Blanketed almost entirely as a Unesco World Heritage listing, the near-mythical Luang Prabang is often cited as being amongst the most beguiling places in South East Asia. For travellers weary of the traffic, the non-stop sales pitches and the wonderfully manic nature of much of the region, the temple-dotted green hills of Luang Prabang provide much needed relief. It is here you are more likely to need to awake your tuk tuk driver than bat him off, such is the relaxed vibe. But far from being a sleepy backwater, Luang Prabang is home to some of the more atmospheric restaurants, bars and accommodation (not-to-mention temples) in South East Asia, much of which is owed to the city’s carefully preserved history.
Located at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang remained the capital (and home of the royal family) until the sweep of communism in 1975. Prior to the establishment of the international airport in 1997, the only way in was by road, making this small city of just over 100,000 inhabitants one of the true undiscovered gems of South East Asia. While the airport has opened Luang Prabang up to tourism, the charms some feared would evaporate are still very present. From the difficulty of choosing which charming French colonial guesthouse to stay in to the unhurried beauty of monks receiving their morning alms; from the grandeur of the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls to the peaceful rhythms of the Mekong, Luang Prabang better fits the cliché of “staying longer than you expected” than most.
1. Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum: Unusual opening hours aside, this must-see for history buffs is adorned with gifts from foreign dignitaries (including Moon-dust from President Nixon). The building’s restrained opulence is characteristic of Luang Prabang’s paradoxical existence in one of the world’s poorest nations.
2. Mt Phu Si: Worth every drop of sweat is the ascent of Mt Phu Si, dominating the Luang Prabang skyline in more serene fashion than any skyscraper ever could (and thanks to that Unesco World Heritage listing, it will never have the competition). Also a sacred monastery, Mt Phu Si is best visited just before sunset for remarkable views.
3. Kuang Si Waterfalls: A favourite on the backpacker trail, the falls are a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride out of town and require a bit of local knowledge to be experienced to their fullest. Ask around for how best to reach the “secret pool” located three-quarters up the waterfalls. This un-sign-posted slice of nirvana is the bane of many who search without ever finding it – ask around and you might get lucky!
4. Utopia: An oft-used name for a bar, this “Utopia” is one place which truly fits the moniker. Almost as hard to find as the Kuang Si Waterfalls’ “secret pool,” it is impossible to overhype this restaurant / bar / live music venue / garden / beach volleyball court. Pay the extra for the delicious local cuisine because the combination of riverside views (the Nam Khan), gentle guitar strumming and meet-the-fellow-travellers-volleyball is forever going to make you wish you were back here.
5. UXO Visitor’s Centre: A sad reminder of Laos’ status as the most heavily bombed country on earth. An estimated 260 million bombs rained down within Laos’ borders during the “secret war” of the 60s and 70s, the majority of which remained unexploded. A tragic reality is the almost daily accounts of people losing limbs (or worse) from UXO (unexploded ordinance). Air-conditioned and as poignant as it is confronting, this museum is one place where your spare tourist dollars really do make a difference. Simply put, a US $30 donation is enough to pay for one basic prosthetic limb – small change for the average tourist, life-changing for the average UXO victim.
To Motorbike Or Not?
Such was the regularity of westerners crashing their hired motorbikes that Luang Prabang councilors took the unusual step a few years ago of banning all foreigners from being able to hire in the first place. While that law has recently been relaxed, the large numbers of tourists who still get confused as to which side of the road to ride on (the right-hand side) is unfortunately continuing the tradition of holiday hospital visits.
This author was so aware of the alarming statistics of western (usually male) motorbike crashes in South East Asia that he eschewed his manly pride for a bicycle, only to find himself both the victim and culprit of an accident with a motorbike. This incident, while possibly isolated, may provide better insight into the appeal of the Laos psyche than any number of friendly smiles.
Baring in mind tourists are often warned to flee the scenes of minor vehicle accidents in case of being made to pay years of non-existent hospital bills, the author’s good nature got in the way and he carelessly admitted full blame for his Luang Prabang intersection faux-pas. Yet instead of a made up price and injury-list, the Laos girl’s banged-up motorbike cost just US $14 to fix and a mutual praise-a-thon ensued of how nice each person was. With wounds bandaged and numbers exchanged, it was the most good-natured road-accident you could ever wish for. All of this in the poorest country in Asia.
When To Go
Two factors to consider when choosing what time of year to visit Luang Prabang are the colder than expected winter nights and the bush-fire haze of the dry season. Both occur at roughly the same time of year (December through February) and make a holiday outside of these months more rewarding. While day time highs in Luang Prabang are warm year round, the winter nights can leave some tourists reaching for the jacket they didn’t bring. And with slash and burn farming techniques still a way of life in much of Asia, a trip during the monsoon season will still see plenty of sunshine, but without the smoky sting in your eye.