Luang Prabang is perhaps the most charming town in all of Asia, effortlessly blending a relaxed but adventurous travel vibe with humble Buddhist spirituality alongside beautiful Lao teak houses with a sprinkle of French Colonial flair. Thanks to UNESCO and some forward thinking local business owners, the ravages of mass tourism have been held at bay. Almost surrounded by water on all sides, Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of two rivers, and for centuries was the seat of Laotian Royalty (who essentially stepped down in 1975). The town itself is quite small, and is renowned for its bohemian lifestyle as both Laotians and foreigners alike unwind in the French cafés, book-stores and open-air restaurants. One highlight is the continual Night Market, where fantastic souvenirs can be found, including art, clothing, antiques, and some of the freshest, tastiest sandwiches you’ll ever eat. Here, a legacy of French Colonialism, the typical ‘street food’ are baguette sandwiches!
Many travellers combine Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, stopping here on their way to or from Chiang Mai, Thailand, or coming up (or heading down) from Cambodia. There are a couple ways to arrive by land, otherwise the tiny Luang Prabang Airport receives almost daily flights from Hanoi, Siem Riep, Vientiane, or Bangkok, and is a short drive from town. Luang Prabang serves almost as a rest stop, or a welcome break, from the obviously fascinating but busy tourist attractions in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s here where you can really relax and unwind, and alot of people take note from the humble and vibrant community of Buddhist Monks in Luang Prabang. For early risers, a truly distinct South East Asian experience can be had here, in the form of alms-giving. At 6am every single day, a long procession of Saffron or Peach coloured monks make their way down the main street, while the street itself is lined with Laotians and foreigners alike.
Alms-Giving is an integral part of a Buddhist Monks life, and speaks to the prevalent culture of giving (and begging, sadly) seen in other parts of Asia, like Myanmar or India. The monks carry small bowls or containers, and as they pass, onlookers deposit fruit, rice, cooked food and small gifts in their bowls. There’s very little talking, and regardless of your own faith or creed, it’s a very endearing spectacle as simply an observer. For photographers, the early morning light, brightly clad monks, and smiling faces all-around will provide for some stunning shots. We’d like to point out however, that while not everyone observes this, we encourage all travellers to South East Asia to remember two things at all times when meeting Buddhist Monks, especially in a situation like Alms-giving: Please dress modestly, for both men and women (while shorts are quite common, avoid low-cut tops and try and cover your shoulders). Secondly – for aspiring photographers, please zoom in for your photos’ and avoid clicking and flashing your camera right into a hungry monks face!
While just absorbing the town seem’s to be more than enough for most travellers, there’s still quite a bit to do around town. There’s several impressive Wats (temples) around town, and could easily take up an afternoon exploring. You could climb the main hill in town, Mount Phousi, to work up your appetite, or checkout one of the museums or the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. For the active, there’s a couple great day trips to nearby waterfalls, the Luang Si (aka Kuang Si) falls which is great for swimming, or the Pak Ou (aka Buddha Caves) Caves, which contain several impressive Buddhist statues, only accessible on a short boat-ride down the river.
While it’s more popular in Northern Thailand, there are some great hill-treks based out of Luang Prabang, and typically involve a local guide, small group, and 1-3 nights of rustic, village accommodation as you hike through forests, rice paddies and Hill-tribe villages.
Luang Prabang has an interesting collection of budget backpacker guest-houses along with a healthy collect of top notch hotels or resorts. One of our favourites is the Amantaka Hotel, set amongst a huge garden estate, you can walk to the night market or Royal Palace, or borrow a bicycle. The style and décor at the Amantaka is light and airy, with hints of Laos’ French Colonial history, but most of the 24 exquisite rooms have private plunge pools and contemporary amenities. The main hotel pool is incredible, and so is the Aman Spa, and we love how the complimentary cocktails have created a buzz around the hotel bar after a day around town – it’s the perfect way to relax after a carefree day of exploring, cafés and reading!