At the heart of Northern Laos rests Luang Prabang.
The moment I entered town, my blood pressure dropped into laid, very laid back mode. As a Hawaiian who was born into laid-back, this town actually surprised my threshold. Yes, like a good massage, I could go deeper.
You’ll appreciate this next to the urban Vientiane and you’ll easily find you can stay a week or longer.
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the small city blends old European colonial architecture with a Lao urban structure and has a bit of international everything. From river beach to tourist bars, massage parlors and riverside restaurants, roadside baguette stands and Buddhist temples, the diverse jewel of a city can easily be explored on foot or bicycle. It’s international push towards tourism is a little disappointing if you’re looking for the real Laos, but it’s what makes it a convenient drop spot of weary backpackers and tourists.
So with all there is to see, what should you actually do?
5 things to do and see in Luang Prabang:
1) The view from the top of Mount Phou Si
I’m all in for travel cliches– watching sunsets from mountain peaks are quickly becoming one of them! And I’m racking them up along Southeast Asia. As the highest hill point in Luang Prabang, Mount Phou Si beckons travelers with an alluring and romantic view of the city. It’s a casual 8-10 minute stroll up the stairs to the top, so you won’t have to be a mountain climber to do it and you’ll find a wonderful view of Luang Prabang city and all its street grids. The lady siting outside the entrance sells birds in a dried leaf cage. Take them to the top, make a wish and release them for love and good luck!
2) “Line up and feed the monks!”
Each day at 6 am, young monks in saffron-colored robes, file into the city from over 30 local Buddhist temples. Most of them are boys around the age of 16 and younger and they walk briskly down the main street of Th Sisavangvong, holding out alms bowls to receive food donations from locals.
These days, tourism has turned it into a sad circus attraction (hence, the sarcasm in my title). Rice baskets are sold on the street, tickets to take part in alms giving is sold at hotels and tourists replace locals at the alms procession. Nevertheless, the monk procession still makes it a beautiful ritual to watch.
Please, if you’re taking photography, check the paparazzi flashes at the door (the bright flashes are disrespectful to monks and locals honoring their spiritual practice). Also, learn how to take photos at a distance or with a zoom lens if you want those closeups! Shoving a camera in the monks’ faces is un-cool (yes, I’ve seen this… and with flash too).
To participate in the alms giving, read a little about the culture first so you understand the event. It’s also wise to prepare your own food offerings; I’ve heard in the past, unscrupulous merchants have sold cheap/ bad food to tourists and monks fell ill.
Top 5 Things to Do in Luang Prabang: Watch the monk procession
3) Eat dinner along the Mekong or catch rays at Luang Prabang’s river beach.
Luang Prabang has a beach? I almost fell over when I saw it. At the end of Luang Prabang’s main street, the road curves along the river and the Mekong wraps around a small beach islet. Stroll across the bamboo bridge and find some shade under an umbrella, where you can relax and let the river wash your worries away.
If the beach scene is not your thing, dine at one of the many riverside restaurants. The gorgeous simplicity of Mekong river life is peaceful. Boats cascade through the waters and Laotian villagers fish and play at the river’s edge.
Top 5 Things to Do in Luang Prabang: Visit the Beach
4) Visit the local markets and night markets
When the lights go down, the end of the main street is alive with seductive souvenir jewelry, clothing and Hmong village tribe handicrafts. The night market occurs daily and is the best place to get your Laos souvenirs. Be prepared to haggle, because you’re going to want everything you see!
Top 5 Things to Do in Luang Prabang: visit the night market
But where the night belongs to tourists, the day is owned by the locals. The morning market is far more revealing of Laotian culture, as the back streets buzz with locals shopping for their dinner tables. Watch them sift through produce, order their meat from the outdoor butcher and shop for foods which go from commonplace to culturally bizarre.
5) Take a day tour to Park Ou Caves and the crystal blue waterfalls of Wat Si.
The Park Ou Caves and the Wat Si waterfalls are two popular attractions surrounding Luang Prabang. The karst cliffs and tiny river islets and beaches lining the Mekong make for a scenic journey as you head up to the caves, where 1,000’s of buddha figurines have been placed in devotion by locals.
Meanwhile, the crystal clarity of Wat Si’s aqua waters will leave you in breathless wonder. Can water cast a spell on you? When you see these waters, you’ll feel like it has!
While you can find ways to get to these sites on your own, they’re located at least 45 minutes from the city. The caves require a boat to get to and waterfalls you can take on wheels. The city has got some great budget (under $25) tour packages, which will ensure you see these sites (and then some). My tour included transportation (boat and van) to both sites, a trip to a village where rice wine was made and a tribal village. The tour is worthwhile and will save you on time and energy. They’ll give you ample time to explore.
Top 5 Things to Do in Luang Prabang: See the aqua blue waters of Wat si falls
Top 5 Things to Do in Luang Prabang: Take a boat trip to see Park Ou caves
6) Rent a bike
Rent a bike and pedal your way around town. The most active part of Luang Prabang is the touristy zone with old-style colonial architecture, international restaurants, massage parlors, tour agencies and souvenir shops. Outside that tourist mecca is the real Laos. It’s not as pretty or dressed up, but you’ll find the real Laotian heart. Most Laotians in Luang Prabang commute into the city for work or for the market. The only Laotians you’ll see are mostly workers in the tourist industry. Time to get outside of that and explore!
Tip: The scary part is you’ll need to leave your passport with the bike rental folks for insurance.
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