Leafy green and surrounded by water, Luang Prabang in northern Laos mixes aging French Colonial architecture and resplendent Buddhist temples with a laidback atmosphere that begs you to linger. And that is exactly what we did, for nine straight days. During that time we discovered some of the ins and outs of this UNESCO World Heritage designated city and compiled them into a short list of things to do and not do when in Luang Prabang .
Do shop the night market
Taking place every night on the northern end of Luang Prabang’s main street, the night market is hard to miss. And that’s a good thing too because it is by far the best market we’ve seen thus far anywhere in Asia. The kind and quality of merchandise on display – everything from brightly dyed silks to snakes and scorpions marinating in wine the strength of whiskey – was like nothing we’d encountered before.
Normally shopping and living out of backpacks don’t mix, but that didn’t stop Shannon from finding a perfect handbag replacement for the aging and bulky one she previously carried. Slimmed down and stylish, her new bag set her back about $6 USD.
Don’t bother climbing Phu Si Hill
Aside from its awesome name, Phu Si (pronounced “pussy”) and high ranking on every other list of “Things to Do” in Luang Prabang, it is undeniably the most annoying place we visited in a long while. It was also the most unnecessary.
Recommended as the perfect perch for watching lazy sunsets over hazy Laotian mountain vistas, it’s really anything but. The first problem with Phu Si is that after paying a 20,0000 Kip admission fee ($2.50 USD) and climbing the 300+ steps to get to the top of the hill you realize that there is only one spot that offers unobstructed sunset views. And that spot is only large enough to fit about three people standing shoulder to shoulder.
The second problem with Phu Si is that waaaay more than three people make the sunset climb. In fact, it seemed as if they bussed in extra people just to stand on the hill because the mobs we found at the top of Phu Si were nothing at all like the relatively empty streets and solitary cafes of the city below.
Do savor sunsets over the Mekong
There are so many pretty cafes and restaurants along the banks of the Mekong boasting sunset views that there really is no reason to make a special trip, or pay an admission fee, to see the same thing atop Phu Si Hill. We chose a different cafe every night where we sipped smoothies and watched the sun go down in comfort and blessed solitude.
Don’t order the smoothies
We were off alcohol during most of our stay in Luang Prabang for reasons we explained in an earlier post. So rather than enjoying an icy beer during our nightly sunset viewing, we sampled the town’s smoothies instead.
Each night we’d go to a different place, and at each place we’d try a different smoothie or shake. On our first outing I ordered a mango smoothie and awaited its arrival with high expectations. Locally grown mangoes are so sweetly delicious I figured they had to make one helluva drink. What I got instead was a slightly sweet, vaguely mangoey shake with a strong aftertaste of corn flakes. Our smoothie experiments only went downhill from there.
Don’t miss Kuang Si Falls
We’ve seen so many waterfalls on our travels that we almost skipped Kuang Si. We were feeling lazy enough that we almost let the hour-long ride out to the falls deter us from going. We’re glad we mustered the energy to rip ourselves away from our coffees long enough to make the journey.
What makes Kuang Si so wonderful is that it isn’t just one waterfall but dozens. Walking upstream you encounter an entire complex of falls, each more impressive than the last.
At first there are just a few small cascades. Those give way to amazing rice-paddy-like tiers of tumbling water that feed placid pools of pure turquoise. Eventually you reach an area with larger falls, bigger pools, and even a café. You’re sure this is the Grand Finale, and you’d be completely satisfied if it were. But it’s not.
A few more steps upstream, a monster awaits.
Do visit the falls in the morning
Unless you plan on swimming in the admittedly inviting pools of Kuang Si Falls with all the other people who arrive with the afternoon sun, you’ll find mornings to be the most peaceful time. We got there early enough that the slightly chilled air kept the swimmers away and out of our photos.
Even after spending a couple of hours walking the trails and enjoying a coffee at the café, the crowds had just begun to arrive while we were saying our goodbyes. Soon the once peaceful pools would fill with people. We were happy to leave them to it.
Don’t forget the bears
Free The Bears operates a sanctuary located at the beginning of the trail leading to Kuang Si Falls. The park houses 23 Asiatic Black (“Moon”) Bears, most of whom were rescued from the traditional medicine trade where they’d have been caged and painfully drained of their bile.
The sanctuary gets no support from the admission fees visitors pay to access Kuang Si Falls so make sure to donate to Free the Bears as you pass through the sanctuary.
Do take a long tail boat ride on the Mekong
It’s hard to appreciate a river town without getting out on the river. And if you haven’t yet folded yourself into the tiny wooden seats of a narrow long tail boat, well, that’s an experience worth having all on its own.
We took our ride out to Pak Ou Cave. Commonly known as the Buddha Cave, Pak Ou has served for centuries as a repository for old, damaged, and obsolete Buddha statues. It isn’t much to see, but if you’re in the right mood it does have a kind of sweetly sad “Island of Misfit Toys” feel.
Don’t mess with the Paederus beetle
Seriously, just don’t.
Do eat noodles for breakfast (and other unfamiliar things)
Laotian cuisine is quite a bit different from that of it’s well known neighbors to the east and west. Whereas Thai curries have made significant inroads outside of Thailand and Vietnamese pho is starting to do the same, Lao food is relatively unknown outside the country. And that creates an opportunity for travelers to discover something new.
Don’t ignore familiar foods
Particularly the pizza at Phan Luang. It’s terrific.
We’re not proponents of always following traditional travel wisdom, even when we espouse it ourselves (like above). Usually there’s a grain of truth to it. But like all things, even sage travel advice is best used with moderation. And the admonishment to eat local food is no exception.
Don’t let the travel snobs and purists deter you. Great food isn’t necessarily limited to local fare. It’s not like New Yorkers subsist on a diet of nothing but Nathans hot dogs and Rays Famous slices. We eat pasta and burritos and curries and falafel as well as burgers and deli sandwiches and sometimes even salad. The world is a smorgasbord. Eat it up.
And if you have a hankering for pizza while in Luang Prabang you’ll want to find Phan Luang, which is a bit of an adventure all on its own. To get there cross the Nam Khan using the southernmost bamboo bridge, head straight until you see a large white pizza sign, turn left down the alley that leads behind the Emerson Language School and, if you’ve followed this little treasure map correctly, you’ll find Phan Luang’s wood-fired oven, and great pizzas, waiting for you.
Do get Zen
Rouse yourself for early morning yoga at Utopia, where down dogs are done on a wooden platform overlooking the Nam Kahn river. We suggest scouting out the place the day before. It’s tucked away at a dead end on winding side streets, not easy to find but worth the effort to get Zen in such a spectacular setting. $5 USD for a one-hour class, view included.
Don’t pester the monks during alms
Not everything is a tourist attraction. Solemn religious ceremonies need to be viewed with discreet respect, if they’re to be viewed at all.
If it were up to me, I’d strip every mention of tak bat from every guidebook and travel site in the universe because clearly some travelers can’t handle the responsibility. The appalling behavior we witnessed of tourists jamming their cameras in monks’ faces, blinding them with flash, getting in the way of the alms procession, and generally making asses of themselves made me feel ashamed to even be present.
Our advice is to skip alms. And judging from the dirty looks we received from local alms-givers while we stood quietly along the side of the road awaiting the monks, we’re guessing that is their recommendation too.
Do see some temples
There are 33 Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang, more than enough to satisfy your cultural cravings.
Do stay awhile
It seems as if many people blaze through Luang Prabang on the way to somewhere else. It’s a small city, and it’s easy to understand why folks may mistakenly believe they can “do” Luang Prabang in just a few days. There aren’t many big attractions in the city, but settling in to the low-key vibe of this river town isn’t something that can be rushed. And for us, if you miss that, you kind of miss the whole attraction of Luang Prabang.