Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced “Long Pruh-bang, Lao – like cow) is one of the more up-and-coming travel destinations among Americans. Nestled between the Luang Prabang Mountain Range and the Mekong river, it’s easy to see why.
Although more of a newly found gem for Americans, the Chinese have been taking holidays here for decades. I arrived in Laos just about a week before the Chinese New Year, having no idea that it’s a widely celebrated holiday in Luang Prabang.
I had signed up for a WorkAway opportunity (learn more about WorkAway here) living in and promoting a local guesthouse located right off of the Mekong RIver.
As the longboats pulled into the docks each afternoon, it was my job – with several other workawayers – to intercept the tourists as they flooded the city. Handing out flyers and maps explaining where our guesthouse was and the perks of staying there, offering rides back and free WIFI to find another guesthouse if they decided against staying in ours. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until a few days later when we were totally booked, and so was every other hostel, hotel and guesthouse in Luang Prabang. Many backpackers had taken the two day longboat journey from Thailand, and had no where to stay once arriving. Not only that, but the prices were jacked up three and four and five times the usual price due to the holiday.
We caught word of a place that would be open at that hour specifically for the Superbowl game. A place called “Aussie Sports Bar” just a kilometer or two from our guesthouse. By 6am we were seated in front of a few TV’s and surrounded by a couple hundred people. Bar food in hand, beers, and a few rum and cokes later, we explained the rules of “American Football” and talked up the commercials like it was nobody’s business. But when it was time for the first commercial break, all we saw was a blank screen! They don’t air the commercials in other countries! It made sense once we thought about it, but it still took awhile to shake off the disappointment.
Fun Fact: That morning around 5am, we watched as locals lined the streets with baskets of food. Shortly after, young monks in training appeared in a single file line on their way to the temple. They collected small portions from every basket. This is the only food they will receive, so if the monks sleep in or are late to temple, they forfeit eating that day.
Kuang Si Falls are an absolute must see during your stay in Luang Prabang.
Prepare for a bumpy 30km ride that begins on paved road, turns into gravel and then to dirt as you head south from Luang Prabang towards the falls. Your cheapest option is to share a songthaew, (a truck with two benches in the back, generally with a cover). If you get about eight people to share the ride, it should cost roughly around 40,000 KIP per person which is less than $5 USD. This is the round-trip fare, do not pay this amount for one-way. The driver will wait for you at the falls and drive you back to Luang Prabang. The less people to share the ride, the more expensive it will be. Because of this you may not have the ability to plan on an exact time to leave and return, so be flexible – you may be waiting around for 20 minutes or so for the songthaew to fill up.
Once you arrive at the falls, expect an entrance fee of 20,000 KIP (just under $2.50 USD). Some will say you should book in advance, however I see no need for this unless where ever you are booking sells you the Kuang Si Falls admission ticket for less than 20,000 KIP. The lines at the park are not long and it only takes a few minutes to buy your ticket there. There are a few restaurants with minimal variety that are scattered around the entrance, several merchants selling their goods, and a handful of public restrooms.
Once inside you can also visit the Butterfly Park, which is modest but lovely, as well as the Sun and Moon Bear Sanctuary. Both attractions are included in the initial price. We happened to chat up an employee while we were visiting, who took us through a gate and behind a few buildings to the cub enclosure not visible to the public. Here we saw several cubs only a few months old wrestling around without the disruption of tourists. It was a very sweet sight. You’ll learn many facts and statistics about the bears, which can be graphic. The main reason for this sanctuary is to keep the bears from being captured and tortured for “bear bile,” a sought-after ingredient necessary in many eastern medicines. However, this harvesting of bile is done in a very inhumane way and is the most prominent reason both the Sun and Moon bears are on the endangered species list.
The falls themselves are nothing short of gorgeous. There are a few steep hikes, but the path mainly consists of wooden steps and bridges, both with railings and clear footing. Be careful if there’s been heavy rains though, especially on the descent, as surfaces can be uneven and slick. The photo ops here are amazing, the swimming holes are refreshing and the water is a vibrant turquoise. You can even climb to the top of the falls and get a great view of the surrounding area. There are picnic tables if you’d like to have an afternoon lunch at the park. Plan on spending around 3-4 hours here.
The Mekong is the longest river in Se Asia. Born from the Lasagongma Spring deep in the Tibetian Pleateu, running it’s course of nearly 3,000 miles, and eventually flowing out into the South China Sea. These waters play a significant role in Laotian life. Many travelers come from Thailand on the two day longboat journey up the Mekong. If you have the time during your stay, check out one of the Mekong Dinner Cruises. Enjoy a meal and a few drinks on the water, it’s a great way to wind down at the end of an adventure filled day!
There’s no other SE Asian night market quite like the one in Luang Prabang!
Sisavangvong Road is where you want to find yourself around dusk, when the street vendors have set up their stalls and have beautiful local goods displayed on rugs and blankets. Here you can do a lot of thrifty shopping! Everything is hand-made, authentic, and a fraction of the price you’d pay anywhere else in the world. From silks and ethnic handicrafts, bed covers and scarves, opium pipes, bamboo and ceramics, embroidered purses and wallets, Lao t-shirts and shoes, wooden toys, trinkets and jewelry. This is a fantastic place for haggling (see my haggling tips here). Also check out the shops that line Sisavangvong Road and all of the food stalls on the side streets. The food is plentiful and exotic. From grilled river fish, to whole roasted pig heads (not my cup of tea) to noodles and veggies and different meats on skewers, fruits and deserts. Everything is fresh and laid out on large banana leaves. If you’re wanting to try something new, this is the place to do it!
At the center of Luang Prabang sits Mt. Phousi, rising 150 meters (roughly 500ft) and overlooking the city of Luang Prabang from it’s hilltop.
The temple at the top is a bit run-down, but beautiful in it’s own right. From there you can have a complete 360 degree view of the city with the mountain range on one side and the mighty Mekong on the other. The panoramic vista makes this spot the #1 destination during sunrise and sunset. It can get a bit crowded around these times, and the steps are a bit steep in the heat. However, it’s only about 15 minutes to the top (or bottom) and the climb is well worth it. You can purchase flowers to offer with your prayers if you so choose, and/or caged birds to let free once you reach the top. In the Laotian culture it is believed that setting birds free will bring both happiness and good fortune. Although I didn’t participate and found the hundreds of caged birds a bit sad and off-putting, it’s all a part of the culture and the experience you get when visiting Luang Prabang.
Luang Prabang at it’s heart is a quant fishing village. The people are genuine and charming, the landscape is breath taking, and the pace is slow, making this city on the river a fantastic place to rejuvenate and re-energize.
Have you been here? Headed here? Share your stories, questions and comments in the section below!