Following a faulty border crossing and one stranded night in Muang Khua, I finally pulled into Luang Prabang from the bus station on the back of a rumbling tuk tuk. By the time I reached my hostel and walked to a coffee shop along the Mekong, I realized something was different here. Something was off. Then, suddenly it hit me. There was no honking. The street vendors weren’t shouting at me. The local Lao people seemed to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. After six weeks of traveling through Vietnam, Luang Prabang was the chillest place on the planet.
The Atmosphere in Luang Prabang
With around 55,000 residents and another small population of travelers, the city has the feel of a small town but with plenty to do (especially if you are only in town for a few days). On the most crowded streets, there are never more than a handful of people walking around at any given time in the day.
The bright orange robes of smooth-headed monks dot the streets. They are constantly going in and out of the 32 temples peppered throughout the city. I never understood all of the artwork with monks using umbrellas until I spent a few nights in Luang Prabang. On the north side, the mighty Mekong runs right along the city, making a lazy walk along the water an attraction in itself. Colorful boats docked on the river bob in the brown, flowing water.
Restaurants, coffee shops, and bars occupy a majority of the the main downtown streets. Foreigners and locals alike lounge around drinking Lao ice coffee or sipping on 24oz Beer Lao bottles. The city is so laid back, there was even a spliff or three rolled up and smoked inside the bars by the locals and ex-pats I was with on occasion. It is like another world compared to Vietnam.
The Night Market and Night Food Market
Every night, hundreds of street vendors set up shop to form a two-lane market highway down Sisavangvong Road. It is a great place to buy cheap souvenirs and stuff your face with Lao street food. Artwork, jewelry, clothing, trinkets, you name it – the market has it all. Armed with $15, you can walk away with an entire bag full of purchases. Maybe two bags if you know how to haggle.
Right by the beginning of the night market, near the corner of Sisavangvong and Kitsalat, there is also a night food market. It is a crowded alley packed with fruit, grilled meats, soups, and buffets full of local Lao food. If you see a woman with a huge table full of silver bowls of different food, she has the best food in the alley.
In the daytime, that same area is full of vendors selling baguetters, crepes, and smoothies for breakfast and lunch. In all honestly, once you try it once, I would skip out on those vendors again. The baguettes are not that good and I bet you have had better crepes before, too.
Sometimes it is better to avoid the touristy market areas and go explore some local restaurants where they don’t speak English. I found some good local places on Ratsavong Road, just a block or two away from the main night market area. The restaurants are unmarked and the names are only written in Lao or else I would give the names! I enjoyed everythign I ate on that street, though.
Things to Do in Luang Prabang
With over 30 temples and a bunch of amazing nature surrounding the city, it is easy to a create jam-packed schedule in Luang Prabang. From morning alms watching the monks to boat tours on the Mekong to waterfall treks, there is something to do for everyone in this city. Here is a little info and review on the activities I did during my stay.
Kuang Si Falls
The Kuang Si Falls are the number one tourist attraction in Luang Prabang and rightfully so. I have traveled to A LOT of waterfalls in the past several months, and this one is the best (so far). Starting with a series of large, cascading pools where you can walk, swim, and hang out, it slowly works its way up the mountain to larger and larger falls.
Just when you have already decided that this is a pretty cool waterfall and natural pool area, you get to the main attraction. A roaring fall with dozens of ledges and layers all flowing over smooth cliff and erupting into a cloud of mist sweeping over the area. Here is a short clip of the main fall below.
Wat Xieng Thong
Wat Xieng Thong was my favorite temple in Luang Prabang. The intricate designs on every building, including the inside of the main temple, are beautiful. It also has a large courtyard with several other buildings to admire, which makes it a little more bang for your buck in terms of the entry fee.
Mekong Boat Tour
Walking along the Mekong, handfuls of boat owners will offer to take you on a tour of the river. We paid $4 per person to visit the paper village, Wat Longkhun, Tham Sakkalin, and Wat Hadsiou. The latter three are on the other side of Mekong. The paper village is tiny and the trip is only a few minutes, but the artwork and paper products they sell in the stores is really cool. A great place to buy souvenirs. On the other side of the river, a cheap ticket grants entry to Wat Longkuhn, the cave temple Tham Sakkalin, and Wat Hadsiou. In this area, you can also see many monks bathing, working, and worshipping. Seeing the monks doing their daily activities away from the main city was actually the best part of this area. The three temples are not very impressive.
Smack-dab in the middle of the main few blocks sits Phou Si Mountain. It is more of a hill than a mountain and only takes a few minutes to climb, but it is a stunning view. On one side, you look down on the banks of the city and the Mekong as it serpentines away into the jungle lands. On the side, the sprawling buildings of the city moving out towards the distant mountains, with a few golden roofs of wats reflecting in the sun through the treetops miles away.
Some other day activities are not marketed to tourists, but are equally as interesting as the expensive attractions. One, visit the local craft areas where you can see women making silk garments and creating items for the market. You can also buy items if they are finished directly from the craftswoman. Two, find a nice spot along the Mekong and watch the sun go down on a clear night. Three, rent a bicycle or motorbike and ride around to the local villages and past Elephant Mountain to get a better feel for the surrounding areas.
While I did many other activities, these were the highlights. There are also several treks and multi-day adventure tours available; however, due to Bronchitis, I was a bit limited and didn’t sign up for any of these tours. The other main waterfall in the area also did not have water when I was there, so make sure to check with the locals before booking a tour.
Nightlife in Luang Prabang
The nightlife for travelers is pretty simple here. Everyone, and I mean everyone, goes to Utopia and then to the bowling alley. That’s right, the bowling alley. Every local establishment stops serving alcohol and closes by midnight – except for the bowling alley. If you want to party and meet other traverls, that is the only information you need.
I did try going to Red Bul Sports Bar one night and was able to play pool and watch sports, which you cannot do at Utopia or the bowling alley. I also met a handful of locals and ex-pats who gave me some tips about the city. One of the girls I met invited me to her friend’s birthday party the next night, which was an awesome experience.
Because she couldn’t even explain how to get to the apartmet in the cuts of city, she called a tuk tuk driver and told him how to get there and which hostel to pick me up at. Once in the tuk tuk, we went through little muddy alleys and dark streets. When we finally arrived, there was a lively party going on with 20+ people eating, dancing, drinking, and celebrating. We stayed into the early hours of the morning until it was time to go home. I definitely preferred this birthday party to another night at Utopia.
Luckily, I spent 8 days in Luang Prabang and got to hang out and absorb a lot of the city life. Unfortunately, this was due to being sick and going to the hospital. You can read more about my trip to Luang Prabang Provincial Hospital and my Laos hospital experience here.
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