Luang Prabang – UNESCO World Heritage Site

Luang Prabang, Laos

You won’t travel far in South East Asia before hearing about the charms of Laos’ premier destination, Luang Prabang.

We made it as far as booking a flight the last time we were around this way, before Asia fatigue kicked in and propelled us Oz-bound in search of pseudo home comforts.

And having just spent a month in Thailand we almost did it again. “how different will Luang Prabang be?” we asked.

Well if I’m being absolutely honest. Not that different!

But that’s certainly no reason not to go.

If you were to take the best of Thailand’s inland treasures and squeeze them in to one small town you would pretty much have Luang Prabang.

The ancient town lies at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The sublime natural beauty is augmented by French Colonial architecture, an abundance of sparkling temples and swathes of saffron wrapped monks who parade the streets.

Mount Phousi

At the centre of town 350 steps scale the 150 meter Mount Phousi, caped by Wat Chomsi the summit offers spectacular views of the whole town as well as the Mekong and Nam Khan. About half way up you will find the Wat Tham Phousi shrine. Make sure you don’t miss the not-so hidden cave.

Kuang Si Falls

Another must see attraction is the Kuang Si falls. Just 30Km south of Luang Prabang the spectacular 50 meter waterfall feeds a number of stunning cascades set amongst beautiful azure bathing pools and tropical jungle. There is a hiking trail to the top of the falls for those feeling adventurous and bathing is allowed in some of the lower pools for those who fancy a refreshing dip. Just how refreshing the water is can be a little bit of a surprise when you first get in and watch out for the slippery stones and the little fish that like a nibble!

At the entrance to the falls is a bear sanctuary where you can see some of the bears rescued by the organisation. You can also buy a souvenir or make a donation to help the good cause. www.freethebears.org/

Free the Bears Luang Prabang
Rescued bear

Entrance to Kuang Si falls is 20,000 kip (£2) at the time of writing and this includes entrance to the bear sanctuary. Our private hire tuk-tuk cost  200,000 kip (£20) for half a day.

No place for a party

Despite the divine beauty, and its well-earned reputation Luang Prabang remains a remarkably peaceful place. The nearest thing to a crowd you will see is at the nightly market on the main road and little noise escapes the restaurants and bars which are bound by a strict curfew that sees their doors closed at 11:30pm. We were told most locals go to bed early as they get up each morning to give alms.

Alms Giving Ceremony

The alms giving ceremony takes place daily at sunrise where a procession of monks numbering in the hundreds collect offerings from locals and visitors alike.

It’s one of those unusual “attractions” that forces you to question the ethics of picture-taking. Is it disrespectful to photograph this ancient spiritual ceremony? Should I be content to witness the spectacle and record it only in memory? Well after the 3rd consecutive night of being woken up at 6am by gong-bonging and bell-ringing I moralised that if they hadn’t woken me up I’d be still tucked up in bed rather than giving them the fat end of a 200mm lens. Karma! They can’t argue with that!

Luang Prabang Alms giving ceremony
Alms giving ceremony

Get Out!

As beautiful as the old town is, and there is no denying its beauty, for us, as is so often the case, the best part of Luang Prabang was to be found outside the tourist epicentre. Across the Nam Khan river via the bamboo bridge lies the real Laos. Endless leafy villages and weathered temples to explore and hardly a farang in sight.

Isn’t Luang Prabang expensive?

The one negative we kept hearing about Luang Prabang was that it was expensive. And I guess this one is subjective. We stay in mid range hotels, and ate in decent restaurants. Decent, not expensive. And we found the prices very similar to those in Bangkok. Sure there are plenty of fancy restaurants on the main strip that will  easily make a hole in $100, but how is that any different to the Thai capital? An evening meal for 2 cost us $15 – $20, which is pretty much what we spent when we were in Thailand. And if anything the beer is slightly cheaper, so that’s a result!

We are glad we went through with the visit this time. Luang Prabang is only a small town, and it’s easily explored in a couple of days. But it’s a small town with a lot of charm, and one of the most beautiful places we have visited in South East Asia.