Temple at Luang Prabang - Tour to Laos

Insider’s Guide to Luang Prabang (by Pete Saville)

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Former Royal Capital of Laos, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small city nestled amongst rolling green mountains and saddling the Mekong is not only one of the most beautiful cities in the South-East Asia, but quite possibly the world. Indeed, it doesn’t feel like a city at all, and has a small-town vibe that so often charms people into staying much longer than they intended!

A former French colony, the tidy streets are peppered with restored French villas alongside the dozens of golden-roofed Buddhist temples, giving the city a very unique architectural ambiance. True, visitors come here to see temples, but there’re a lot more to this place than advertized.  Here are a few reasons why many who visited this place has called it home.


UNSURPASSED CHARM


One could easily spend hours simply wandering the sleepy back streets between the Mekong and the hill of Mount Phousi, visiting the myriad temples and the Royal Palace and enjoying viewing the restored colonial villas; soaking up the atmosphere and chatting with curious young monks who want to practice their English with tourists.

Indeed, Wats such as Xieng Thong, Mai and Visoun are all extremely impressive and have some exquisite Buddha statues and decor both inside and outside. However, by far my favourite activity is to wait until just before sunset and then climb the previously mentioned Phousi Hill, which also has a tiny Wat on the top. But really, the Wat is not the reward of the climb: it’s the spectacular panorama of the surrounding green mountains, Mekong river and the city from a perfect central location.

And the beauty is magnified tenfold as the sun sets gloriously behind the breathtaking mountain backdrop.

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The view of Luang Prabang and surrounding mountains from Mount Phousi


STROLL THE MARKETS. MEET THE LOCALS 


There are a few indoor markets (“Dalat” in Laotian/Thai) around the town centre towards the police station, but these are rather bland, though they can be useful if you need electronic goods repaired, batteries or basic clothing such as t-shirts, flip-flops etc.

If you wait until nightfall and head to the main strip under Wat Phousi, traffic is closed off from the road, and every night of the week the infamous Night Market sets up shop. With glowing lanterns illuminating a wide range of colourful crafts, art and textiles, creating a rather magical ambiance, this is really an unmissable experience in Luang Prabang. The market is also noticeably very quiet (seemingly upscale as a result), with the Laotian traders being typically much more placid and relaxed in negotiations (items are priced fairly so haggling is not really much warranted or encouraged) than in neighbouring countries. Even if you are not a massive fan of shopping and bartering, you will still want to take a stroll down here. It really is such a pleasant experience in and of itself, even if you are just ‘window shopping’:  Outdoors!

As you keep strolling along the night market past the “tourist” section, the quiet, laidback atmosphere suddenly comes alive as you venture into the “locals” part of the night market. Here, there is a distinctive air of playfulness in a vibrant setting offering a window into the night-in-the-life of the local folk as they come out to shop, eat and play. Lined with stalls selling everything from CDs, Hollywood movies, clothing and of course, delicious street food, one can truly relish the sights, sounds and tastes of a rather simplistic Laotian modern-day culture that may soon be extinct. 

 

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Local Market Gathering

 

EATING OUT


Some of the best food to be found in Luang Prabang is actually the ‘street food’, which has the added bonus of being very cheap.  For example, between Wat Phousi and the Mekong, in the backstreets you will find Laotian versions of the Vietnamese noodle soup ‘Pho’ that is to die for!   

Then on the main strip (that turns into the Night Market in the evening) you can buy tasty fresh baguettes from vendors with various fillings: Everything from BBQ chicken breast to fried stripped omelette and tofu. The baguettes are undoubtedly a throw back to French colonial days and I often go for this for lunch after a ‘Pho’ breakfast. It’s especially handy if you are planning on a busy afternoon because you can take them away and eat them later, say if you are planning to visit the waterfalls outside of town.

Finally, later in the day you will be able to find a local Luang Prabang delicacy: Fried Mekong River Weed! It is flavoured with soy sauce and sesame seeds and trust me, is a lot tastier than it sounds! If you like sushi you will definitely like this!

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A selection of delicious street food on offer in Luang Prabang


DINING OUT


If street food doesn’t appeal to you, or if you have simply had your fill, then I always go to a restaurant located on the lower slope of Phousi Hill named rather simply the “Lao-Lao Garden”. The décor is excellent and the fact it is built into the slopes of lower Phousi Hill means you are surrounded by forest.

But the thing that makes this place special is not just the array of cocktails on offer, but the ‘Lao BBQ’. The ‘Lao BBQ’ is a unique dining experience: You are given a steel domed hot plate (with hot coal inside) and a huge variety of meats, vegetables and spices that you cook yourself to your own liking! It’s lots of fun and great for couples or groups to share.

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 A traditional Lao Barbecue at ‘Lao-Lao Garden’

 


OUTDOOR ADVENTURE


Undoubtedly one of the most popular outdoor attractions, and rightfully so, is about 29km south of town: Kuang Si Waterfalls.

The main waterfall is an impressive 60 metre cascade. You can climb to the top of the falls up steps if it’s not monsoon season and flooded, and the view is very impressive from the top. You can also follow some short trails at the top that lead to some clearings that are even more impressive, overlooking huge rolling green mountains. But my favourite activity here is to swim in the several turquoise pools that run off the main waterfall and are on different levels. They are cool and thus especially pleasant to swim or paddle in when it is hot season in Laos.

There are numerous additional outdoor activities to do around Luang Prabang, such as day or multiple-day treks to Hmong villages in the surrounding mountains, visiting a textile village or even visiting a village where you can see the process of how ‘lao-lao’ (Laotion rice whisky) is produced.

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Monks swimming in the numerous cascade pools beneath Kuang Si Waterfall



Spotlessly clean, full of colonial and royal history, great food, friendly locals and a plethora of outdoor activities in the surrounding area, Luang Prabang is a place you will never ever forget, and likely a place you may never want to leave!


Recommend tours of Laos and Luang Prabang:

For more itineraries and suggestions of journeying Indochina  and Southeast Asia, check out our Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam Tours page

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