Luang Prabang will steal your heart.
It happened to me when I visited for the first time in 2014 and I guarantee that this alluring place will win you over, if not with its glittering temples then with its delicious street food, unusual night life and unique French flavour. So steal yourself, here are ten reasons why you’ll fall for Luang Prabang’s charms and never look back.
1. It’s romantic French colonial architecture tells a tale
This UNESCO town in northern Laos is perched at the point where the Mekong meets the Nam Khan River, which seems symbolic, as it’s where French colonial and traditional Laotian culture flows into one. You could be walking down the road, admiring one of the many fine wats that line your way, with their pointed roofs and ornamented porches, only to turn the corner and find yourself in front of a row of typical French farmhouses and shop fronts. By the time the French got round to building in Laos in the early twentieth century they’d largely ran out of money, which is why you won’t see the same grand colonial mansions here that you might in Vietnam (another ex-colony of France). What they did manage to leave behind is the impressive Royal Palace (see point 5) and rows of quaint, two-story villas, with tiled roofs and pretty shuttered windows, many of which replaced the town’s traditional bamboo huts. Whilst there’s not an official walking tour, wandering Luang Prabang keep an eye out for these chocolate-box houses, romantic living artifacts of the country’s colourful colonial past.
2. Their waterfalls are pretty epic, just look at Kwang Si
Do I really need to say more? Except climb to the top. It’s worth it because you won’t have to share your pool with anyone else.
3. Spend the day weaving on the banks of the Mekong at Ock Pop Tok
In 2014 this traditional weaving centre was pretty off the beaten track – no one in my hostel had really heard about it, which was strange seeing as they were all disciples of the Bible, Lonely Planet. Since then however, friends and fellow travellers have told me that it’s really taken off as a cultural arts centre; you can stay there now, and they have a weekly moonlight cinema screening (Thursdays 7pm). Their location is idyllic, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from Ban Saylom – they’ll pick you up and drop you off from one of their stores in town if you’re attending a workshop. Located on the banks of the Mekong, its peaceful setting makes it the perfect place to learn something new, take some time out and to relax. You’ll get the chance to make your very own silk place-mat, or try your hand at bamboo weaving, and the ladies are so patient with you, no matter how many times you tangle up their intricately laid out loom. Lunch is included, and at the end of the day you get to take home a unique souvenir, as well as a bit more insight into Lao culture. Choose from half day to three day workshops, ranging from $30 to $200 per person.
4. From night markets to Parisian bakeries, the food is delicious
Architecture’s not the only thing to take on a French twist in Luang Prabang: the food also shows more than a hint of French flare. Le Banneton (Th Sakkarin, 6.30am-6pm) is has hands-down the flakiest, butteriest croissants in this timezone. On a quiet street on the peninsula, get there early to watch the city stir from its slumber over a cup of Fair-trade coffee and a melt-in-your-mouth pastry. Another more ‘western’ option, if you’re hankering after a Starbucks then try Lao’s answer, JoMa Bakery. Here you’ll find familiar tasting mocha-chocca frappes and bagels brimming with cream cheese. It’s also a good choice if you want to sink into a comfy armchair and enjoy some free WiFi. When you’re feeling more adventurous then give the night markets a go. At about 6pm every night, food stalls start to emerge on small side streets, setting up rows of benches and makeshift kitchens and turning out a mind-boggling array of dishes. Try Loatian curries, traditional larb (usually mince pork, but can be chicken, and fresh herbs like mint) fresh, tangy green papaya salad, or feast on a whole roast fish, and of course accompany it all with sticky rice, all for less than £10!
5. It’s home to one of Laos’s most important museums, the Royal Palace
This incredible example of French-Lao architecture, the Royal Palace is one of the county’s most important museums, originally built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong, who ruled Lao for over half of the twentieth century. Wander through the former King’s great halls, see where he slept, admire his car collection, or stroll east through the complex to take a peek at the Pha Bang, an 83cm tall Buddha statue after which Luang Prabang, the former Lao capital, is named. Entrance to the palace costs 30,000K (about £2.50) shoes aren’t allowed inside and it’s closed on Tuesdays, and for lunch between 11:30am and 1:30pm.
6. There’s a swimming pool with a happy hour where you escape the heat
Being landlocked, you won’t find many beaches in Laos, and I wouldn’t advise trying to sunbathe on the banks of the Mekong, so when the heat gets too much head to La Pistoche, a short tuk tuk ride from the centre of Luang Prabang in the village of Ban Pong Pheng. For 30,000K you’ll get all-day access to both of their swimming pools, sunbeds, WiFi and plenty of Pentanque (a bit like boules). So swim up to the bar and order yourself a happy hour frozen daiquiri – every day from 12pm to 7pm – relax, top up that tan and forget about having to lug your backpack onto another night bus, you’re staying in Luang Prabang for at least another night!
7. You’ll be charmed by the children at Big Brother Mouse English school
There’s no better education about a place then speaking with the locals who live there. Big Brother Mouse is the perfect place to meet some of Luang Prabang’s residents, hear about their lives, where they work, what their families are like, and also to give something back by helping them learn English. It sounds corny, but the school are always keen to welcome visitors who can volunteer their time to help these children and young adults improve their English levels. What you get in return are some shocking insights on living in Laos: a few of the kids were orphans, or had older siblings who were living away from home in order to send back money and support them. A few of my conversations here also brought home the devastating impact the ‘Secret War’ in Laos has had, and continues to have to this day, with UXOs (unexploded ordinances) maiming and even killing some of the parents of the poor children I spoke with. Big Brother Mouse (in Wat Nong) runs drop-in sessions every day from 9am-11am and 5pm-7pm and there’s no need to bring anything. It’ll cost you nothing, but you’ll be rewarded with a deeper understanding of Laotian life, and you’ll leave inspired by their love of life and enduring hope.
8. You’ll while away the hours with tea and books at L’Etranger
Once a fully-stocked swap-shop bookstore, the shelves of L’Etranger are now largely empty, but bring your own reading material and settle into a comfy chair on the veranda with a creamy chai latte and you’ll barely notice day turn to dusk. However, the best thing about this bookstore is not the stories between pages but those on the big screen – every night at 7pm there’s a free movie screening. They publish the week’s schedule on their Facebook page, but if it’s quiet and you fancy something else they might just let you choose. Fancy dinner and a movie? L’Etranger (Phous Road) has this covered, serving decent green Thai curries.
9. Wat Xieng Thong and its intricate Tree of Life mosaic is worth the trip alone
It’s easy to get temple fatigue in Southeast Asia, but Wat Xieng Thong monastery is more than just your typical Buddha statues and bling – although it is home to a rare reclining Buddha. With their sweeping ceilings, the stupa and chapel halls which clutter this complex are stunning – there are over 20 structures in total and the whole thing took over 400 years to build. But what will stick in your mind the most are the beautiful glass mosaics, the biggest of which depicts the tree of life (pictured below). Entrance is 20,000K and the temples are open every day 8am to 5pm.
10. A night out always end up at the bowling alley
Luang Prabang has strict curfew laws and you’ll find most places enforce them – bars start shutting down at 11pm and most hostels will close exterior gates by around 11:30pm. So where do you go once the bars are shut but you’re not quite ready to give up the party? The bowling alley of course! Tenpin is one of only two options if you’re looking to party ’til dawn – the other is a nightclub on the outskirts of town frequented mainly by locals – and it’s some fun! Not quite the same as it was when you were nine, this alley serves Beerlao and whisky until the wee hours and don’t worry about getting there, every tuk tuk driver knows where to go!
So you see, Luang Prabang has plenty of charms to keep you there well beyond the wats and the night market, should you dare to resist! I’ve got more tips for travelling in Laos right this way.