Destination: Luang Prabang, Laos

DECLARED a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, the city of Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Khan Rivers within the eponymous Lao province. The tree-lined banks dotted with colored wats (temples) and capped by the rising peak of Mount Phousi mean that entering Luang Prabang has enchanted those who arrived by boat for centuries; and it’s still one of the best ways to arrive here.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Monks line up to take early morning alms on the main street of Luang Prabang, Laos. Pic: AP.

Once the capital of Laos and still considered to be its religious heart, Luang Prabang’s palm-lined riverbanks, ochre-daubed houses, terracotta roofs and saffron-robed monks all come together to form a picture postcard setting.

Quiet and unhurried, its peaceful feel hides a fascinating history of conquest and recapture, and only hints at the intricate culture and complex traditions that take place here every day. It is wonderful to walk around and soak up the atmosphere as traffic is almost nonexistent. Nearly every step that you take passes a temple or temple ruins and you can wander freely into nearly any of these shrines.

A Day in the Life
What to do if you just have one day in Luang Prabang:

Morning – You must visit the Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Monastery). It is the largest and most sacred in LP. With sloping traditional roofs, it contains the mosaic of the “Sacred Tree of Life,” the royal carriage that carried the funeral ashes of the royal family and the famous reclining Buddha.

Afternoon/Evening – If it is not too hot, make sure you climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi; it is well worth it for the glorious sunsets. Don’t make the mistake that many people do and leave as soon as the sun dips below the horizon as it only gets better as the last rays reflect in the sky.

Night: Exploring the Talat Dala market at night is a colorful and exciting experience. 

Best of the Rest
A number of daytrips are available close to Luang Prabang:

Boat journey to the Pak Ou Caves – These caves are one of the best known sights in the area. Filled with over 4,000 images of Buddha there are two caves – one upper and one lower – set into a limestone cliff. You need a torch to explore one of them, which can be hired at the entrance. The best way to get there is to take a boat, which is easily arranged. It’s a half day trip and approximately 25km from Luang Prabang.

A road trip to the Kouangsi Waterfall – The easiest way to travel is by road although 45 minutes on a gravel track is still quite rough. You can hail a ‘jumbo’ – a truck with a canopy and seating on the back tray – negotiate your price and off you go. The waterfall is actually a series of waterfalls and cascades with cool glens and numerous picnic spots. The water is the most amazing color green due to the limestone bedrock. There are several beautiful swimming holes for taking a refreshing dip.

Buddhist temple at Royal Palace in Luang Prabang

Buddhist temple at Royal Palace in Luang Prabang. Pic: Wikipedia.

Hidden Gem
Get up extra early when visiting Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Monastery) as between 6.00 and 6.30am there is an extraordinarily long stream of Buddhist monks collecting their morning alms of rice from the villagers. The early morning light, the stillness, and the stark saffron, yellow and brown robes of the monks make a memorable sight.

There is a vast and varied selection of accommodation available in Luang Prabang. Most guesthouses are small and relatively cheap but be careful not to show up unannounced in the late afternoon as the better options can get quite busy. Sleepy much of the year, LP bursts into life during Pimai Lao, Laos’s New Year (April 13-15). So if you’re planning on visiting at that time of the year, be sure to book a room well in advance.

Luang Prabang at Night
When looking for nightlife, the most obvious place to start is Xiang Thong, the main strip where cafés spill out onto the pavement. Restaurants have vastly increased in sophistication and visitors can now find themselves enjoying curries, burgers and gourmet French cuisine alongside the delicious local fare.

The nightlife here is relaxed, with most bars winding down around 11pm and restaurants closing around the same time. This means that many people simply stay on drinking where they ate, though there are a few pockets of activity to seek out. For example, the Lao Lao Garden is a great place to try “Lao Lao”, the country’s popular rice-based tipple. The Garden offers deals on a variety of fresh juices with the brew, alongside burgers and barbeque.

Retail Therapy
The main street is closed most nights of the week for a market, which is great if you are looking for some distinctive traditional Lao handicrafts. As with many other Asian cities there is always a variety of local arts and crafts to admire and purchase. Most items are reasonably priced but remember to negotiate – after all haggling is half the fun.

For a different kind of retail therapy, Okpoptok Textiles is a beautiful two-level shop house filled with locally-woven goods, from clothing to wall hangings. The shop displays information about traditional techniques, motifs and costumes, and can arrange informal interactive demos. However, its products are a far cry from night market prices (and quality), and be aware that a good wall hanging here could set you back more than US$100.

Getting there & away – In 1998 a modern airport was constructed 2km from town, and a few years later Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines opened up the route with direct flights into Luang Prabang. Lao Airlines still flies regularly and many still brave it without a hitch. Buses run from the capital Vientiane, through Vang Vieng, ranging from an eight-hour, air-conditioned VIP bus for US$11 (which includes a stop-off lunch) to a cheaper local option, which takes at least three hours more.

Getting around – Once in town, bicycles are a great way to get around, especially at sunset when the temperature drops. A standard basket-fronted bike can set you back as little as US$1 a day (7am-9pm), while a mountain bike may cost US$2-$3. Motorbike rental in Luang Prabang is prohibited for visitors, though there are some companies who will rent to you, ferry you out of the city centre and let you explore further afield from around US$10 per day. Large, shared tuk-tuks and local buses are also available.