Completely different to everything else you have seen in Laos, this place in the North of the country is a marvel of South-East Asian natural beauty combined with French colonial architecture and a bit of a Western touch in cafés, restaurants and bars. A chill-out place of culture and art where yoga and temples and amazing sunsets viewed from the Phousi Mount align with Kuang Si waterfall healing power and the Mekong river ancestral vibes and traditions – a perfect melange that will surely make it underneath your skin…
The Rhythm of the Town and How to Pass Your Days Here
With the entire old town of Luang Prabang designated as a UNESCO site, the beautiful old buildings are being immaculately preserved and the town holds tranquil vibes of peace and love indeed. The rhythm of the place is rotating around the morning Alms Giving to the Buddhist monks (a very local ceremony which takes place at around 5.30 am; you will see processions of barefoot monks walking the streets to get a handful of sticky rice from the devotees; please make sure to cover your shoulders and knees and to stand at least 3 metres away from the monks when following the procession and making photos – no flash light is allowed), the sunsets (exactly about twelve hours later) observed from the top of Phousi Mount or from the few boats roaming the Mekong river (the sun sets behind the Mountains that fringe the river), and the Night Market life (the night market starts at 5pm, the morning market – a much smaller one, based mostly on food, located in a side street (of no name) perpendicular to the Night Market street (Sisavangvong Road).
You can get various local products at the market as well as local food (in the lane near Indigo Café) – a vegetarian buffet (which includes various types of noodles and rice, greens, veggies, papaya salad and watermelon) costs 15,000 Kip!
Many visitors conclude the night at the famous Utopia beach bar located right on the Mekong river bank, a place that will remind you of Bali with its bamboo decos, cushions and chillout vibes. The staff have blue shirts that say “Smile” – and you do when at Utopia, it is a truly cool place.
You can spend your days visiting the many temples (entry varies from 10 to 20,000 Kip), doing yoga, going to the waterfalls (Kuang Si is the most famous one but not the only one in the area, just get on your scooter or bike and explore – the roads, unlike in Vang Vieng, you are very good asphalt roads; bikes rentals start at 25,000 Kip, scooter rentals at 70,000 Kip), visiting the Royal Palace (a blend of Lao and French architecture with the Haw Pha Bang Temple where a famous statue Phra Bang Buddha resides) or arrange your “Rice Farming Experience” in a tourist office and learn all about the lifeblood of Lao people – sticky rice (at the farm, you can try out ploughing, planting, harvesting, threshing and even cooking sticky rice; you can also check out the sugar cane making process and the organic garden) which is also used to make wine (when the fermentation process is completed, they add water to the wine and it actually become even stronger).
Another option is to go to the renowned Pak Ou Caves (also known as the Thousand Buddha Cave thanks to the thousands Buddha statues in here), a holy place for pilgrims, situated right where the Nam Ou river meets the Mekong river. Situated along the sheer limestone cliffs of the Mekong River, the only way to get is by boat which you can take directly from Luang Prabang and thus enjoy a river cruise. Another option is to go by bike, scooter or tuk tuk to the village of Ban Pak Ou and then take a canoe for 20,000 Kip only across the river. If you are on your scooter, stop at “Lao Lao Village” (Ban Xang Hay) famous for the Lao whisky.
Eat, Pray, Love in Laos
In Luang Prabang you can dine in various cool cafés and restaurants. My favourites would include the Indigo Café, Timeless Café and Café Toui – all with lovely food, shakes, cocktails, vegetarian options and reasonable prices.
Many travelers come to Luang Prabang to rest their soul and find their true self. The town is truly spiritual, with 33 temples and 1000 residing in them. The monks are open to share the dharma with anyone ready to listen and perceive and thus you can take up a Zen Meditation Experience (demand in a tourist office) to get an in-depth meditation session with a local monk at a temple not frequented by tourists. You will also hear about the history of Wat Visoun and experience how the locals do traditional sauna with medicinal herbs at the Lao Red Cross. The package concludes with a massage… could that get any better?
To fully enjoy the laidback, peaceful atmosphere of Luang Prabang, to drift away, dream or find yourself immerged in meditation, go up the back side of Phousi Hill, best early after sunrise (actually, sunrises viewed from the Phousi Hill are as spectacular as the sunsets, since the hill offers a 360-degree view of the town), where there is a sacred cave, several amazing Buddha statues (including the Giant Reclining Buddha) and at the very edge also a small temple with the imprint of Buddha´s Foot. The monks never lock the temples, they are always open. To get to this temple and the cave you don’t even need to pay the entrance fee which normally applies to all the other sights (such as the Chomsi Stupa) on the hill. The entrance fee to the hill is 20,000 Kip and you can use the ticket for two visits. So – don’t chuck it out after the first one, keep it!
Falling in love with Luang Prabang is easy, and it will happen even faster once you try to connect with the local people. I was invited to a local village annual party and got to learn a bit of Laotian dancing. The hospitality of the locals includes their willingness to keep refilling your beer cup as soon as you have bottomed up the previous one (that is the way of drinking in Laos, once the cups clink – a gesture of respect – you are supposed to bottom up the content in your cup) though, so just be prepared for that!
You can also get more acquainted with the Lao people by joining one the local art workshops, e.g. a crossbow crafting class, a weaving workshop or a wood carving workshop and thus also help conserve the national heritage.
Kuang Si Waterfall
One of the most popular attractions in Laos is Kuang Si waterfall, which is about a 50-minute-drive away from the town of Luang Prabang. It truly is a marvelous place: gorgeous travertine cascades, pools and emerald green and milky waters (the milky share is caused by calcium carbonate which naturally occurs in the limestone subsoil) rushing through stepped waterfalls, it is a sight you shall remember. Situated in a national park, there’s also a moon bear sanctuary nestled together with the falls where you can see and help (by donation or buying one of the products of the sanctuary) the cute moon bears rescued from poachers.
Make sure to hike up the steep but short path (about 15 minutes) to get to the lagoon formed above the waterfall and see how tranquil the water is just a few metres away from the steep. The sight is by no means splendid, but it is interesting to see the stream from up there and you can actually take a 3-km walk from the spot to the spring cave (the sign will direct you to the restaurant by the spring cave) which is a sacred place with Buddha statues and offerings and where you can see the water that later forms the waterfall. Make sure to bring your flash light and know that the cave goes quite a long way in.
When you emerge from the cave’s darkness, the nearby spring water is a cool private place to relax and swim in. If you like easy jungle trekking and even easier caving, you will definitely enjoy this hike and “secret” cave exploring.
You can take a bike or a scooter to the car park by the waterfall, the road is safe and good. Your private means of transport would give you a chance to discover also some Laotian ethnic hill tribes as you can visit the H’mong village of Ban Ouay and the Lao village of Ban Ou on the way.
If you don’t wish for the ride, you can opt for a van (arranged by certain hostels); make sure you do not pay more than 50,000 per person and get at least 3 hours of time in the spot. A better option than a van though might be a haggle with a tuk tuk driver, especially if there is more of you (they generally take about 200,000 for a full tuk tuk – 4 to 6 people). Give him a 35,000 to 40,000 per person and negotiate a four-hour stay at the fall at least.