang Si Falls blog post: Kuang Si Falls Details
Attend the Giving of Alms: Every morning monks make a pre-dawn pilgrimage around town for the giving of alms. The local people (and many tourist) donate sticky rice and other food which becomes the monk’s only meal of the day. The giving of alms is an ancient tradition that has been around for hundreds of years. Unfortunately it has recently turned into a tourist spectacle with inconsiderate foreigners following the procession and getting uncomfortably close. If you decide to observe – stay your distance and respect the devout nature of this activity.
Cross the Mekong River on a ferry and explore the other side: One day we took our bicycles (mountain bikes) on the ferry and crossed the Mekong to explore the valley to the west of town. We quickly found ourselves well beyond the beaten tourist path riding down dirt trails and through villages where the locals looked upon us as “very lost”.
Editor’s Note: There will be a video summary on Luang Prabang at some point – check back soon or subscribe to our YouTube channel to be notified.