Little did I know about the hidden gem that is Luang Prabang, but only as my landing point in Laos. Though, it started speaking to me as soon as our flight started landing. The unmatched greenery surrounded a quaint township, I didn’t expect so much atmosphere… Once headed for the hotel, I realized, this wasn’t a run of the mill Asian township. People call it LPPDR, which basically means – Luang Prabang Please Dont Rush. So I quickly decided to surrender half of my trip into Laos, to Luang Prabang itself. Here are the absolute Luang Prabang Highlights 2018.
Free things to do in Luang Prabang
Town of Luang Prabang UNESCO world heritage
It is not difficult to see why UNESCO announced Luang Prabang to be of Outstanding Universal Value, it’s a UNESO world heritage site. The place is dreamy… an evolved piece of art, through the years. An interesting mix of French and Lao architecture and culture, it is a never-ending love affair – and you invariably get caught in its charm.
Although, one can also hire a bicycle for a meagre 10000 kips for a full 24 hours, I decided to take a walk. Because every nook and corner were so interesting, walking made more sense than stopping every two steps. Also, the area is not huge by any measure, you can get by the old town in 3 hours walking leisurely.
Start by enjoying fresh Croissant and Coffee at the morning market (supply is limited, so get there in time). Appreciate the beautiful architecture all around, flaunt your French if you know some because the locals do. Get back to that European Villa you are staying in for a Siesta. With exquisite French meals abound, your evenings also are well taken care of.
A climb up Mount Phousi
You may think of it just as a holy trail initially, but once at the top, you shall miss a breath. The views of the town of Luang Prabang by the banks of Nam Kha River are spectacular from Mount Phousi! Beautiful cloud formations over the valley, surrounded by lush green mountains, engulfed in mist!
Be mindful of others, as space is quite limited at the view-points and so people shall queue up.
Once you are done imbibing the views of what looks like a European Shangri La, pay homage to the small but peaceful Buddha temple on the top. With the serenity of the views inside you, the homage shall feel very serene too.
Tak Bat, Alms giving ceremony Luang Prabang
One of the most controversial ‘tourist’ activity of Luang Prabang, Tak Bat is something everybody wants to witness. Simply because how many experiences retain such originality of culture that can be seen in the alms giving ceremony or ‘Tak Bat’.
However, as is the way of travel and tourism – we kill our own. With huge number of travelers trying to witness the event and participate in it, there have been talks around to stop it. Not because the people don’t want travelers to be a part, but because travelers surpass all the rules in their enthusiasm.
So much so that you can see boards all around Luang Prabang telling people how to behave during the alms giving ceremony. Anyway, lucky for us that it hasn’t been discontinued till now.
If wanting to participate, be in front of Wat Sene (Sakkaline Road) sharp at 5 in the morning and settle. Alms giving starts at 0530. This the most famous spot because of it being most photogenic being in the old quarter. However, alms giving goes on around the city and locals shall direct you to the closest spot. Monks from 38 temples around the city come to take alms, all barefoot. They eat anything, so you can offer as you like.
The alms givers are local women and men and tourists can participate too. Although the locals prepare alms with their own hands, tourists can buy from sellers who set up stalls specially for alms giving in the morning. Also locals sit on the ground, but there are stools setup for tourists as westerners may have problem squatting.
Women have to sit down, men can stand or sit down. No eye contact by women while or after giving alms.
Night Bazaar Luang Prabang and Utopia café and lounge
Yes, I mention them both together, because you shall get in free but would end up spending some for sure 😊 Both are totally worth it though.
Utopia for its tastefully done set up, lush views and absolutely relaxing atmosphere. It is contagious! I had plans to work on my blog once there, but once I got on that lounge mattress, I lost myself. So only plan to soak in the sun if you will and sip on the drink of your choice. Ideal spot to be in, after an early check out, waiting for your evening transport.
Night Bazaar in Luang Prabang starts from in front of Wat Mai (short for Wat May Suwannaphumaham) and runs till the center of the town. It starts off with a night market food district set up in a lane by the side of Indigo House Café, and also ends into numerous restaurant options – so make your choice.
The timings of the market are from 1700 hours to 2300 hours. You shall find a lot of interesting trinkets here, made and sold by hill tribe people. The most special for me were the ‘Horn Combs’ and mobile stands that doubled up as woofers!
Things not to miss in Luang Prabang
Garavek Storytelling theatre – folktales, legends and myths
Although the city of Luang Prabang had me mesmerized with its French-Lao character, I was missing something. Since I was in Laos, I would have liked to see somethings originally Loa. Longing for an authentic tribal experience after few days into Luang Prabang, I talked to as many travel agencies and local people as I could.
To no avail of course, even google couldn’t churn out anything worthwhile this time. Basically, any hill tribes remaining around Luang Prabang have all modernized – at least to the extent of their clothing and daily living.
And because of Laos being the last left frontier of South East Asia, it is still quite virgin (comparatively, from the rest of South East Asia). Therefore, not much is developed in terms of experiences that can take you into the hinterlands of Lao culture and living.
The only thing that went most close to it, was the Garavek storytelling theatre experience. The theatre is set up by a Scottish gentleman who certainly loves everything Lao, and hence is trying to preserve a piece of its tradition.
It was a very intimate theatre experience, in a small hall with only two artists – the storyteller and the musician – both of them Lao. The musician is in his 70s, but all pepped up – high on life, playing ‘Khene’ a bamboo mouth organ. The storyteller is a local Lao, spreading stories of his culture proudly amongst keen travelers.
It is here that I learnt about why Mount Phousi is called so, in the most entertaining of stories. What those two big rocks by the banks of Nam Kha depicts in a local folk tale. And this was the only place where even though only for few moments, I felt that I had finally been introduced the real Laos.
Both the photos of Garavek are courtsey Tripadvisor.
Royal Palace and Museum Luang Prabang
Another piece of curated Laos, in the midst of all the French buzz. Its interesting to go through the Museum as it takes you through some stories, facts and artifacts of the bygone era.
What shaped up Luang Prabang and Laos broadly. You also get up and close to the cultural heritage of Laos here – their ancient crafts, artistic fare and royal heritage.
The complex also houses ‘Haw Pha Bang’ – the temple of the Prabang Buddha, that gives this town its name. The complex is not be missed for sure.
Kuang Si waterfall Luang Prabang
This one is a catch! So I could have easily put it into another category – made only for this one – called ‘Things that you cannot miss in Luang Prabang’. For anyone who has been to Luang Prabang, the only question they are asked innumerably is ‘waterfall?’.
From the local tuk tuk guys to the tour operators, the offerings are very limited (as I said, because of Laos still opening up for tourism). Kuang si is the topmost offering all around, and absolutely worth it!
You can take organized tours that include Pak Ou caves, whiskey village etc. (see the next section of what not to do in Luang Prabang) for USD 30. However, a local Tuk Tuk can take as less as 35000 kips to drop you to the Kuangi Si. You can also hire a bike saving yourself from any kind of trouble and making sure you can have transport both way.
Go upto the highest level of the waterfall, which is from where it starts. You can enjoy swimming at different levels then, coming down to the exit. Changing rooms are there but without showers and not well lit. No other amenities like towels or anything provided, so take your own.
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center
Most of my ‘Not to Miss’ has a lot to do with the ethnic culture. Because there are very limited possibilities for you to encounter it here, so do not let go of any chance that you get.
The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center or TAEC as its called, was one such treasure. It shall give you all that knowledge that you want to have about the Hmongs and the Theungs and the Khmus. Basically the hill tribes of Laos, which is the real Laos – find a place of introduction here – in pictures and artifacts.
There are only two major sections to this museum and one entire section is dedicated to a wild seed. I was wondering why! But by the time I got to the end of the section, I had tears in my eyes! Job’s tears! Don’t ask questions, just go!
BONUS – What is not worth doing in Luang Prabang
Whiskey village and Pak Ou Caves
A very short note on this one, but a very important one. I made the mistake of taking a packaged tour to the Pak Ou caves, whisky village with lunch and Kuang Si waterfall. In my attempt to forget the bitter experience at the biggest floating markets in Thailand, where I dare to venture on my own, only to be ripped off.
I decided to take a packaged tour this time, to save some energy and frustration, as language gap can impede your adventure sometime.
They took us first to the ‘Whiskey village’, which sounded like an interesting offering. However, turns out there was nothing special about it. You can find bottles of whiskey with snakes, scorpions and anything else that you can imagine all over Laos – you don’t need to go to whiskey village for it.
Pak Ou caves, must have been a revered site of discovery and probably still is – there is nothing much to please your eyes or soul here. I did take some pictures here, that made me realize the ethical duties of a photographer. How not to project a place as beautiful when its not, because I totally could with those photographs!
The only worthwhile thing about the whole trip to Pak Ou caves was the long tail boat ride on the mighty Mekong River. The views were splendid and arresting. But you can take that boat ride anyway from the pier, not necessarily to Pak Ou caves or whiskey village.
Save your cave craving for Thakhek in Laos. Read Travelfish for an honest and expert guide.