I love Luang Prabang. I first came here ten years ago with my parents and my sister. My fond memories include biking around town, eating ice cream, reading, and visiting a local bookstore every day. It’s a sleepy river town that is the perfect setting for a mellow week. LP is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its blend of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture, as well as its rich religious and cultural heritage. The main part of the city is small, consisting of four main roads, so it can be explored rather quickly, even by foot. Life moves slowly in LP and we were happy to oblige.
Our hotel’s location was perfect (thank you Mark) and we were able to walk pretty much everywhere. The first things I like to check out when I get to any new city is the markets.
Night markets are always full of clothes, art, jewelry, textiles, and housewares. They are social gatherings for locals and visitors alike with the abundance of cheap food and drink. The more markets you visit, the more you discover the subtle differences — same same, but different. Some vendors are more aggressive than others, some products are of better construction, some have a variety of food and some have limited food. LP’s night market is great because of its large size, friendly vendors, well-priced goods and diversity in food.
Any craving can be satisfied down this long alley: grilled meat on a stick, salted fish, dumplings, fresh produce, noodles and more. If you have a sweet tooth, you can buy muffins, brownies, pies, coconut pancakes, crepes, and fruit smoothies. As with most places, street food is going to be the cheapest and often the most delicious. The buffet below was only 15,000 Kip which is about $1.75 USD.
Morning markets consist mostly of food for sale. It’s a time for local families and restaurants to purchase their groceries or for street vendors to restock their inventory. Asian markets are infamous for their wild and crazy meat selection: live birds, frogs, rats, buffalo ears and legs, pig parts and seafood. But many visitors overlook the gorgeous fresh produce that’s also available. I mean fresh as in someone literally just picked it from their garden down the street. Eat your heart out California.
When we weren’t eating, we went exploring around LP. We carpooled with some other tourists to visit THE place to go: Kuang Si waterfalls, about an hour outside the city. I was worried as we walked into the park that it was going to be disappointing because so many tourists were already present and it was only 10 am.
The self-guided tour followed a paved route through the forest with stops at predesignated swimming holes and waterfalls. You are allowed to swim in three different sections as you climb to the main falls, all at your own risk of course because there are no lifeguards. I was surprised that no one was swimming when we arrived at the second fall. The water was a beautiful turquoise, calm, and just a little cold. I jumped in along with an older French man and we had the pool to ourselves for a while.
The falls get progressively more intense as you move your way up, hence the limitations on swimming. The landscape reminded me of Hawaii, very lush and green, so beautiful it almost felt wrong to be there.
The main waterfall is at the end of the path, you can’t miss it. It’s an epic waterfall, a true sight to see. There is a bridge across the water so visitors have the perfect opportunity to get the best photo. I don’t know what it is about waterfalls that captivate us. They’re majestic and calming despite the noise, yet it’s really just falling water [waterfall….get it?]. The main fall was crowded, but I was surprised how well behaved people were. No one was swimming where they weren’t supposed to and people took turns taking pictures so no one was invading photoshoots.
After the waterfalls, we spent the afternoon reading at a local LP watering hole, Utopia. This restaurant/bar is off the main road, down a few windy back alley streets and is the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon. Most of the lounge chairs, yoga mats, bean bags, and tables are outside, overlooking the Nam Khan river. Once you order a smoothie or some food, the staff gives you a button to press for service and then proceeds to leave you alone. It’s my kind of place. One of the best parts of visiting SE Asia is that you never get pushed from a table. Service is lopsided, dishes come out at different times, you can never track down your server, but you are never rushed. One afternoon we spent over two hours reading before we realized how much time had passed.
Our last day in LP was reserved for two more “must-do” activities. The first, tak bak, or morning alms, required a wake-up call before dawn. Fun fact: roosters don’t crow at sunrise. They crow ALL DAY. Moving on, LP is home to more than 80 temples and hundreds of monks who need to be fed. Around 5:40am, these monks weave their way around LP, collecting sticky rice and other goodies from locals and tourists lined up along the roads. Every few blocks they empty handfuls of their collections into bins for poor families who also need food. Tourist tip: don’t eat the rice, it’s not for you (I’m talking to you woman who grabbed a handful).
Giving alms is also a way for locals to make merit, by helping to feed the monks, one earns spiritual redemption.
The experience is quite beautiful and serene for the most part. I won’t bore you with a tirade on what really grinds my gears about insolent tourists but I will leave you with some helpful advice: be respectful, be self-aware, and be quiet. The monks walk in meditation and almsgivers are supposed to respect that by not disturbing the peace. It is a religious ceremony, not a cultural show. Irritating tourists asides, it’s a compelling experience to see so many monks silently walking the streets.
We ended our stay at LP climbing to the top of Mount Phou Si. We trekked up 300 steps to the top, stopping periodically to
catch our breaths admire Buddha statues and try to sneak a peek of the view.
We knew we made it to the top because we literally ran into the mob scene camped out on the vicinity of the temple. Everyone and their mother were present to catch the famous Phou Si sunset. Mark and I squeezed ourselves to the middle of the pack and tried in vain to see anything. What really makes a sunset beautiful is staring into the backs of four Australian tank- top-wearing bros wearing matching pink hats that say “SQUAD”.
20-something millennials everyone took shadowed selfies of themselves backlit against a breathtaking landscape, I worked my way to the edge to check out the view everyone was missing: Luang Prabang itself. You can see the whole city from Phou Si and it’s stunning.
I’ll leave you with this photo titled A Sunset of the Modern Age. #doitforthegram