Described as “one of SE Asia’s crowning jewels” that provides “world-class comfort and spiritual nourishment,” there’s no wonder we had high expectations for Luang Prabang. The superlatives are largely true and a trip to Laos would not be complete without a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of the things that stuck me most about our four days in Luang Prabang (not enough) was the diversity of things to do and see. From temple viewing, to pampering, to swimming under waterfalls, to shopping-til-you-drop, Luang Prabang can keep you as busy or relaxed as you desire. The one downside: the secret is out and you won’t have Luang Prabang to yourself.
Discovering Luang Prabang by foot and bike
I remember stopping at the spot in the photo above and feeling incredibly happy. We never managed to bike more than a few hundred meters at a stretch before being lured by another temple, café, or river scene. The town is built on a peninsula with the Mekong River on one side, and the Nam Khan on the other. A walk or bike ride around the perimeter of the peninsula is a great way to see life along the river—kids playing in the water, monks crossing rickety bamboo bridges, and boat traffic of all types. I couldn’t get enough of scenes like the ones below.
Shopping at the night market and beyond
As far as handicraft markets go, this is a good one. It’s on daily from about 5-10pm, and it is huge! I went every evening and dragged poor Mike along. You’ll find scarves, table runners, bags, bamboo lamps, elephant slippers, Beerlao T-shirts and much more. There’s also an amazing food market down one of the narrow side streets. The vendors are laid-back and the bargaining process is friendly. Notice the bike next to me? Not a good idea. It hinders ability to shop, bargain, and navigate through the crowds. I left it behind the next day.
In addition to the market, Luang Prabang has numerous shops (some quite high end) that sell gorgeous silk weavings, home furnishings, clothing and jewelry. For a contemporary take on traditional weavings, Ock Pop Tok, has some really beautiful pieces (there’s a café next door for spouses who are sick of shopping).
Visiting stunning temples
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of eating, shopping, and simply hanging-out in Luang Prabang, but surrounding all these self-indulgent pleasures are dozens of stunning Buddhist temples. Visiting a few of them is an absolute must. They grace the city with their impressive tiered roof lines and jewel-toned walls. It’s hard to miss them. Even when you’re bargaining at the night market, Wat Ho Pha Bang towers above the red tents and glistens in the late day sun. It’s a magnificent sight.
Another one of our favourites was Wat Xieng Thong with a spectacular “tree of life” mosaic at its entrance. Mike was especially impressed with the “garage”, designed to hold a ceremonial carriage for Lao royalty.
Getting into nature at Kuang Si Waterfall
Only 32km from Luang Prabang lies a Shangri-La called Tat Kuang Si. It’s even prettier than the photos. The falls are set in a clean, well-maintained park with a path that meanders along terraced cascades and green pools that are perfect for a very refreshing plunge. Eventually the path leads to the gigantic falls that plummet from way on high through verdant jungle vegetation. My photos make it look like a peaceful place, but it’s a heavily loved spot by both locals and tourists. We managed to avoid the major crowds by visiting midweek in the morning. A bonus to the waterfall excursion is that the park also houses a sun bear rescue centre for animals that have been confiscated from poachers. The bears are awfully cute and the organization does good work.
Taking discrete (ish) photos of monks
I couldn’t help myself. Those monks with their saffron robes, shaved heads, and bare feet are just so darn exotic-looking and different from my world. I tried to be discrete and smile apologetically if caught photo-taking. They are definitely a tourist attraction in Luang Prabang, and nowhere more so than at the daily Tak Bat, when apprentice monks file along the town’s main street to receive alms in the wee hours of the morning. It is a beautiful and solemn tradition but unfortunately it can be a bit of a gong show with visitors getting uncomfortably close to the monks to capture the “perfect” photo. There are signs and brochures all over Luang Prabang about “respecting the Bat” but sadly some folks can’t follow simple rules of basic curtesy.
Hanging out at the spa
“Hanging out in the spa” was really only one awesome massage, but if we’d had more time I could easily have spent a day or three being pampered. Luang Prabang has luxury spas, cheap massage places and everything in between. I just happened to stumble on the Hibiscus Spa & Massage while shopping for weavings and was attracted by the building’s lovely blue shutters.
Cruising the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves
OK, so it wasn’t a luxury cruise, but it was cheap, cheerful, and very scenic. Boats depart Luang Prabang’s main dock in the morning around 8:30am for the two hour journey up the Mekong to visit Pak Ou Caves. The caves, a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, are set into cliffs and house thousands of Buddha statues of all sizes. Like Kwang Si Falls, this is a busy place but definitely worth the trip. Make sure you visit both the upper and lower caves and bring a flashlight.
I could keep rambling on about our time in Luang Prabang—all the atmospheric restaurants we ate at, many more temples and museums we visited (don’t miss Royal Palace Museum) but I think I’ve already packed too much into this post. This should give you some indication that there’s lots to see and do. Four days was go-go-go, and another couple would have been nice. Don’t rush it, and if you need a dose of peaceful nature after Luang Prabang, head to the villages of Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi.
Next up: Vientiane, the capital of Laos.