Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.
The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.