Luang Prabang, Nestled Safely Alongside the Mighty MekongNestled alongside the mighty Mekong River, Luang Prabang started off as a town of unknown quantities. I had heard great things but wasn’t to sure what to expect. We arrived close to the centre; down one of the most beautiful lanes I have seen since travelling. Impeccably clean, patterned concrete paving, and lined with guesthouses surrounded by trees; it was a perfect welcome to the town.
Luang Prabang was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, celebrating it’s 20th year while we were in town. The architecture has been preserved beautifully and new developments are required to follow traditional designs. Add a bit of a French colonial influence and the centre of town has quite a romantic feel to it. It seems obvious the town was the nations capital, however, it is surprising it moved to Vientiane in 1545 (I would have picked the move was more recent).
Worth mentioning was the brutal drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. We opted for the mini-van, a much quicker and cheaper option than the bus. When the driver arrived, the van was jam-packed full with only three seats left, two (much) smaller fold down seats, and six people booked to travel. Long story short, we were shoved in the back in two makeshift fold down seats with the luggage of 14 people lashed in besides us. There wasn’t enough room for our shoulders to fit side-by-side, meaning one person had to be on an angle. Neither of us could fit our legs in straight either. You would not want to be sitting next to a stranger! The drivers all seem to have side jobs they run whilst driving the mini-van, this particular one had a stash of about 15 cases of Heineken which he dropped off after an hour or so, giving a wee bit more space. The drive itself took us through some breath-taking scenery, monstrous limestone mountains soaring above the clouds, it would be incredible to take the time and drive in a private car or motorbike to truly enjoy the spectacle.
ACCOMMODATIONAfter noticing in Vang Vieng there are plenty of guesthouses, most of which you can’t find online, we opted to take the risk and rock up to Luang Prabang without somewhere booked. We were in luck, managing to score two awesome guesthouses along Th Hoxieng, the lane mentioned earlier. The first, Ho Xieng Guest House, was lovely. The most enjoyable part was the family who run the guesthouse. The grandmother, who seems to understand English, was always wandering around engaging with us in Laotian. We couldn’t understand a word she was saying but it was really lovely to be somewhat involved with the family. We moved up the road to T. T. First Guest House for a further two nights. Again, a clean, well-presented comfortable guesthouse. The only downside was terrible WiFi in both places but this seems to be pretty consistent throughout Laos.
FOODWe found the food was a bit more pricey than Vientiane and Vang Vieng, but with a bit of patience and searching we were able to find some beautiful restaurants well within our budget. Along the river there were a couple of restaurants set on sketchy balconies hovering out over the river bank overlooking the Mekong. Very peaceful and relaxing, we ate at a couple of different places and really enjoyed it.
A very exciting find was a food alley running perpendicular to the night markets. A bustling market place for good reason, there were multiple stalls set up with some of the most impressive buffets (all vegetarian) I have seen. At 15,000K ($2.50 AUD) for a bowl and no limit on the amount of food, we returned three nights in a row!
After severely overeating the first night, we both managed to scale it back a bit to a more reasonable and enjoyable amount of food. There are BBQ stalls with grilled meats and fish on offer to satisfy the protein cravings too. The meat is cooked slowly over hot coals with a delicious marinade and always seems to be cooked to perfection.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONSWe had a full 36hours of absolute torrential rain when we arrived which gave us a good opportunity to relax and enjoy the café scene. French pastries and cakes are in abundance (but a bit pricey) and the coffee was incredible. Most enticing are the many cascading waterfalls in the region.
Kuang Si WaterfallThese incredible cascading waterfalls are located about 35km south of Luang Prabang and are a marvel well worth the trip. We hired a scooter and left Luang Prabang early to beat the crowds (and their selfie sticks).
As we started up the path, we wandered through the Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, home to mostly Asiatic Black Bears (Moon Bears) who have been saved from poachers. These poachers keep the bears incarcerated in tiny cages (so small the bears can barely turn around) for their bile, which is used in some traditional medications. Once the bears stop producing bile, which is after around 10 years, they are killed. The rescue centre opened in 2003 to house bears saved from poachers. A network of viewing platforms allows visitors to watch the bears as they lounge around their enclosures. They are pretty incredible creatures and have beautiful black manes, similar to a lions.
After watching the bears frolicking, we continued further up the path to one of the most amazing natural wonders I have ever seen. The series of limestone pools have a deep turquoise colour making the falls nearly incomparable to others I’ve been to. After spending a long time admiring the many tiers, we headed further upstream to check out the impressive main falls, which are quite the contrast. It’s a thunderous affair, with what seems to be thousands of litres of water tumbling graciously down a tall cliff.
An extremely steep, slippery climb up alongside the waterfall took us to the pool at the top, a relatively relaxing spot considering the sheer size of the waterfall below. With views across the countryside, it’s well worth the climb!
Tad Sae WaterfallWhat seems to be the less famous, younger sibling, Tad Sae lies on the opposite edge of town to Kuang Si. After a short jaunt across a river in a longboat, we arrived at the entrance. From what I have read, these falls are more popular with locals and for good reason. Yet another set of multi-tiered cascading pools, the Tad Sae is arguably more impressive than Kuang Si.
Slightly more developed, there are a few platforms around the lower pools and an adventure tourism office offering zip lining and elephant rides. We wandered further upstream to discover the untouched and less populated pools. Another awesome afternoon chasing waterfalls.
Pak Ou CavesThese two limestone caves are located 25km from Luang Prabang. The best part was the cruise up the Mekong on a longboat to get there.
Along the way we stopped at a small river village full of ladies hand weaving silk scarves on huge ancient wooden looms. One lady was kind enough to explain the way the loom works, showing me the different components of the loom. There is one part that is interchangeable and gives the scarves different patterns. It’s quite fascinating to watch. The tiny village also had ‘whiskey’ tastings, a 50% rice alcohol. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we decided 10am was a wee bit early for a taste.
After a couple of hours we arrived at the mouth of the caves. Crammed full of hundreds of Buddha statues, these short caves are a common pilgrim site for those wanting to pay respect to the river spirit and Buddha. The caves weren’t quite as exciting as I had hoped, but it was quite cool to cruise along the river for a few hours.
Royal Palace MuseumThis impressive museum was formerly the Royal Palace, built in 1904 as the main residence for King Sisvangvong. The royal family was evicted in 1975 when the communists came to power. In 1995 the Palace was carefully converted into a museum. The bedrooms have been preserved, kept intact to give insight into the royal lifestyle. The Kings reception room is full of murals depicting everyday Lao lifestyle. Most fascinating was the throne hall. The walls are covered, floor to ceiling, of mirrored mosaic pictures bringing the walls to life in illustration. It is quite fascinating and a good way to gain some insight into the Royal lifestyle.
Inside the royal grounds also lies Wat Ho Pha Bang (Royal Temple). It was built to host Pha Bang Buddha, one of the most sacred Buddha images in Laos. While building started in 1963, when the communists came to power all building ceased. Construction resumed in the 1990’s and the temple was completed in 2006.
Mount PhousiOn our first night in Luang Prabang we spied the illuminated golden stupa, That Chomsi, from the markets below. Hovering around 100m above the town, it is the perfect place to watch the sunset. A few afternoons later we braved the masses and claimed our perch to watch the sunset. Much to the frustration of some others, we arrived early enough to claim the best seats, perched on a craggy ledge high above Luang Prabang. It is an amazing setting, the Mekong meanders off into the distant mountains with the setting sun basking the town in a golden glow.
Alms Giving CeremonyThis traditionally sacred Lao ceremony is observed daily at dawn. Alms giving allows the Buddhist monks to make merit and obtain the food for their one daily meal. There are around 200 monks who walk the length of the township daily. Prior to travelling to Luang Prabang I hadn’t heard of the daily ritual. Unfortunately, this traditional ceremony seems to have been destroyed by tourism. We were a bit wary of this after chatting to another travelling couple that mentioned they had heard the monks no longer want to continue the ceremony due to the poor behaviour of the tourists.
There is a certain etiquette that should be observed when encountering a monk; such as, women should always keep their heads lower than the monks and you should avoid taking photos. Added to this is the etiquette for the Alms giving, which includes kneeling on the ground and not speaking or engaging with the monks. We arrived much too early for the ceremony but early enough to take in the full spectacle. Hoards of tourists arrived in waves of mini-vans and collected their pre-packed baskets of packaged goods. About every hundred metres a local had big woven bins (empty) and large woven containers of sticky rice and other home cooked goods. There was an odd feel to the whole set-up, I felt particularly uncomfortable so we opted to lurk quietly on the other side of the road.
When the monks arrived I was appalled to see the pseudo-paparazzi assaulting the monks with a multitude of camera flashes. We sunk further into the shadows as people stood to greet the monks, attempting to make eye contact. Most fascinatingly, the bins set up with locals were there to allow the monks to dump the packaged goods in favour for the traditional home-cooked food. I wonder if the food is re-packed into baskets to be used again the following day. I really was in awe of the whole procedure, but for all the wrong reasons.
PEOPLE & CULTUREI found Luang Prabang a town rich with culture and tradition. Some of these traditions like so many throughout Southeast Asia seem to be evolving with the increasing tourism. I am thoroughly enjoying the different culture and learning more about Buddhism as we travel through Laos. It can be difficult as a tourist to be involved and learn about the culture without imposing. It’s really hard to know where to draw the line.
We were lucky to see a traditional Alms Giving by coincidence when we were returning from the hot air ballooning in Vang Vieng. An elderly lady was stationed outside her home with huge baskets of sticky rice. I watched in awe as she struggled with heavily arthritic hands to give the monks a portion of rice each. Following this, the monks sang to her. Sitting in a tuk tuk and observing from afar, this gave a far greater insight to how Alms Giving was traditionally conducted.
Luang Prabang has a huge monk population and the presence is quite noticeable. We noticed monks throughout town, often partaking in manual jobs, building houses, gardening and maintaining temple grounds. While the monk population in Luang Prabang generally sits at around 200, I didn’t realise the monks live quite a nomadic lifestyle, often travelling throughout the country. The only time they are required to stay in the same place is when they meditate for three months for Buddhist Lent. This runs over three lunar months from July to September and the monks strictly practise their meditation in this time. The dedication is inspiring.