During the early months of our travels, our time spent in dorm rooms led to many a conversation typically shared amongst travelers: How long have you been traveling? How long will you travel for? Where are you going, and where have you been? For those in Southeast Asia, travel plans will involve most of the same countries (with occasionally the odd addition or subtraction), however it generally seems that those traveling in one of Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos will inherently either go to all three, or have already been. What became rather apparent from most travelers we talked to was the general appreciation, if not love, of the Laosian city Luang Prabang.
Now I don’t know about you, but for me (at the time), the name Luang Prabang was somewhat of an anomaly, if not a partial tongue twister. How could a place that so many travelers described as being so chill, cool, and cultural be completely off my radar? It became obvious to Arienne and I that not only were we going to have to go to this city with such a high standard among travelers, but also give it more than just the cursory 2-3 days to explore its splendor.
With a name that literally means “Royal Buddha Image”, Luang Prabang more than lives up to its appellation. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Luang Prabang, and until 1975 the home of the Laotian monarchy (deposed by the communist party that rules today), the city boasts some of the finest architecture in all of Laos. Stunning temples and the former Royal Palace (now a museum) give Luang Prabang a distinguished, if not majestic charisma. While no longer the legislative or economic capital, Luang Prabang is still the cultural heart and epicenter of Laos.
The reverence held for the city and its Buddhist way of life is obvious among the 100,000 Laotians who call Luang Prabang home. The people are gentle and reserved, though an unassuming traveler might confuse the locals as being uncaring. An easy way to dispel that notion is to gently engage in polite bartering at the daily night market. Finding a happy middle ground on a deal can be good fun for all involved.
In reality, despite having beautiful architecture and a beautiful sense of culture, you won’t find yourself with an exhausting “to do” list while in Luang Prabang. There aren’t any tourist traps or major attractions that drive the tourism industry. Instead, it is the laid back, relaxing and beautiful atmosphere in the city that keep people coming back. The city has so much character and style that you don’t need to do very much to feel the vibe coursing through its veins.
That being said, there are of course “things to do”, and it would be a shame if they weren’t highlighted.
- Royal Palace Complex: This area includes the stunning and richly ornamented temple, as well as the former Royal palace, which now acts as a Museum. The Museum is full of royal artifacts, including a fascinating (in my opinion) display of gifts given to the Royal family from foreign dignitaries. I also highly recommend reading the sixteen part condensed epic story that surrounds the museum walls. (Entrance to the Palace Complex is 30,000kip per person).
- The Night Market: Every night, the main street is closed off and a seemingly endless market opens for both foreign and local shopping needs. A little bartering is okay, but the first price offered will immediately be followed with a new “discount for you” price. The market is great for all kinds of souvenirs, from t-shirts, to paintings, carvings, and lanterns.
- The “Food Alley”: Inside the night market you’ll find the food alley, which is an assembly of street food vendors with all kinds of local dishes for sale. Many places offer 10,000kip ($1.50) per plate of vegetarian buffets, with skewers of meat or fish at an extra cost. Drinks, including Beer Lao, are also sold. For those on a cheap budget, the “Food Alley” is a top choice.
- Phu Si: In the middle of Luang Prabang is a 100m summit that is perfect for viewing sunsets. There is also a small Buddhist shrine if you are looking for some spirituality to go with the sunset (or vice versa). The view of the skyline is a worthy one, hence the 20,000kip price tag to climb the hill.
- Giving Alms to the Monks: Every morning at the crack of dawn, the local Buddhist monks come into the city center to receive alms from the locals. It is a very cultural experience, though not designed for those who aren’t “morning people”. If you are going to take part, be aware of proper customs and procedures associated with Buddhism and monks.
In total, we spent 6 nights in Luang Prabang, and for us that was the perfect number. We had heard about the chilled out atmosphere, and knew that it was the kind of place that takes time to “get”. For a city I hadn’t even heard of before setting out on this trip, Luang Prabang will definitely be one of the more memorable ones I have visited.
Be aware that the city has an 11:30pm noise and hostel curfew throughout the city. So if you are planning on getting hammered and partying all night, you might have to plan on staying out all night, since you might not be able to get back into your guesthouse.