It’s a familiar occurrence for me: I tend to carelessly leave fragments of my heart in the places that I visit. Yet, for whatever reason, I was not expecting to leave a piece of my heart behind in Luang Prabang. This was my first visit to Laos and after being in South-East Asia for a while, I was kind of expecting more of the same-same (but different)—particularly after Chiang Mai not quite meeting my expectations. I have to say, my expectations radar has been out of whack lately.
Luang Prabang is a visual feast for the eyes, set against a titillating backdrop of mist, mountains and the mighty Mekong. The town emits a genteel spirit and a certain refined grandeur that often materialises when Asian and European details collide. I was particularly taken by the French colonial architecture and it took me forever and a day to get from point A to point B, because I kept stopping to take photos. Old merchant shop fronts with brightly coloured shutters are abundant—the perfect fusion of French architecture and Lao details and a remnant of Laos’s French Indochina past.
I spent 6 days in Luang Prabang, but it is a city that can easily be done in a couple of days given its compact size and ease of navigation. However, even at the end of the 6 days, there were still plenty of things that I hadn’t managed to get around to doing, although I somehow found time to squeeze in 3 massages—because priorities, people. The town’s mentality is to take it slow and it’s difficult not to wholly embrace this ethos while there. Tuk tuks slowly trundle on by, and the quietness of the main street is only occasionally interrupted by the squeaky wheels of bikes riding past. There is a lack of chaos that is so uncharacteristic in South-East Asia.
One thing I was particularly struck by was the overwhelming friendliness of the Lao people, and locals often enthusiastically try to initiate conversations with foreigners. Although there is sometimes an innate response to put up your stranger-danger defences and assume you’re about to be swindled if a complete stranger approaches you, there was no agenda from the Lao students who hike up to the top of Mount Phousi to practise their English-speaking skills with tourists, or the young student at the local library who wanted to discuss his studies, family and what Barack Obama got up to while he was in town.
It was these interactions that made me want to seek an experience that would allow me to get closer to the local community, which is how I stumbled upon Big Brother Mouse, an organisation that promotes literacy in Laos. I spent a fulfilling day volunteering with their sister program Big Sister Mouse, which is the school that the organisation has set up.
If there’s one piece of advice I would give, it would be to visit Luang Prabang during the low season or wet season (May to September), even if you might have to endure a couple of hours of rain every day. Prior to coming, I had read other blogs about how Luang Prabang had become ‘disyneyfied’ with the hordes of tourists, which I personally didn’t get a sense of while I was there—most likely because the tourists were lacking. However, I could see how this could potentially happen, given how similar Luang Prabang is to another UNESCO–heritage town Hoi An—which has symphonic music playing through loudspeakers as you wander around the Ancient Town, making it feel as though you are a princess in a Walt Disney movie (although it doesn’t make me love Hoi An any less, and who hasn’t dreamed of being a Disney princess?).
I wonder if I would still have enjoyed Luang Prabang as much if I had gone during peak season, but every person’s opinion is subjective, based on their own experiences, and it’s always best to go and make up your own mind.
HIGHLIGHT OF LUANG PRABANG
If I had to pick only one highlight, it would have to be the short hike to the top of Mount Phousi for the incredible panoramic view over the city. Make sure to get yourself free tickets to the sunset/sunrise show, even if you’ll be waiting around with other keen audience members. On the day that I went up, I was rewarded with a beautiful sunset (even in spite of the cloud cover) and a special guest appearance by a DOUBLE RAINBOW!!
LOWLIGHT OF LUANG PRABANG
While I liked being in Luang Prabang during the low season, unfortunately this also meant that tour companies didn’t run tours as frequently and often cancelled tours if there wasn’t a minimum of 2 people. This can work against you as a solo traveller, and I had a couple of tours cancelled because I was the lone participant (I also had this issue in Chiang Mai). Also, I found that wi-fi wasn’t that reliable and as readily available in Luang Prabang.
LUANG PRABANG ACCOMMODATION
I stayed in 2 guesthouses during my time in Luang Prabang.
Le Bougainvillier is a guesthouse that is located right in the centre of town between the main street and the Mekong. It is perfectly positioned and in easy walking distance of everything. The facilities are simple, but I really enjoyed my time here and the French owner is very accommodating. The wi-fi was a bit patchy, although wi-fi was a bit sketchy everywhere in Luang Prabang.
Maison Dalabua is one of the places that kept popping up in my searches when I was looking into places to stay in Luang Prabang. It is a little more expensive and farther away from the centre of town than Le Bougainvillier (which still isn’t that far given how small the town is). To be perfectly frank, given its higher price tag, I probably would have preferred to stay the entire time at Le Bougainvillier in hindsight. It’s not that Maison Dalabua wasn’t nice, I just found the location less convenient, and it was probably more suited for couples and families rather than a solo traveller. However, the on-site restaurant, Manda de Laos, is fantastic, although I would recommend skipping the massage at the guesthouse and heading to Angsana Spa around the corner instead.
Here is my very random list of tips for Luang Prabang:
- Luang Prabang is quite expensive for a South-East Asian city. However, there is a night market buffet that sells cheap food ($2 to fill up your bowl). Be forewarned: I’ve heard equally good and bad stories about the after-effects of eating at one of these buffets—most likely dependent on whether or not you have an iron stomach (I actually just discovered where the night market buffet was on my last night, so I didn’t get a chance to try it). There are also lots of cheap food carts that sell crepes, sandwiches or baguettes, and fluffy coconut pancakes. FYI, mango and Nutella crepes are the bomb and a perfectly legitimate option for dinner.
- Even though Luang Prabang is compact and easily walkable, it’s still a great place to rent a bike and cycle around, as the traffic is quite organised and slow compared to other South-East Asian cities. Basically what this means is that you can actually have a leisurely bike ride as opposed to an OMG-I-am-going-to-die kind of bike ride. Bike rental is as low as USD$3 for the whole day.
- The alms giving monk ceremony in the early morning can get quite busy along the main street—head to one of the quieter side streets if you want to avoid the throng of photographers.
- This isn’t so much a tip, but be aware that if you go to the Kuang Si Waterfall during the rainy season, the water is actually green-brown, as the rain brings up the water from the bottom. It still doesn’t make it any less beautiful though.
- If you don’t mind splurging and prefer Swedish rather than Asian-style massages, I highly recommend Burasari Spa or Angsana Spa for the royal treatment. Treat yo’self!
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