Luang Prabang

View of Luang Prabang by CC user fabulousfabs on Flickr

Starting out as the seat of power to the kingdom of Northern Laos, and then as an administrative centre for the French until the mid 20th Century, Luang Prabang is an oasis of people in the lightly populated mountains of the northern part of Laos. This town is framed by elevated terrain everywhere you look, the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers gives it cool places to hang out and chill, it boasts many fabulously golden Buddhist temples to explore and to find your Zen, and the presence of flowering shrubs and French-influenced architecture and cuisine make Luang Prabang a destination worth braving rickety mountain roads to get here.

Sure, you could just fly here from Vientiane or Bangkok … but that’s cheating!  In order to enjoy this special place properly, you got to earn it properly.

Mt Phou Si in Luang Prabang by CC user andreap83 on Flickr

Cultural Experiences

Once you arrive here though, and get caught up on your rest, you’ll want to start tackling this button-cute town.  If temples are your thing, start by exploring the first temple you likely noticed when you arrived in town.  The Vipassana Temple is one of the more gorgeous Buddhist temples in Laos, and it is a highly popular destination for those seeking to go on meditation retreats.

The next temple will require some sweat, but it is worth the effort.  Climb Phou Si Hill, which contains a number of Buddhist idols (such as the Tuesday Buddha), war remnants (near the top, you’ll see an old gun turret), and a simple temple at the top of the big hill/small mountain.  The true attraction here though lies in the views that this elevated position affords of downtown Luang Prabang, the river confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan, and the distant mountain ranges that hem in the city from the rest of the country.

The biggest culturally related attraction in Luang Prabang though requires that you wake up before the crack of dawn.  Gather along Sakkaline Road at about 6 am, and watch locals give alms to monks, as they are somewhat dependent on the generosity of the local populace to eat.

Finally, be sure to simply stroll the streets of this UNESCO protected city, and admire the French villas that are everywhere in the downtown core.  The variety of building styles will astound you, so be sure to have extra room remaining on your memory card!

 Kuang Si waterfall by CC user mckaysavage on Flickr

Outdoor Adventure

Surrounded by farmland, mountains and wilderness, Luang Prabang has plenty of activities in the surrounding countryside to keep you busy for more than a few days.  The first site you should visit is the Kuang Si Waterfall.  This complex of water is multi-tiered, with multiple pools to swim in and laze by.  There are food stalls situated nearby for your grazing needs, so this spot is a great day to relax for an entire afternoon.  Shared tuk-tuks cost 30,000-50,000 kip, with solo rides running about 150,000 kip.

If spelunking is more your speed, then head over to the Pak Ou Caves.  Make the journey via canoe and with a guide, which will take approximately an hour and a half.  Climb the stairs at the water’s edge, and enter the lower cave, which contains hundreds of small Buddha idols.  The upper cave requires a head lamp, as it is deeper.  On the way back, be sure to stop at a local Lao village to sample some of the laolao whiskey, made on site, everyday!

Baguettes in outdoor market at Luang Prabang by CC user esme on Flickr

Food And Drink

With a long standing tradition of French cooking skill in this city, you won’t have to look hard to find an excellent meal in this town.  As such, baguettes, crepes, pancakes, and street stall sandwiches with freshly baked bread are not in short supply here.  More traditional Lao food can also be found, especially at the night market.  Avoid the buffet tables, which contain bland food and sit out all evening without being rotated, causing hygiene problems if you arrive late.  Instead, have the buffalo sausage, grilled fish and chicken legs that are cooked for you on the spot.  Finally, Luang Prabang has its own version of Khao Soi, but its very different from the kind you eat in Chiang Mai.  Instead of being sweet and coconutty with crunchy noodles, it has white noodles with minced pork, watercress, green beans, morning glory and so on.

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