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Worldly Pleasure in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang

 

The heavenly kingdoms in the land of Laos

were once ruled by powerful Gods.

 

Worldly Pleasure in Luang Prabang

 

As benevolent sovereigns these Gods would grant worthy partisans

the ability to reign over the earthly world.

 

Luang Prabang

 

One day they sent the mortal son of one of the Gods

to a small rice field to bring agriculture to the region.

 

Luang Prabang

 

At the confluence of two rivers

he offered an axe and a buffalo to the villagers.

 

Luang Prabang

 

Farming began and the town thrived.

 

Luang Prabang

 

But as men do, the townspeople committed ungodly deeds;

in punishment the Gods took the life of the buffalo.

 

Luang Prabang

 

When the buffalo fell, great vines grew from his nose

and towered towards the heavens

 

Luang Prabang - 08

 

forming a dark canopy

that threatened the survival of life on Earth.

 

Luang Prabang - 09

 

Two altruistic souls sacrificed their lives by slicing the vines

sunlight spread and life forms were preserved.

 

Luang Prabang

 

They call this place Luang Prabang.

 

Luang Prabang

 

Granted by the Gods

to be ruled by a man

 

Luang Prabang

 

it became a spiritual center

with the pleasures of the world.

 

Luang Prabang

 

Today monks make their pilgrimage

outside the temples to collect alms at dawn

 

Luang Prabang

 

while bushels of vegetables splay like rainbows

 

Luang Prabang - 15

 

slabs of honeycomb and baby bananas sizzle

 

Luang Prabang

 

crispy insects and skewered river fish glisten

 

Luang Prabang - 17

 

tempting shoppers in the morning market .

 

Luang Prabang - 18

 

Alleyways awaken as locals chow down noodle soup

children scamper down the street

 

Luang Prabang

 

guesthouses and chic shops prop their Colonial doors

French cafes drip coffee and bake fluffy pastries.

 

Luang Prabang

 

Tuk tuk drivers do not hassle

rather they softly suggest

 

Kuang Si Falls

 

rides to the falls

where the mysticism still lives.

 

Luang Prabang

 

The bamboo bridge leads to another world

free of Western extravagance full of roosters and dirt

 

Luang Prabang

 

fishermen cast their reels on a river

that seems to span to the ends of the earth.

 

Luang Prabang

 

Monks round the corner under umbrella shades

from gilded temples twinkling in the golden light

 

Luang Prabang

 

sweltering heats give in

to another balmy night.

 

Luang Prabang

 

The sun sets on the Mekong

the purple river reflects a pink sky with blue mountain silhouettes

 

Luang Prabang

 

tourists sip Chardonnay and Bordeaux

backpackers load plates with a buffet of “who knows”.

 

Luang Prabang

 

At night villagers from ethnic minority tribes

lay their handmade wares on the street

 

Luang Prabang

 

the entertainment ends early

by curfew the town sleeps.

 

Luang Prabang

 

As the world below continues

to be pious or to indulge

 

Luang Prabang

 

the Gods smile down on Luang Prabang

from up on their golden hill.

 

How to Get to Luang Prabang

 

Fly

Lao Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, and Bangkok Airways offer direct flights to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Hanoi, Pakse, Vientiane, and Siem Reap.

 

Slow Boat from Thailand

Two days with stopover in Pakbeng, 950 baht or about $30

People seem to love or hate the slow boat, hence its infamous status. I was a bit nervous to sign up after hearing stories of overcrowded vessels, sleepless nights, and scams. However it ended up being one of my favorite travel experiences I’ve ever had. First of all, to clear up the confusion, you are not on the boat for two entire days. The first day begins a short tuk tuk ride from the border with Northern Thailand and lasts around six hours before stopping over for the night in Pakbeng. You have plenty of time to relax at a nice, cheap hotel (price not included in fare), have some dinner, check in on wifi, and simply enjoy the atmosphere on the Mekong. The next morning you have until about 9am to have breakfast and pack a lunch for the boat, and the ride lasts another 6 hours or so before dropping you a ten minute tuk tuk ride from Luang Prabang. Most of the unpleasant stories I hear are from people who booked their ticket through a tour agency in Chiang Mai. My recommendation is to figure out your own transportation to the border town of Chiang Khong (I went on a VIP bus from Bangkok) and then buy a boat ticket at the pier. Just be sure to arrive early, I believe the last boats leave around 11am or noon. Also be prepared with plenty of food and water for the boat, which seems to only stock packaged soup and BeerLao. I packed myself some fruit, nuts, and oats, which held me over until dinner in Pakbeng. There are plenty of food vendors by the pier in Pakbeng for your second day and you can easily get a baguette sandwich, fruit, and fried rice to go.

Bus from Vientiane

10 hours on VIP bus, $20-25

The road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang winds through the mountainous countryside, which is beautiful… but incredibly nauseating. The three-hour stretch from Vientiane to Vang Vieng isn’t so bad while the seven hours from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang about killed me. The scenery was unbelievably gorgeous but I spent most of the ride trying to put myself in a coma while covering my mouth praying I wouldn’t spew. Next time I’ll do the ride on a motorcycle.

 

 

Where to Stay in Luang Prabang

 

Luang Prabang has many charming guesthouses in restored Colonial buildings scattered around town and along the river. I arrived in the low season (April) and was able to wander around and negotiate a great deal on a room. We found plenty for around $15 for two people with hot water and wifi. Here are some of my recommendations, keep in mind prices will vary greatly depending on the time of year.

 

LPQ Backpackers Hostel

$6, includes breakfast

For solo travelers on a budget, I’ve heard great things about LPQ Backpackers from friends who have stayed there. The location is ideal near the river and the night market, and has a social atmosphere with communal areas to meet other travelers.

 

Le Tam Tam

$35 to 60 depending on the season

On a quiet neighborhood alley between the Mekong and the main road, I found this hotel to be so peaceful. The room was huge, immaculate, and had luxuries like wifi, a tea kettle, and a mini fridge. We managed to negotiate the room for $20 per night and it was easily one of the nicest places I stayed in all of Southeast Asia.

 

Indigo House

$65 to 85 depending on room and season

Indigo House is smack dab on the main street in the old town, in a gorgeous classic French house, where the night market takes places. Rooms are immaculate and redone with artisan Lao textiles and French architecture. They sell handicrafts from hilltribes in the lobby, especially gorgeous indigo prints. The downstairs restaurant is a popular spot all day with plenty of Northern Lao specialties, homemade yogurt and ice cream, and an entirely vegan menu. They also have a bakery with lots of treats in front of the restaurant, however I found my brownie from there to be very dry.

 

 

The Apsara

$65 to 120 includes breakfast

Across from the Nam Kham River near quiet streets, great restaurants, and beautiful temples, the Apsara is in my favorite area in Luang Prabang. The rooms are airy in the beautiful French building with elegant artisan details. Rates include a big buffet breakfast. The restaurant downstairs is also considered one of the best in all of Luang Prabang with upscale Northern Laos specialties like lemongrass fish with organic herbs and pumpkin apple curry for around $10.

 

Mekong Riverview Hotel

$150 to $250 includes buffet breakfast

Quite extravagant by Southeast Asia standards, the Mekong Riverview is the place to splurge in Luang Prabang. The hotel offer beautiful, luxurious, European style rooms, a great location near some of the best restaurants in town, and a view of the Mekong river. Included in the room rate is a big buffet breakfast, free bicycle rentals, a stocked mini fridge with cold drinks, and golf cart transfers around town.

 

 

 

Where to Eat in Luang Prabang

 

Luang Prabang has some of the best local cuisine and European restaurants in all of Southeast Asia. The restaurants may seem expensive by Laos standards, but the level of quality is exceptional. Here are some of my favorites:

 

Tangor

$8 to 10 on average for mains

On the main street across from the night market, Tangor has a lively, romantic atmosphere and fills up with tourists nightly. The fusion menu has delicacies like ceviche, grilled fish, and goat cheese salad. The location makes for great people watching and a convenient stop between shopping at the night market stalls.

 

Tamarind

$13 to $20 for tasting menus, $3 to $10 for a la carte dishes

Outside the local market, Tamarind is the best place in Luang Prabang to get a taste of Northern Laos cuisine. Authentic, elegant dishes like bamboo soup, fish steamed in banana leaf, and platters of dips and relishes can be ordered a la carte style or you can do a tasting menu. The tasting menus range from healthy and vegan to highly adventurous. Friday nights they have a fish BBQ and every day they offer cooking courses. If you choose to eat in only one nice restaurant in Luang Prabang, this should be the one.

 

L’Elephant

Tasting Menus start at $20, a la carte dishes start around $10

Surrounded by foliage with candlelit tables and white linen napkins you’d swear L’Elephant was on a small street in Paris. The wine list is extensive, and even the cheapest white wine by the glass, an unoaked Chardonnay, was exquisite. The menu boasts classic French favorites along with upscale Lao specialties. They even have an entirely raw vegan menu using the gorgeous herbs and produce that grows in the hillside surrounding Luang Prabang. I had the ratatouille with light, peppery watercress salad, which I highly recommend. This is one of the more expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang, but by Western standards it’s actually quite a bargain. Head here for a romantic evening or an elegant lunch.

 

The Morning Market

Less than $1 for fruit, snacks, and breakfast

In the early morning fruit and vegetable sellers bring incredible, organic produce from their farms and line the alley just behind the main road. Alongside them are vendors offering coconut black sticky rice in banana leaves, grilled honeycomb, fluffy coconut pancakes made from rice flour, and other delicacies. I came here every morning and bought fresh fruit, raw cashews, and black rice for breakfast.

 

The Night Market

Snacks and meals starting at $1

It may be small, but the night market food stalls in Luang Prabang are some of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia. Down the alley that runs perpendicular to the Hmong Handicraft night market on the main road you will find classic Luang Prabang spiced riverweed steamed in banana leaves, homemade crispy dumplings, made to order green papaya salad with organic grape tomatoes, the typical noodle soups, skewers of grilled fish and meat, and of course the famous vegan buffet. For 10,000 kip or a little over a dollar, you can load your plate as full as you can with vegan noodles, curries, stir fries, fruit, salads, and fried snacks. Some of the dishes are really delicious, and it’s basically heaven for vegetarians, however they do use lots of MSG and as you might expect the hygiene standards are dubious. Still, it’s an experience not to be missed!

 

Joma Café

$1 to $5 for breakfast, sandwiches, salads, and baked goods

When you start to crave Western fare, head to Joma for homemade granola bars, fresh salads, and even wholegrain bagels! With ample seating, air conditioning, and a relaxed atmosphere it makes for a great breakfast spot or a refuge from the heat in the afternoon. I recommend at least stopping in for some homemade oatmeal cookies.

 

 

What to Do in Luang Prabang

 

Swim at the Kuang Si Falls

$4 including admission to the Bear Sanctuary

Arrive early and you will have the luxury of swimming in some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world all on your own. Clean, milky blue water rushes from the top of the falls and spills into several luxurious pools below. I recommend coming as early as possible, they open at 7am, taking your time swimming starting from the bottom, then by the time the crowds come in you’ve already reached the top. You can climb from the base of the waterfall up into the jungle above, which I highly recommend, and it’s another way to have peace away from the crowds. Going to these waterfalls is mandatory. For me they’re up with Angkor Wat as far as incredible places in Southeast Asia go, but be aware that much of the magic disappears when the crowds arrive. Motorbike rentals are pricey in Luang Prabang, but it’s the most atmospheric, hassle free way to arrive. Otherwise take an hour-long tuk tuk ride for about $20. If you’re feeling super fit you can cycle there, but I wouldn’t recommend it for non mountain bikers; the heat is intense and the roads are quite bumpy.

 

Climb Mt Phousi

$2 to reach the temple at the top

Just up the hill from the main road, Mt Phousi has a nice temple where you can hear Monks chant and catch amazing views of the town and countryside. Be prepared for a steep climb and some crowds at the top, but it’s worth it to see the sun set behind the hills.

 

Royal Palace Museum

$3 entrance includes museum and temple

The Royal Palace Museum is one of the main attractions in Luang Prabang, but honestly I found it to be the more boring museum I’ve ever seen in my life. Still, it’s worth a visit because the temple in front is quite beautiful, as are some of the rooms in the museum, which have amazing wall treatments with animal scenes made from cut glass. However if you have limited time in Luang Prabang it’s not a must see in my opinion. Remember to cover your shoulders and knees or they will not allow you entrance.

 

Visit the Temples

$1.50 per temple

Luang Prabang has dozens of well-preserved temples, some more popular than others. My favorite way to see the temples is just wandering around the town and walking into the ones that catch my eye. The most popular include Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Wisunarat. Remember to cover your knees and shoulders or bring a sarong/shawl.

 

Tour the Art and Ethnology Museum

$3 for adults

This small but well-done museum explains the Hmong, Akha, and Kmu tribes with costume and jewelry displays. The shop has very nice gifts as well.

 

Watch the Monks Collect Alms at Dawn

When I first heard that monks walked down the quiet streets of Luang Prabang at dawn to collect food from pious villagers I swooned over the romantic imagery. However, in reality, since most tourists have the same fantasy, it’s become a pretty uncomfortable affair. I’ve also heard that vendors who sell the alms to tourists to give the monks often prepare inferior rice, actually making the monks sick. If you want to witness this ritual, watch somewhere discreetly and do not use a flash if you take photos. I walked down the road on the other side of the street and watched while giving them space. Still, I felt super awkward especially since there were tourists taking up close and personal photos. Regardless of your intentions I don’t advise that you offer alms to the monks as having tourists involved, especially while being photographed, steals the authenticity of the experience for all parties involved.

 

Take a Cooking Class at Tamarind

$30 for a day course

One walk through the market in Luang Prabang and any foodie will become inspired by the incredible display of fresh herbs, produce, seafood, and exotic delicacies. Food in Northern Laos is refined and full of flavor, making it a great place to take a cooking class. Start the day shopping in the market before learning to create traditional Laos dishes.

 

Shop in the Hmong Night Market

$1 to $50 depending on your taste and haggling skills

The Hmong Night Market, which takes place every evening on the main road from 5pm until 9pm, has some of the most beautiful handmade textiles I’ve ever seen. The villagers from the Hmong tribe craft incredible handbags, pouches, and clothing from handmade fabrics with needlework and weaving.

 

Chill With a Massage at Spa Garden

$8 for an hour traditional Lao massage

There are plenty of places in Luang Prabang to get a spa treatment, but Spa Garden has the most tranquil setting. It’s quiet, off the main road, tucked away in a garden, and inside smells like lemongrass essential oil. I had a very good traditional Lao massage, similar to Thai massage, and the place was very upscale even though it’s priced comparably to budget spots on the street.

 

Happy Hour at Dyen Sabai

Head across the old bamboo bridge for the best sunset views at Dyen Sabai. They have happy hour drink specials, Lao BBQ, and on Wednesdays they even host an open mic night.

 

Catch the Ethnik Fashion Show at Hive

Free show, drinks $2-$5

Every evening Hive bar hosts a free live fashion show highlighting the traditional textiles and clothing of the minority tribes in Northern Laos. The girls from the ethinc villages can work the catwalk shockingly well and the clothing is just beautiful. The goal of this show is to teach tourists about the gorgeous traditions of these hill tribes while employing local villagers in the show. After they have an impressive break dance show. I was blown away by both performances and loved the sexy, candlelit atmosphere at Hive.

 

Get Crafty at Ock Pop Tok

This incredible arts center works with local women to empower them in their craft and promote Lao textiles all over the world. You can visit their facilities a couple of miles outside of Luang Prabang and take a weaving class, do some hand dyeing, or simply take a tour. The onsite restaurant has fresh, healthy Northern Laos and Western food. They have a couple of shops in town with stunningly beautiful textiles, handbags, clothing, and housewares with a level of quality you rarely find in the market. Free daily shuttles to the center run from the shops in town, or you can take a leisurely bicycle ride there.

 

Take a Yoga Class

$5 to 8 for a 60 minute or 90 minute class

The chilled out bar Utopia, with views of the Nam Khan River, is a great place to have a candlelit drink or meet travelers over breakfast. With that view I recommend taking a sunset Vinyasa flow yoga class after your fruit smoothie. The certified yoga teachers with Luang Prabang Yoga come from all over the world and teach a variety of yoga styles. They also lead classes at Ock Pop Tok and occasionally have retreats. Check out the full schedule of classes.

 

Trek in the Jungle with Tiger Trail 

Luang Prabang makes an excellent base for exploring stunning jungle, learning about indigenous communities, and spotting wildlife. However, as I learned back in Chiang Mai, most tour companies mistreat elephants, exploit hill tribe villages, and don’t end up doing much…. trekking. While I haven’t taken a tour with them myself, Tiger Trail has a glowing reputation for operating sustainable, high quality day and multi day adventure tours from kayaking to mountain biking and of course plenty of jungle trekking. They even run a community project called Fair Trek with tours that aim to support, rather than exploit, indigenous communities. I recommend booking a tour with them, however I also recommend opting out of riding on an elephant if that’s included in your package. Even bare backed I’ve read that elephant’s backs are not designed to bear the weight of a human. If your tour visits indigenous villages, make sure do some research on the best ways to interact with the community. I advise against bringing any sort of gifts to the children as you have the potential to encourage begging in the future.


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Comments

  1. You’ve painted a beautiful, tranquil picture; I can understand why you loved it so much.

  2. That was such a lovely narrative to match your lovely photos. :) I was also enraptured by Luang Prabang and I can’t wait to return <3

  3. I like the detailing..This helps a lot for someone while travelling..

  4. I love this so much! I’m actually in Luang Prabang right now and yor post makes me want to stay here forever!

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 14, 2014 at 6:48 am

      Thank you darling :) Soak it up, I loved it there!! Have you tried the vegan buffet? I was alllll about it til I crashed from the MSG :/

  5. Absolutely love Luang Prabang!! I think my favourite part of exploring the city was going to Kuang Si Falls and visiting the Free The Bears Fund. Hopefully they’re able to get enough money/donations to expand their facilities for the beautiful sun and moon bears that reside there :) Thanks for sharing!!

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 15, 2014 at 10:09 am

      Thanks for the comment. Luang Prabang is magical huh? Being that close to the bears was surreal and the water at the falls was probably the most incredible I’ve ever swam in. I must go back!! :)

  6. This is a lovely post! I loved Luang Prabang, had some of the best times there! :) Happy travels!

  7. […] in the royal city of Luang Prabang. […]

  8. Great post with lots of detail and wonderful pics. All your recommendations are spot on. I had a great stay at a place called Sayo Naga Guesthouse, so would recommend that as another possible option.

  9. […] “The Hmong Night Market, which takes place every evening on the main road from 5pm until 9pm, has some of the most beautiful handmade textiles I’ve ever seen. The villagers from the Hmong tribe craft incredible handbags, pouches, and clothing from handmade fabrics with needlework and weaving.” -This American Girl […]

  10. Thanks for sharing these beautiful photos! I especially love all the different colors of the vegetables!

  11. Thank you for sharing. I recently visited Luang Prabang and your photos made me feel I was there again. Laos was such an amazing unexpected amazing experience.

    Safe travels!