We’re city people. We love the buzz, the food, the art, the people-watching that can be done in big cities… So after touring the more remote areas of northern Laos, the French colonial city of Luang Prabang almost had a big city vibe. Within the course of an afternoon of exploring, Luang Prabang began showing its colors as a charming little gem.
Home to 100,000 people, Luang Prabang is the second largest city in Laos (Vientiane, the sleepy capital, has a population of roughly 1.3 million). Decades after French rule, Luang Prabang has long since been rightfully ‘re-conquered’ by international tourists, making it both a comfortable, entertaining place to visit but equally requires some good planning to avoid the masses. Read on for our recommendations of what to see and do in Luang Prabang.
367 steps to the top of Phou Si
It might seem like quite a haul to slog up 367 steps, but for the best views of the city, this is something all visitors to the city must do. On our first full day in town we scaled the hill, arriving at the That Chomsi temple for breathtaking views of wider Luang Prabang and the peninsula where Old Town is located, right where the mighty Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers meet.
For those of you who, like Dani, are addicted to scouting out amazing sunset photo opportunities, the sunset must be shot from up here: two rivers, mountains, a Buddhist temple and miles of palm trees jutting up into layers of striking colors. However, hundreds of people will be joining you, which means getting up to the top at least an hour early to secure a good spot (bring mosquito spray, they’re aggressive up there).
For those of you who, like me, get annoyed by masses of camera toting tourists, go up here in the morning and at dusk have a stroll through the night market at that time – the stalls are still just being set up, so not many people are there yet and you have the place to much more to yourself.
Hit the markets
We have each been living out of a 60-70 liter backpack for the last two years – so we tend not to buy much at markets, but even we ended up buying quite a few little things at the night market in Luang Prabang. Lining Sisavangvong Road, a main thoroughfare, the market is unavoidable. We spent hours here looking at the paintings, silk scarves, blankets, wooden masks and gawking at the bottles of Lao rice whiskey, which usually come with snakes or large insects in the bottom of bottle that put that tiny worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle to shame.
There is also a morning market just off this road and it is an entirely local experience. Rather than tourist trinkets, we found fresh produce, piles of seaweed and fresh fish plucked from the Mekong and some more bizarre items such as fried rats, grilled insects, fresh frogs, or ox heads.
Cruise on two wheels
It was plain to see from atop Phou Si that Luang Prabang stretches far beyond the old town, so we did what we always do to see more of a city, and hopped on bikes. Bicycle rentals are abundant and inexpensive, and touring around on two wheels was a relaxing way to really get out and explore. We rented a stylish city cruiser for a day for 20,000 kip ($2.50) and sliced through the interesting dichotomy of crumbling French-style colonial architecture and intricately designed Buddhist temples (called wats). Wat Xieng Thong on the north end of the peninsula is the grandest temple in Luang Prabang, built in 1560.
Learn to cook, Lao style
Most of us are familiar with Thai cuisine, but neighboring Lao doesn’t have quite the international culinary presence despite some interesting dishes. To learn more about Lao food in Luang Prabang, we decided between three cooking schools (Tamarind, Tam Nak and Tum Tum Cheng) opting in the end for Tum Tum Cheng. We ended up with a private class, just the two of us, which meant we were able to create an all-vegetarian menu of five items.
We learned to cook:
Fried noodles with vegetables
Fresh spring rolls
Red Curry with Tofu
Sticky Rice and Banana for desert
Included in that was a lesson in preparing sticky rice, the absolute staple of Lao cuisine. We started the morning on a trip to the morning market with Noi, the sister of the chef. She explained many of the curious items we normally just photograph and wonder about. In our absence, the staff prepped the ingredients, so when we returned from the market all we had to do was learn to make the dishes. Unlike our cooking course on Koh Lanta, this took most the hard work out of the experience and cut the time down to about an hour of actual class time. We ended up cooking a feast for six, but ate it all ourselves at the end and washed it down with a glass of local orange fruit wine.
GlobetrotterGirls say Relax in Luang Prabang!
After all the markets and cycling and slaving over a hot stove (not really – more like eating enough for six people), it was time for some pampering. We discovered the Herbal Steam bath in Nong Khiew, and hunted down an equally inexpensive and utterly relaxing herbal steam spa experience in Luang Prabang, just off Sisavangvong Road (the night market) for 10,000 kip ($1.25). There are others, but they charge ‘foreigner’ prices up to $8.25 an hour which won’t break the bank, but we prefer paying local prices for local experiences.
The steam rooms are usually simple wooden rooms like saunas. Mist laced with fresh local herbs like lemongrass sprays through a pipe into the room from a barrel, or drum, underneath. The room gets very warm, so the experience involves alternating between ten minutes of steam and ten minutes out of the room drinking warm herbal tea. The combination of steam, heat and the herbs opens the pores and is completely relaxing. The saunas provide a sarong to wear in the steam room, a towel and free warm herbal tea.
Alternatively, Luang Prabang has dozens of top massage studios in town. Indulge in oil massages, Lao massage, Thai massages, head and shoulder massages, foot massages as well as manis, pedis and facials. We found the cheapest massage places on Khem Khong (the road right by the Mekong River) where one-hour massages cost 38,000 kip ($4.75).
Witness Tak Bat, but please tread lightly
Every morning just after sunrise, hundreds of monks dressed in their flowing saffron robes make their way through the streets of Luang Prabang collecting alms. Local Buddhists line the streets, sometimes kneeling, and fills the monks’ alms with rice, bananas and other cooked food to show respect for the monks and a dedication to Buddhism (a ritual often misunderstood by Westerners as charity). It is a photographer’s dream to witness this, but unfortunately the spiritual ritual has become a tourist spectacle over the last few years here in Luang Prabang. Busloads of tourists are brought to Sisavangvong Road in the morning and despite being told the rules (stay on the other side of the road, no flash, keep distance) a large percentage of onlookers literally shove their photo gear in the monks faces. It is at best bizarre, and at worst heart-breaking to witness what is essentially citizen paparazzi snapping shots of what should be a very spiritual, somber experience.
Dani found a spot off Sisavangvong on a side street where monks received alms undisturbed and asks you to please read the Do’s and Don’ts beforehand. For a more detailed account of the popular experience, you can read fellow travel blogger Barbara’s account of taking part in the alms giving ceremony here.
Visit the waterfalls
Around Luang Prabang there are several waterfalls to cool off and go for a swim, the most popular being the Kuang Si waterfalls 30 kilometers out of town. Negotiate a price with a private tuktuk who will take you there and back, or for a cheaper price (40,000 kip/$5) join up with one of the tours offered by one of Luang Prabang’s many tourist agencies. For those who are very comfortable on a motorbike, there are also moped/motorcycle rentals for the day but the roads are steep, rough and at times unpaved, so confidence is necessary.
The other waterfalls, a little bit closer to town, are the Tad Sae waterfalls, which are not as high as the Kuang Si waterfalls but spectacular, as the water cascades over dozens of levels and swimming is possible in the pools created by them. The tourist agencies also sell plenty of other tourist packages to explore more of the countryside, so have a look around town and see what you might prefer once you arrive in the city. We wouldn’t advise pre-booking any tours more than a day in advance, as there is no need.
We found Hobomaps to be the most useful for Luang Prabang. The map includes guesthouses, restaurants and all the major sights, visit Hobomaps.com.