Luang Prabang – the Jewel of Indochina
….and I fully agree!
Plus I confess : I left a part of my heart in Luang Prabang!
The place took me completely by surprise. True, I did not read much about Laos before going there (as I usually do when I travel to a new place) and did not know exactly what to expect but I wasn’t expecting this. Luang Prabang was the most peaceful and relaxing place that I experienced during my 4 months trip. I always described it to people as a big temple complex dotted with nice restaurants and wine bars 😉 . How can one not fall in love with it?
The French influence is immediately apparent, especially in the food culture. Everywhere you look you see cafes, patisseries, “bar a vin”s and French restaurants and everybody seems to be speaking French at some point. It is not an unusual sight to see Lao people in the early morning standing in line at their favourite bakery to get a baguette .
Compared to other places on the “tourist trail”, Luang Prabang seems to be a bit more upscale and I find that it caters to a different kind of traveller, a traveller more interested in the culture than in the “party scene”, a traveller for which the comfort and quality is more important than the price. So high is the attraction, that many of these travellers could not leave anymore and today they proudly call Luang Prabang their home.
See and do in Luang Prabang
The most striking sight of Luang Prabang are the monks in their bright orange robes which go so nicely with the plenty of natural green or the white walls of the many beautiful temples. It’s photography heaven! And not only…
Although I had initially planned to stay there around 3-4 days, I ended up spending one full week and at the end of it, it was still difficult to leave.
Luang Prabang is not a typical sightseeing town where you plan your time trying to “tick off” as many sights as possible (especially “the big ones”), although there is still plenty to see in and around the city. The biggest “attraction” are the monks who pour in hundreds on the streets at certain times of the day following their very strict daily routine. The most important time is before dawn when the alms giving ritual (Tak Bat) takes place. Laos is a Buddhist country and the vast majority of people follow the Theravada form of Buddhism which is one of the 2 major schools of Buddhism (the second one being Mahayana).
Alms giving ceremony is integral part of Theravada Buddhism whereby people give food to the monks thus making “merits” and in turn monks bless them. Monks eat only twice a day from what they have been offered by the lay people, the last meal of the day being before noon. The reason for this is that the first part of the day can be dedicated to practical human needs whereas the second part of the day should be dedicated to spirituality.
Unfortunately, being the main tourist attraction, the Tak Bat ritual is heavily impacted by the mass tourism. Although there are “instructions” absolutely everywhere about what to do and what not to do during the ceremony, a lot of people do not respect them thus transforming an ages old tradition in a commercial parade and making the local people very uncomfortable.
I too took pictures but I tried to use some common sense in doing so: I kept my distance from the monks, I was sitting lower than them (a buddhist rule), I did not look at them or trying to disturb them, I did not use flash, I did not get in front of them. Obviously in these circumstances you don’t get to take “the best” pictures, however I believe that respecting local traditions and customs is way more important here.
I got to meet some of these novice monks and spent time with them at the school, library or at their temple. I learned a lot about their lives and even about buddhism…but this will probably be the subject of another post.
Other sights and things to do
There are about 80 temples (wats) in LPB where monks live and most of them can be visited. Not only are they interesting as a spiritual and cultural ground but they also boast beautiful architecture, with Wat Xieng Thong being the mother of them all. Wat Xieng Thong is situated at the tip of the peninsula that is LPB’s old town and the heart of the city. This is flanked by the Mekong and the Nam Kan rivers which provide a beautiful setting for both sunrise and sunset.
Also in the old town and just across from the National museum (strongly recommended to visit) is Mount Phu Si, a “little” hill on top of which, at the end of the 328 flight of steps sits a gilded stupa. The biggest attraction is not the stupa itself though, but the magnificent view it offers over the city and its two rivers. The place gets extremely crowded at sunset when everybody is trying to capture that magical moment, Mekong river and surrounding hills included.
If you get “templed-out” at some point, a trip to one of the nearby waterfalls (Kuang Si or Tat Sae are the biggest ones) can be a nice change of scenery and you can also take a dip in the ice cold water.
For a more detailed guide on how to get there and lots of tips for visiting, head to Backpackers Wanderlust guide to Kuang Si waterfalls
One of my favourite things to do in LPB and in my SE Asia trip was volunteering. There is a wonderful place called Big Brother Mouse where people can go and speak with local children in order to help them improve their English. They have 2 sessions per day (9-11 & 17-19) where English speakers can just drop in and start talking to the students. It is a win-win situation as visitors get to know about the local people, culture and life style and the students get to improve their English and in the same time discover other cultures so different from theirs. In addition to that you can contribute by sponsoring a book, buying a book or whatever you feel you can do to help. And this does not have to stop once you leave. The children can be helped also from the distance, from the comfort of our homes. Find more about Big Brother Mouse here
As for just soaking up the laid back atmosphere of the city itself, one can always take a break in between temple visits at one of the many cafes spread throughout the city.Three things dominate Luang Prabang: temples, cafes and restaurants, hotels and guesthouses, making it a city of contrasts somehow. There are not too many places in the world where you can sit and and enjoy an excellent cup of coffee and delicious croissant just across the street from a beautiful temple where monks in their bright orange robes go about their life as they’ve done for the past hundreds years.
Also, as everywhere else in SE Asia, cooking classes are one of the “activities” on the tourists menu. They range from a few hours to a full day class and they are mainly provided by some of the top restaurants of the city.
When tired of all of the above or just in need of a little pampering or relaxation, there is only one answer: Spa! And luckily there are plenty to choose from. From a simple no frills massage parlour to a proper spa centre (that also comes with higher prices of course).
Searching through my notes, I found this one on Luang Prabang which I am including here because I wrote it “live” and therefore can express even better my first impression of the city and, even in hindsight I find it an accurate first impression:
“The city is love at first sight…starting from my charming room at Ancient Luang Prabang Inn (tip from a fellow traveller whom I met in Myanmar) to the city itself and its lovely charming streets and cafes and restaurants.
After “securing” some local money and a local sim card in my first hours since arrival, I already felt very relaxed so decided to sit down and soak in the city….over a glass of white wine 😉
Then a quick walk in the market and I find myself sat at another charming restaurant (Tangor) where upon hearing the discussions and seeing the menu in French I felt right at home (the former Belgian home). And home means also a good meal and what goes better with a Duck Laap (minced meat salad & sticky rice) than a glass of red wine (no seriously, if anything goes even better i would really like to hear)
As I’m writing this LIVE….I’m wondering whether I should have another glass….here….or somewhere else (yes the question is indeed the location…). A few minutes later…and… decided! Here! I cannot possibly do restaurants hopping from my first night in LP! I’ll just sit back and enjoy the moment….on lovely blue jazz notes! I don’t know where I am anymore or in which day and age but I fully enjoy it and I already start falling for this city!”
You are indeed spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants in LPB. Most of them are lined up along the 3 main roads: one along the Mekong river watching magical sunsets, one along the Nam Khan river and one in the middle on the main Sisavanvong road.
Tangor – an Asian-French fusion restaurant (French owner) set in a perfect location on the main road; small menu with the week specials, nice wine, beautiful décor and excellent atmosphere.
Le Banneton – probably the most famous French bakery in the old town; perfect for an early breakfast when, while sipping on a cappuccino and enjoying one of the best and freshest croissants, you can watch the monks busy with morning cleaning activities around their temple ( the bakery is right opposite from Wat Sop temple). Beautiful!
Scandinavian bakery – not really what the name says but it does serve some pastry & coffee along burgers, salads, pizzas. Nice atmosphere and good location on the main road.
Tamarind – a more upscale local restaurant with lots of details about the local dishes, (very useful if you really want to understand what you are eating and in the same time get some knowledge about local cuisine). They also have sampling menus and hold one of the most popular cooking classes. The only downside is that is very popular with big groups, especially at lunchtime.
Apsara – another upscale restaurant right next to Tamarind on the banks of the Nam Khan river. A fusion cuisine and lots of buffalo dishes. Excellent deserts and beautiful background music
La Casa Lao – a wine and tapas bar only opened since 2 weeks when I went there but it was very promising; with a stylish décor in warm colours and a very friendly French owner who used to live in Spain, ergo the tapas.
Chez Matt – a lovely wine bar serving the wine in perfectly shaped glasses (a very important details for some of us 😉 )
Opera house – another cozy little wine bar on the main strip
Luang Prabang Bakery (and guesthouse) – It has a very good location and a pretty terrace but I cannot say they serve the best crepes!
Utopia- or backpackers garden, with a very chilled atmosphere and beautiful views over the Nam Khan river. Ok to try at least once if you want to experience a different “vibe”; a bit off the main entertainment area. They also do yoga classes during the day!
Markets (night/morning) – are always a good place to try some local specialities and the one in LPB is no exception.
Ancient Luang Prabang inn- was certainly not cheap, especially for South East Asian standards, however it was one of my favorite accommodation during my trip. Extremely clean and comfortable, with very friendly staff and owners, the location was the biggest draw: the Tak Bat was happening just below my balcony! The 12 rooms with names of various animals (I stayed in the Pig room…no comments there) were recently renovated and are a mix of modern and traditional design. Loved it!
Luang Prabang was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 and in 2015 was elected as a top travel destination (and not for the first time!) by Wanderlust travel magazine
Click on an image to see the slideshow