There are a number of quick and direct ways to Luang prabang, we ignored them all!. For us, the 2 day / one night slow boat from Chaing Kong in the north of Thailand, down the long and winding (and shallow in places) Mekong river to Luang Prabang, seemed like the best way to get there. The slow boat is relaxing and allows you to recharge your batteries in anticipation of visiting another Unesco World heritage town. Fortunately, we got good weather for our trip – not too hot, nor to cold!
On arrival, your decision to travel to Luang Prabang is vindicated when you see the rows of pretty, flower covered colonial buildings sitting snugly on the tree lined streets. It’s a gorgeous little place with lots of cheap, mid priced and high end eateries (at affordable prices), good hotels, bars and a lovely night market. There are plenty of tourists but not so many to make it feel busy and saturated. The food is cheap and the local beer (Beerlao) works out at £1 for a large bottle. Whilst there are a few, it’s noticeable that the hordes of Chinese and Russian tourists that we saw in Thailand have yet to discover Luang Prabang. This will change in the next few years once the reported railway line from China is completed. So here we are, enjoying this lovely little town which you can walk (or cycle) around very easily (it’s built on a grid system) without getting too lost.
There are lots of restaurants to choose from, each serving up local, speciality or European dishes. Eating out is cheap and if you head to the stalls at the night market, then you can fill up your plate with as much food as you can possibly pile high in one go for a dollar (a big Beerlao is a dollar too). The food quality varies hugely at the stalls, so take your time, and pick the one which has the kind of food which you are wanting to eat (some have lots of noodle / rice dishes and others have lots of salad / vegetable dishes).
There is lots to see in Luang Prabang and we filled our days by visiting the many temples. Wat Xieng is reported to be the best temple in Laos and we spent half and hour there. It was built in 1560 and is undergoing some renovation at the moment. To be fair, if this is the best, then I’d hate to see the worst (maybe we are just a bit spoilt after seeing the ‘White Temple’ in Chaing Rai). There is a temple on top of the hill which is in the middle of Luang Prabang (Phu Si) and you can get great views of the town, mekong river and surrounding area from here. Its steep climb but only takes 10 minutes. A couple of the guys we met had the foresight to climb it at sunset with a couple of beers to watch the sun go down!
Looking for a ‘shabby chic’ bar to sit and relax, we found Utopia which is on the river. It’s a great bar where they have day beds under a large terrace where you can chill out, chat or sleep off the previous nights excesses. Alternatively, you can tune into the relaxing music and watch the picture perfect landscape and river below.
For those that are able to get up early, the famous morning Luang Prabang monk procession is a ‘must see’ event. Each day, the monks walk the streets collecting their ‘Alms’ (gifts of food – rice). Buddhist monks are not allowed to cook food and only have one meal a day between sunrise and noon. To see them all walking the streets in single file with their saffron robes is a great sight. You can take pictures of them, just keep your distance and don’t do anything disrespectful. Local women will kneel so as not to be taller than them as they pass by.
The Royal Palace is also worth a visit as it’s pretty – the only think that we didn’t like was the way you can’t take pictures inside it (not that there are hundreds of images on google showing the inside so clearly people do). Going further afield, the Kuang Si Waterfalls are a gorgeous. 32km out of town, your minivan or tuk tuk will take about 40 minutes to get there (we paid 50,000 kip each for the return trip in a shared aircon van). Entering the park you need to pay another 20,000 kip each and then you can usually spend up to 2 hours exploring the waterfalls, swimming in the clear blue pools or have a picnic lunch by them. We walked all the way to the top which is a fairly steep climb and one which is better suited to trainers rather than flip flops. Disappointingly, the view at the top isn’t so great as rightly so, it’s barricaded off for safety reasons.
The waterfalls were not as busy as we thought and we put this down to a steady stream of people arriving and leaving throughout the day. At the base of the waterfalls, they have a bear sanctuary where they look after bears which they have rescued from mistreatment. The bears look happy enough and they appear to like lying on their hammocks all day long in the shade waiting for feeding time.
We stayed at 2 different hotels in Luang Prabang – the first was My Dream Boutique which was close to town just over the bamboo bridge, had a pool and was calm and scerene. The other was the Vangsavath which was a few km out of town and had the best service we’ve encountered for a long time. Whilst out of town, they put on free shuttle buses to and from town ever hour at night so you were never stuck. We liked being out of town as we were more absorbed in the local community and we could observe the daily coming and goings of the locals.
In total, we spend 4 nights days in Luang Prabang and we were really happy that we made the effort to go there. A lot of people, take the bus down to Vientiane afterwards and then onto Bangkok and over to Siem Reap but as we were short of time, we chose to take the direct route and bought a flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap. It was a bit more expensive but as our time was limited, we thought it was definitely worth it.