The ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Considered by many travellers and writers as being the heart of Laotian culture, the tiny town is encircled by mountains and is 700 metres above sea level at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. Here visitors are subjected to an inflamed economic bubble that does not apply to the rest of the country. Being Laos' premier tourist destination and (one of Southeast Asia's most beautiful spots, ironically tourists will pay more for the innate pleasures of eating, drinking and sleeping than they would in the country's capital city Vientiane.
Luang Prabang was the ancient royal capital of the Lan Xang Kingdom until King Phothisarat moved the administrative seat to Vientiane in 1545. Regardless, it has continued to overlook Vientiane as the destination of choice with its amalgamation of crumbling French architecture, glistening temples and extensive natural beauty. Even the hardest of hearts would have a struggle not to warm to the place. The town's entire historical section is dedicated to tourism, with everything from former royal palaces to over 33 Wats (temples), on the tourist trail. This former Royal capital still remains the main centre for Buddhist learning in Laos and is the perfect location for spiritual contemplation.
Cascading waterfalls, scaling peaks and the milky-brown waters of the Mekong River provide ample opportunity to swim, climb and sail your way through Luang Prabang. It is only as recent as 1989 that Laos opened up to tourism and the country that had previously been cut off from the rest of Southeast Asia developed a small but steady economy, based on tourism and regional trade. This small and gentle town where most locals are asleep by 22:00 is now one of the richest and most visited provinces in Laos. It's one of the few places where you feel that this is the genuine article and one that retains its unique ambiance.
• How to get there
Having no coastline means Laos has long borders with Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar. Travel to all of these countries is easier nowadays since there are several airlines serving the region. From Vientiane, you can fly daily to/from Hanoi and Phnom Penh and five times a week to/from Ho-Chi-Minh city (Saigon) with Laos Airlines and Vietnam Airlines, three times a week between Siem Reap – Chiang Mai, twice a week between Kunming – Jinghong. From Luang Prabang, direct flights fly daily to/from Bangkok by Bangkok Airways, three times a week by THAI to/from Chiang Mai (Thailand) as well as Laos Airlines to /Jinghong (China). From Pakse, Laos Airlines operates direct flights twice a week to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. However, these flights are subject to change.
With many border crossings between Thailand and Laos, people also visit Laos by land. Let Travel Loop Adventure know where you are coming from and we will do the rest.
• Food and accommodation
Luang Prabang cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian countries.
The staple food is steamed sticky rice, which is eaten by hand. Sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as "luk khao niaow", which can be translated as "children or descendants of sticky rice". Galangal, lemongrass, and padaek (fermented fish sauce) are also important ingredients.
The most famous Lao dish is larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong more famously known to the West as som tam.
Hotels can be a little more expensive in general, compared to their neighbours, but the standards are good and there is a full range to suit all budgets. This is not the case when you leave the main tourist centres for a more rural setting.
• Health and Safety
Luang Prabang does not have much in the way of good medical facilities, and so like most of it’s neighbours, Thailand and Bangkok in particular is the go-to centre for anything of a serious nature. On the plus side Laos as yet does not really suffer from petty crime as much as neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. However common sense is recommended, as is a good medical insurance policy.
• Where to go
For reasons that soon become apparent when you get there, Luang Prabang is often described as the 'Jewel in Laos Crown'. Even though the town is well and truly on the tourist trail, it has nonetheless managed to preserve its natural splendor and inherent charm.
The majority of the city's sights can be reached on foot, so getting a map and making your way to the many temples (33 to be exact) is a good way to soak up the surroundings and observe the way of the Lao people, and the large monk community. The wonder of the ancient temples is apparent at first glance; the gentle and unassuming nature of the locals, given the chance, will also leave a lasting impression.
Alms Giving Ceremony
The UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang is the perfect place to see one of the most sacred Lao traditions, the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony. Despite being a highly revered ritual for locals, visitors are encouraged to be involved as long as a level of respect is maintained throughout.
Alms giving takes place daily as the sun rises, beginning on the main street of Luang Prabang before spreading out to all the side streets. You should buy your offerings (usually food) in advance and arrive with plenty of time to spare, as it’s considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has commenced.
Follow the guidance of the locals by kneeling down ready to give your offering to the monks; most common gifts include rice, fresh fruit and traditional sweet snacks. The idea of the alms giving is for the Buddhist monks to make merit and also to collect food for their one meal of a day.
As the sun rises in Luang Prabang around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal. The tradition of alms gathering dates back to the 14th century, yet still today locals wake early to prepare the food for the monks and wait quietly by the roadside to give their gifts. Although the main purpose is for locals to give alms to the monks, you will also notice small children kneeling with baskets in the hope that the monks will share some of their alms with them so that they can take food back to their family.
This daily ceremony is both peaceful and spiritual and gives you a wonderful opportunity to experience an ancient Lao tradition. The procession is quite lengthy and therefore not suitable for very young children or those who cannot sit quietly for more than a few minutes. If you are taking photographs it is best to step back from the front of the line to avoid causing offence. If you are not making an offering maintain an appropriate distance and do not under any circumstances get in the way of those making an offering. Visitors should also remember to be there before the monks arrive and never ever to follow the procession.
There are many unspoken rules regarding etiquette when attending an Alms Giving Ceremony, firstly shoulders, chests and legs must be covered in modest clothing as a mark of respect. You should also remain at a suitable distance from the monks and do not interrupt the procession under any circumstances. Therefore photographs may be taken, but from a distance and never use flash.
When seated, shoes and socks must be removed with your feet tucked underneath as you observe the ceremony in absolute silence. Female attendees must keep their head lower than the monks when giving alms and they must not talk to or touch the monks at any time, even when making an offering. Suitable offerings include some simple food which you can probably arrange at your hotel or buy from a local market en-route, if you buy alms on the street do not negotiate on price as this is also considered highly disrespectful.
Kuang Si Waterfall
The Kuang Si Waterfall is the biggest in the Luang Prabang area with three tiers leading to a 50-metre drop into spectacular azure pools before flowing downstream. The pools also make great swimming holes and are very popular with both tourists and locals. You can change clothes for swimming at the wooden huts located close to the entrance.
The pools also have cascades of up to five metres high with deliciously cold water due to the shade given by the surrounding lush tropical jungle, if you don’t fancy a swim then you can relax in the shade and watch others having fun jumping in and out of the water.
There are trails allowing you to climb up to the top where you can see the stream feeding into the falls and enjoy some more natural pools. Remember to bring the correct footwear as the trails can get slippery and are certainly not recommended for children or the elderly.
Breathtaking cascades of water make the Kuang Si one of Luang Prabang’s most popular tourist attractions. The journey to the waterfall is worth taking time over with vistas across rice fields and the opportunity to meet locals along the way. A Hmong village is a great place to stop where the older female villagers still dress in traditional costume, you can also purchase their hand woven crafts to take home as a souvenir. If you want to take photos at the village you will be expected to buy from them in return.
The weather at the waterfalls is noticeably cooler making it a really good place to escape the heat; children will especially enjoy a day out here playing in the falls. You can make a day of it at the waterfalls by bringing a picnic with you or buying some food and drinks from one of the local stalls. There are tables and shelters located at the front of the lower level pools.
The Kuang Si Waterfall is located 29 km south of Luang Prabang. You can make your own way to the waterfall by hiring a motorcycle which means you can take in some scenic villages en-route. The roads however are rocky and can be hard going so an easier option is to book a tour which usually costs around $5 US per person; you can also hire your own tuk-tuk for a half-day rental or jump on one of the mini-buses departing daily from the Naluang Mini Bus station.
An unusual alternative is to hire a boat and ride down the Mekong River before catching another boat for a short hop across to the falls. You will also need to pay an additional admission fee to one of the locals at the falls usually $2.00 US per person. This goes towards keeping the bridges and walkways in good working order.
NB: In the rainy season the falls are truly spectacular but there is too much water to swim safely. Towards the end of the dry season the falls me be a lot less spectacular.
Pak Ou Caves
One of the most respected holy sites in Laos; the Pak Ou Caves have a history dating back thousands of years. Packed with over 4,000 Buddha icons, the caves, a shrine to the river spirit and Lord Buddha, are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. There are two caves to visit, the lower cave called Tham Ting and the upper cave Tham Theung, both boasting miniature Buddhist figures that are mostly made from wood.
Positioned about 50 feet above the river, Tham Ting filters in some light but a torch is required for the absolutely pitch black Tham Theung. The upper cave is home to the majority of the Buddha statues and you will need to find your way in darkness to the thousands of hidden icons. The statues are believed to have been left in the caves by local people for hundreds of years.
Pak Ou translates to ‘mouth of the Ou River’ with the first cave entrance of Tham Ting being very visible from the water; the higher cave is accessed by stairs. The Buddha images in the Pak Ou Caves assume a variety of positions, from meditation to peace and nirvana (the reclining Buddha). Both caves are shrines to Buddha, offering places of worship with the largest image in Tham Ting being a popular place to burn incense and offer prayers. The smaller cave is the more peaceful, with glimpses of the Mekong providing a breathtaking backdrop.
The caves are a very popular pilgrim site for locals and get very busy during April when the Lao New Year is in full swing with locals washing and attending to the images. The caves are not far from Ban Xang Hai village, famous for its wine production and for the making of Lao wine earthen jars; it is a great side trip where you will get the chance to try locally produced whisky and wine.
NB. Access to the caves is by a small boat, and you have to disembark onto some wobbly pontoons, therefore care must be taken for children and those with difficulty walking. The stairs could also be a challenge for the elderly or infirm.
Wat Xieng Thong
Luang Prabang is renowned for Buddhist temples of outstanding beauty with Wat Xieng Thong an outstanding example. A symbol of great historic importance, this magnificent masterpiece is characteristic of the Luang Prabang style and features an elaborate tree of life mosaic, intricately carved walls, rare Buddhist deities and a 12-metre high funeral carriage. Also known as the ‘Golden Tree Monastery’, Wat Xieng Thong acts as a gateway to Luang Prabang as it is strategically situated close to where the Mekong joins the Nam Khan River.
This site is famous as the location for the coronation of Lao kings and as an important gathering place for significant annual festivities. The original temple was created in 1560 under the royal instruction of King Setthathirath and narrowly missed invasion on several occasions, nevertheless time took hold and much-needed remodeling took place during the 1960s. The temple still remains in its original form with repairs undertaken to the roof, and gold leaf gilding and gold lacquering restoration added to the walls and entrance.
A superb piece of Lao temple architecture, Wat Xieng Thong presents a sweeping two-tiered roof and ornate mosaics including a beautiful ‘tree of life ‘glass montage on the rear temple wall. The tree portrays the tale of the founding of the temple which legend states was by two hermits who decided to create the sanctuary next to a large flame tree where the rivers met. The story continues inside with dharma wheels depicted in gold on the ceiling. Relics include a rare reclining black Buddha dating back to the reign of King Setthathirat displayed in the Red Chapel. The Buddha image was showcased in Paris in 1931 before being returned to the temple in 1964 and it is considered to be extremely unique.
Additional highlights of Wat Xieng Thong are the drum tower, the Triptaka library added in 1828 and the central sim or ordination hall, which dates back to the founding of the temple in 1560. One of the more unmissable exhibits due to its sheer size is the remarkable funeral carriage which was once carried through the streets of Luang Prabang containing royal ashes, the royal urns with ashes inside reside close by with a naga or serpent king statue guarding them. Nagas and other mythical statues complete the elaborate decorations at exquisite Wat Xieng Thong.
Rising 150 metres above the centre of town, Mount Phousi cuts a distinctive figure on the Luang Prabang skyline. The hill is popular as a place to watch the sun rise or set over the Mekong River. From the summit you can enjoy a spectacular 360-degree outlook across the city and its many temples, and out over the surrounding landscape to the mountains in the distance. Count on spending a couple of hours for the climb and descent, with several stops to see the temples, rest under the shady trees and admire the magical views.
There are hundreds of steps to negotiate, but the climb is gentle enough for anyone who is in reasonable health. For a complete experience, go up Mount Phousi on one side and use the other set of steps to make your way down again. You can pray and make offerings at several temples along the way. Next to Wat Chomsi at the top of the hill you can buy flowers to offer for blessings, as well as caged birds. The Laos believe that if you set a bird free you will enjoy good luck and happiness in the future.
The most popular time to visit Mount Phousi is in the late afternoon, in time to watch the sun set over Luang Prabang and the surrounding countryside. It can get quite busy at this time of day, however.
For a far more peaceful experience, try getting up early to catch the sunrise from the top of the hill, but be aware that it can be hard to get clear photographs of the view until the heat of the sun has burnt off the early morning mist.
The Thanon Phousi staircase consists of 355 steps that zigzag up to the summit, but it is well paved and offers several resting places along the way. Halfway up the hill is the Wat Tham Phousi shrine, which features a big-bellied Buddha nestled in a grotto and a reclining Buddha.