I often hear through friends of mine who travel a fair amount and read in various travel industry articles that certain places in Vietnam and Cambodia are more and more becoming favored destinations for independent and small-group travelers to Southeast Asia. And I can certainly understand why they are gaining more attention from the well-traveled set, as these locations are some of my favorite places to visit as well. However, although it definitely has its share of visitors already, considering it’s location and what it has to offer, I am kind of amazed that Luang Prabang, Laos hasn’t gotten more attention in the process. But, perhaps that is a good thing.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, this former royal capital of the country is located in the peninsula created by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Thankfully there are no major roads that lead directly into the town, so you can lazily stroll through the quiet streets lined with traditional Lao wooden houses and French colonial architecture while also admiring the plethora of Buddhist wats (temples) and their saffron-robed monks going about their daily activities.
For me Luang Prabang is kind of a fairy tale land for global travelers. The first time I visited I thought I would be there for a couple of days at the most. But this charming gem in Southeast Asia is one of those places that gently pulls you in and seduces you into staying longer than you had planned or at least makes you wish you could. Prior to my time there I had been traveling fairly strenuously, so I was wonderfully surprised by the charming cafes and bakeries, the overall laid-back attitude and the West meets East, cultural diversity. On one particular occasion while having a fresh cappuccino, sitting at a cafe’s outside table along a pleasant street, I recall locals lively conversing in French amongst themselves as well as with a few Western travelers. In some ways it was similar to a likely scene in Paris.
But at the same time the city has not at all let go of its rich, pre-Colonial heritage. There are about 1200 Buddhist monks, approximately 10% of the city’s population, living in the 80 or so monasteries. And bright and early every morning these monks walk around the streets collecting alms, usually in the form of rice, from the rest of the city’s inhabitants. And although it can occasionally be a bit disheartening when a visitor gets a little overzealous with his camera equipment, it can still be a magical thing to observe this tradition in action, knowing it has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years.
And just outside Luang Prabang there are other unique and interesting things to do. One of my favorites was visiting the Tat Kuang Si falls located about 20 miles from town. There are multiple levels of waterfalls with naturally formed, bluish colored pools which are great for swimming and lying in while taking in the beautiful surroundings. And near the falls another place worth visiting is the Bear Rescue Center which takes care of the endangered Asiatic Black Bears which have been rescued from poachers.
Another one of my more enjoyable excursions was taking a two-hour boat ride up the Mekong (only takes a little over an hour to get back downstream) to the Pak Ou Caves which are more famously known by travelers as “the Buddha caves”. The ride on the river is quite scenic, and once you get to the caves the thousands of statues of Buddha are a sight to behold as well.
And there are many other things to do and see in and around Luang Prabang that are worth seeking out – things such as the night market for typical Lao arts and crafts, visiting Haw Kham which is the former royal palace, getting a traditional Lao sauna and massage along with the locals at the Lao Red Cross, participating in cooking classes that are readily available, and perusing some of the high quality art galleries.
So definitely keep in mind the whimsical charms of Luang Prabang if you are already thinking of visiting Southeast Asia. Luckily it has yet to succumb to any sort of mass-tourism, and if you are lucky enough to make it there I can just about guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.
When to go: November through March is the driest time of the year and hence is the high season for tourists. It’s typically much hotter in Laos in April and May, but since Luang Prabang is in the northern, more mountainous part of the country it’s not as ferociously hot as it tends to get in the southern part of the country. June through October basically makes up the wet season which can still be a nice time to visit, although downpours tend to happen more often in July and August.
How to get there: The most interesting way to arrive is via a slow, two-day boat ride down the Mekong from Huay Xai at the Thai border. Speedboats are also available, but I don’t recommend them due to safety and environmental concerns. There are likewise several buses and minibuses from various parts of the rest of the country. For those more constrained by time there are scheduled flights from Vientiane, Hanoi, Siem Reap, Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Money: The official currency in Laos is called the Lao kip, but U.S. dollars and Thai baht are used throughout the country as well. Generally speaking, kip are used for smaller transactions, and baht and dollars are used for larger payments. ATM’s are now readily available, and you can easily exchange baht and dollars at banks or with moneychangers which are easy to find. Kip are worthless outside the country, so it’s best to make sure you don’t have much left over upon departure.