At the heart of Northern Laos rests Luang Prabang. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, the small city blends old European colonial architecture with a Lao urban structure and has a bit of everything. From river beach to tourist bars and riverside restaurants, roadside baguette stands and Buddhist temples, the diverse jewel of a city can easily be explored on foot or bicycle. So with all there is to see, what should you actually do?
Here’s 5 things to top your itinerary:
1) The view from the top of Mount Phou Si
Sometimes, I’m all for sentimental travel cliches. Watching sunsets and city views from mountain peaks are quickly becoming one of them! 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. Sometimes, there’s a lady at the mountain base, selling love birds or sparrows in a dried leaf cage. Take them to the top and release them for 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 petting zoo and circus attraction (hence, a bit of 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 super zoom lens if you want those closeups! Shoving a camera in peoples’ faces is un-cool. 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 fruit or food offerings; in the past, unscrupulous merchants have sold cheap/ bad food to tourists and monks fell ill.
3) Eat dinner along the Mekong or catch rays at Luang Prabang’s river beach.
Dining at the riverside restaurants is a fabulous way to enjoy the gorgeous simplicity of Mekong river life. Boats cascade through the waters and Laotian villagers fish and play at the river’s edge.
Also, at the end of Luang Prabang’s main street, you’ll find 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.
4) Visit the markets
When the lights go down, tourists will find the end of the main street 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!
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: see the of 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, the city has got some excellent budget tour packages, which will ensure you see them (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.
What are top 5 things you’d recommend seeing or doing in Luang Prabang?
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