Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Kham rivers, Luang Prabang, once the ancient royal capitol of Laos now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides a restful getaway with activities sure to please everyone and accommodate any budget.
A tiny town which is easily walkable, it packs several gold gilded Wats (Buddhist temples), impressive river views, and a myriad of criss-crossing streets with varied foodie opportunities ranging from fine French dining to Fear Factor foods like jungle rat. Nearby activities include jungle treks, waterfalls, bear and elephant conservations, as well as boat journeys up the Mekong River to explore sacred caves and whisky villages.
A worry-free, pampering accommodation…
Normally we like to stay at mid-range hotels, or no frills guesthouses (so long as I’ve seen reviews that they are clean and have comfortable beds), but in this instance we decided to spoil ourselves with a more upscale accommodation at The Belle Rive Boutique Hotel. It is a French colonial style hotel, with large rooms with hardwood floors and Lao decor, giant walk-in showers, and soft beds with plush comforters. The staff was incredibly friendly and attentive, and there were many perks such as free bicycle rentals, and complimentary evening sunset cruises on the Mekong River. But one of the really enjoyable things about the hotel is that you can have your made to order breakfast on a large wooden deck overlooking the Mekong River!
River breezes cool down the town…
We were nervous about what the weather would be like because all of the reports predicted constant rain showers and oppressive heat and humidity. Basically the same weather we were seeking to escape from Bangkok. When we arrived it was hot and humid, but as soon as we got into the sleepy little town the river breezes immediately cooled us down. We found a little Mom and Pop riverside bar/diner (the Mekong River has plenty to choose from) and settled in for some cheap ice-cold large Beer Lao bottles and an incredible sunset over the opposing jungle riverbanks.
Feats of strength and determination!
The next day was a marathon for me. I’d broken my ankle in 3 places a few months prior (falling down the stairs in my house or a Muay Thai fight with a great white shark whilst saving a baby from a burning building (if I’ve had a few beers)). If you’ve ever broken anything major that really affects your life, then you know how that first month and a half of convalescing gives you plenty time for painful reflection. You have time to think on how your life has been and what you want it to be.
I wanted to take more advantage of the traveling opportunities in my life. We had Luang Prabang already booked so I could only hope that I’d be well enough to enjoy it. As the days came closer to my travel, and with my doctor’s optimism with my healing progress, I began to fantasize about grandiose achievements such as climbing (conquering!) the top of Mount Phousi (okay….it’s actually better described as Phousi Hill but in my imagination and so as not to diminish the effort, I prefer the impressive Mount Phousi (which is recognized by Trip Advisor!).
We started our day with an exploration of Wat Xieng Thong, a Buddhist temple, located on the northern tip of the peninsula nearby our hotel. Afterwards we headed directly to Mount Phousi so I could conquer it’s 355 steps to reach its 150 meter summit!
You can’t keep a good man down!
I know these pictures don’t adequately capture the feeling I had at the top of Mount Phousi so I have added this (poor quality) video clip to give you an idea of how it all went down.
A lucky chance encounter!
During our walk to Wat Xieng Thong we met a boat driver who offered his services for a private tour. Normally I do not accept unsolicited offers, but after chatting with him for a bit I really got a good vibe from him. We settled on a payment of around $50 ($30 cheaper than other quotes I’d seen). We arranged to meet the following morning for a private half day boat tour up the Mekong River to Pak Ou Caves and a little whisky village stop on the return. It was absolutely one of the highlights of our tour. If interested I would be happy to provide his contact details to anyone interested in his services.
A perfect day for a cruise…
There is no finer feeling than cruising along the muddy waters of the Mekong River on a cool, quiet morning. This river is in many respects the primary transportation pathway to many of the little villages and outlying sites. We experienced it before it had fully come to life. It was so serene with only the wind on our faces and the sound of the boat motor pushing us through the current as the driver guided us past jutting rocks and little whirlpool jetties. We watched children playing, water buffalo grazing, and people fishing or going about their morning rituals on their own boats.
All to ourselves…the joys of private tours.
Because we left earlier than the tour groups we arrived to both the Pak Ou caves and the whisky village to find that we had the place entirely to ourselves.It was wonderful to be able to explore the cool depths of caves that have for thousands of years held such religious experience for travelers that it has accumulated over 4000 Buddha icons. We were free to take our time and explore without hassle or selfie stick obstacles. In fact, as we pulled away we witnessed a stream of boats pulling up to the main docking areas…suckers!
Next stop, whisky village!
After the caves we headed back to Luang Prabang with a brief stop at a whisky village to do some shopping. I assumed it was a tourist trap so I was prepared to be disappointed. Actually it’s a good experience for shopping. The prices were very fair and there was quite a selection. If you’re interested in buying Lao Lao (the local whisky) or rice wine then you should definitely stop there. The prices are much much cheaper than what’s available in Luang Prebang. I grabbed two bottles of purple rice wine, two big bottles of Lao Lao whisky (don’t you judge me!), and a small bottle of Lao Lao for our boat driver, Mr. Kham. I made sure not to “sample” too much as I knew walking back down the muddy riverbanks steps could be challenging if I did.
Lunch with trainees!
We arrived back in town just in time for lunch. I’d researched on TripAdvisor for possible places to eat and we settled on a place called Khaiphaen. They have an interesting story in that it’s a restaurant “in training”. Basically the folks that run it use it as a tool to train the local population for entry level positions in the tourism/restaurant industry. It’s actually nice because you get a wait staff that’s super attentive and focused on making sure you get what you ordered and have a pleasant dining staff. It was a fantastic meal, too! I’m not sure if the cook staff are in training, but if they are then they are getting excellent instruction and have really honed their craft.
You really can’t go wrong with anything you order on their menu. I recommend a sampling of local dishes, but make sure you’re hungry as they don’t skimp on the portions!
The joys of cooking!
That evening we had the opportunity to learn how to cook some Laotian cuisine through the Tamarind Cooking School. I wrote all about it in a separate article here. I try to learn something about the local food when I travel as it is nice to be able to bring those new ideas to my own home kitchen. This was an excellent experience for us, an evening learning how to prepare amazing dishes in a jungle kitchen which ended with a huge feast of our results!
Early to bed, early to rise.
Luang Prabang is a sleepy little town. Things close early at night–there are options for late night revelry but for the most part things are pretty well locked up before 11:00 pm. As they are early to bed, many are also early to rise. Every morning, if you’re willing to wake up at 5:00 am, you can witness the giving of the alms. Because there are several Buddhist monasteries in Luang Prebang there is a high concentration of monks that rely on the locals to make merit by offering food. This offering is supposed to sustain the monks through the day as they study. It really is something to witness the long procession of orange robe clad monks lined single file collecting rice from kneeling locals who woke up early to make merit and do their part.
Some etiquette guidelines…
If you decide to view the alms giving please be respectful:
- Wear respectful clothing, not skimpy, tight shorts.
- Silence is appreciated–loud chatter/laughter is not.
- Stay out of the way–don’t interfere with the procession for a better photo opportunity.
- If you’re not a practicing Buddhist, you have no reason to be making merit or “participating”. It’s tacky.
That being said, you will probably see all of the above behaviors from others; pat yourself on the back for being a good tourist.
The last day…
Our final day was spent walking about the town taking random photos of daily life. We let the day take us where it wanted to. A cup of coffee at a little cafe, some nibbles along the river, capturing the contrasting view of an old colonial town through the glass of a well made Old Fashioned as the sun sets and the main streets shut down for the Night Market–the perfect place to shop for gifts and then hit the street food market for our dinner.
Our 4 days in this sleepy little city were absolutely amazing. So impressed was I that I’ve already booked a trip back to spend Christmas there. This time I’ll get to cover the waterfalls and elephant sanctuary (I wasn’t comfortable with my ankle to attempt either). If you are looking for a quick getaway from Bangkok, this hour and 20 minute flight is what you need. If you’ve been traveling all over Asia and are just looking for a restful place to cap off your journey then you should seriously consider Luang Prabang as a destination!
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