Laos was a refreshing change after two grueling weeks in Vietnam. The people in Laos are so friendly and kind that it was almost hard for us to turn that switch inside and let our guard down from dealing with the soulless people we encountered during our Vietnam travels. We were in such a hurry to get out of Vietnam that we booked a one hour flight from Hanoi to Luang Prabang ($150/person). It was an easy flight and we got our $35 visa on arrival at the airport in Laos. Central Luang Prabang is a short 7 minute ride from the airport. The government has control over the transportation leaving the airport so you are forced to pay a flat 50,000 kyat ($6.50 ). We tried to share the minivan but they just doubled the price, so we went solo.
Luang Prabang is a wonderfully quaint town situated between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s a town that you can’t help but love due to its charm. At the same time, there is a bit of disappointment in the way that tourism has swallowed up the local culture and people. We had a very comfortable stay and it was hard to leave after a week. There are an endless number of restaurants and bars catering to tourists. Although it’s quite a small town of only four main streets, you could easily spend a month exploring the small streets and alleys with restaurants, cafes and hang-outs. It’s extremely easy to meet fellow travelers as everyone is very mellow due to the chilled out atmosphere. We probably met the most friendly people in Luang Prabang thus far on our travels. This in itself is also what makes you love the town and want to stay for awhile.
There is a very large monk population living in Luang Prabang and several Wats scattered throughout town. The Alms Ceremony takes place every morning at dawn. A procession of monks walk down the main street of town collecting alms (offerings of rice, fruit etc.) from the locals. Tourists gather to snap their pictures, which is frowned upon by the monks. The whole ritual has become tourist driven, and there have even been reports of monks getting sick because locals sell bad food to the tourists out of greed. The monks at one time even wanted to discontinue the practice, however the government warned against it and told the monks they will just be replaced with locals dressed up in robes to continue the tourist fiasco. This is just one of the curses that tourism has brought to Luang Prabang.
Rather than attend the morning procession, we visited a few of the Wats around town to see where the monks spend their days. Spirituality found within the Wats, Palace, and Monks contribute to Luang Prabang’s mellow vibe. One of the highlights was Wat Xieng Thong located on the northern end of town. The temple was under construction and the monks were hard at work restoring the temple’s exterior beauty. There were magnificent reflective glass mosaics on the outside of the temple. Also, located outside the temple is the funeral chapel housing an incredible 12 meter high funeral chariot as well as numerous urns of the royal family lining the walls of the chapel. We spent some time wandering around the temple complex watching the monk’s life pass us by.
Within the beauty of Luang Prabang is the unfortunate reality that tourism has taken over. As you meander through the streets you’ll find guesthouse after guesthouse, as well as restaurants, cafes, bars and shops all catering to tourists. There is not much of a local feel, apart from the monks and the locals that are working to cater to the tourists. Of course, on the outskirts of town you could find more local communities but you aren’t in any way integrated into that part of Luang Prabang. Another negative is the polluted air created by villagers burning their farmland. Every February and March, the villages burn their land to rejuvenate the soil, producing nitrates. This causes a very dense haze of pollution in the air. Visibility and air quality are at its worst.
We pre-booked Phillyack Guesthouse ($16/night) after reading the rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Phillyack is ideally located on a quiet street on the southwest side of town, half a block from the Mekong River. It’s a nice basic room with a private bathroom and air-con. There isn’t a restaurant at the guesthouse, but you really don’t need one as there are so many restaurants all around the town. Our favorite breakfast spot was JoMa Bakery Cafe which was right down the street on Th Chao Fa Ngum. They had wonderful fresh coffee, bagel sandwiches and oatmeal french toast! It was quite crowded with even a few monks hanging out doing work on their ibooks.
Walking Luang Prabang is feasible but if you want to get around fast rent a bike for the day ($1-3). Two people fit on one bike with a driver and one on the back seat. Since you aren’t going too far it’s pretty easy to get around hauling someone on the back of your bike, and it’s quite funny too! We had some delicious meals while in Luang Prabang including those at Big Tree Cafe, Lao Lao Garden, Tamarind and Utopia. The places on the river seem to be happening during the day whereas the main street is where to go in the evening. There are two chilled out wine bars on the main street, but most of the nightlife is located on the back streets near Th Kingkitsarat.
The Night Market
The Hmong Night Market is a great way to spend some of your evenings. At first glance the market has a magical feel with all it’s brightly colored textiles and lanterns. The stalls were filled with souvenirs from scarves and clothes to home decor and jewelry. There are also some side streets offering foods and treats. While it was fun walking around the market, prices tend to be quite high for mediocre to poor quality items. We even heard that most of the products at the market are actually being mass produced in China and imported to accommodate silly tourists. Needless to say, we didn’t buy much in terms of souvenirs for people as we felt most things were mediocre quality at best. We did get Beer Lao tank tops though!
Lao Cooking Class
Christie took a fabulous Lao cooking class at Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School. It was the highlight of her week. The course began with a local trip to the market to learn about local Lao vegetables, fruits, spices and herbs. The walk through the meat section was unbearable and reiterated the reasons for becoming a vegetarian. After the market, we were taken to a cooking oasis just 10 km outside of town. The grounds of the cooking school were absolutely stunning with ponds, waterfalls, colorful flowers and gardens….. creating a zen-like atmosphere. The cooking facilities were all outside amongst the beauty of the magical oasis.
The instructor was great and liked to crack jokes, which kept everyone amused. There were nine people taking the course from all over the world including Germany, Singapore, Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the U.S. Everyone was extremely cool and we all had a great time together. We learned to make four traditional Lao dishes and one dessert. We all agreed the best part was preparing and cooking the dishes. The Laos flavors weren’t our favorite in Asia. Some of the herb leaves they use for flavor aren’t the most desirable flavors but they may just be an acquired taste. Tamarind Cooking class was a great way to spend the day learning about cooking Lao dishes while making new friends from around the world.
While Christie was cooking, Brett was roaming the town….. scoping out the Children’s Cultural Center & Big Brother Mouse. We wanted to buy books and hand them out to children in the villages during our stay in Laos. The CCC recommended that we give out blank writing books with pens since the children were receiving many of the same books from tourists. So, we loaded up for our trip west toward Chiang Mai province in Thailand.
Our week in Luang Prabang was one of our favorite and most relaxing. We had initially planned to travel more around Laos and take a trip Northwest for some trekking in Luang Nam Tha province. We talked to a number of travel agencies but none of the trekking sounded too interesting or different from what we had already done around Ratanakiri, Cambodia. The treks were also quite expensive with a 3 day/2 night trek costing between $300-$400. There didn’t seem to be any other people going from Luang Prabang, so it would have just been us on the trek. We thought about just going to the north and finding some people to trek with, but this is always a risk and takes some time to find the right group….. as we experienced in Cambodia. Christie also wasn’t feeling too well, so in the end we decided to skip the trek and head to the Kwang Si Waterfalls before Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
See our Photo Album:
Luang Prabang, Laos