Having been in Laos for a few weeks, our arrival in Luang Prabang – the country’s most famous and most visited city – was a shock to the system. We had heard about the bougie cafes serving wine in proper glasses accompanied by cheese, the charming cobblestone streets dotted with flowering frangipani trees and ornate ancient temples, the delectable food on par with best cafes in Paris, and the exotic, languid beauty of Luang Prabang.
This version of Luang Prabang totally exists. But instead of soaking it all in, we spent our first day in Laos’ former royal capital dismayed by our surroundings: the throngs of tourists armed with outrageous sized lenses chasing monks, the crowded Wats charging entrance fees, the overpriced Western food — Luang Prabang takes the cake for the worst, and most expensive, burger we’ve had in Asia. Instead of carefree, leisurely enjoyment of ourselves, we felt guilt by association over the fact that the entire Unesco World Heritage Site has long ago turned into a Disney-fied version of its former self, and we were here to continue to partake in this tourist onslaught on Lao culture.
Thankfully, first impressions can be deceiving. While we never quite got over the damaging impact of tourism in Luang Prabang, we were able to look past our initial judgments and discover good reasons to continue extending our stay (and no, $5 croissants are not on the list). We actually ended up spending five days here catching up on work and – believe it or not – enjoying the town. So what gives?
Accommodations and Internet
We spent just over three weeks in Laos – that’s a long time for us without reliable internet and a comfortable bed. The lone exception to our lodging experience in Laos was Xaychaleuang Guesthouse in Luang Prabang. We stumbled on the budget guesthouse by chance, and were wowed on the spot. Xaychaleuang is in a historic property in old town, owned and run by a Japanese host. It is completely renovated with fantastic facilities, modern finishes, a cute café, and fast wifi (!). Of those five days we spent in Luang Prabang, a few of them we stayed in just to hang out on our balcony and enjoy the fast wifi.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is a Lao-directed organization, headquartered in Luang Prabang, which aims to spread literacy in the country. The main objective is to publish children’s and young adult’s books for schools, but the office in Luang Prabang also holds English language practice sessions everyday at 9-11 am and 5-7 pm. Anyone fluent in English can drop by and help Lao students to practice their English speaking and comprehension skills. You end up learning about Lao culture and people, and feeling pretty good about making a small difference to help others to learn. You can also purchase books, in Lao language, to be donated to schools.
Sunrise Yoga & afternoon volleyball
Yoga classes aren’t all that uncommon across Southeast Asia – and while I enjoy going to class as part of my routine at home, I rarely do so while traveling. I can’t really get into the rhythm, I am typically focused on something else, and besides it’s always a toss up whether the instructor will be any good. I took the chance on sunrise yoga class at Utopia because of the location – a deck overlooking the Nan Khan river. And I am happy to report that the location is as glorious as it sounds, and the instructor is very good.
Another winner point for Utopia Bar and Grill – it’s a gathering place for a late afternoon volleyball game right on Nan Khan riverfront. Curiously, the time we were there the players were mostly locals, we have no idea whether the games are a regular occurrence, but it was a great experience!
Traditional Steam Bath and Massage
I love experiencing local bath houses, spas, steam rooms, hot springs, etc. The only thing is that for me, the first time I go, I am always quite skittish about knowing the proper local etiquette — what is normal and expected in South Korea might be quite different from what is normal and expected in say, Laos. So Luang Prabang – where tourists abound – is a perfect place to try the traditional Lao Steam Bath and Massage. I went to Lemongrass Sauna off the main street in the middle of old town, and the staff helpfully explained everything I was supposed to do. For 10,000 kip I was given a freshly laundered sarong to wrap myself in, an unlimited amount of lemongrass tea served on open air terrace, and of course, access to the herbal steam sauna. I went around 4 pm right when they open, and had the place to myself for a bit. By 5 pm, Lemongrass – much to my surprise – was packed with local patrons. I would also recommend the tradition Lao massage. At Lemongrass the massage rooms are set up on the open air terrace as well, with cotton curtains for privacy. All in all, the Lao steam and massage spa was a magical experience that I highly recommend.
Pizza and Ice Cream
Ok, I know I mentioned that we weren’t terribly impressed by the Western food in Luang Prabang – and actually, we weren’t really able to find good Lao food in this town either. But we did find two places worth writing about: Pizza Phan Luang — a thin crust pizza, served at a very atmospheric outdoor patio in Phan Luang Village right across a bamboo bridge from Luang Prabang. Easily our best meal in Luang Prabang. And a daily $1 splurge on a scoop for delicious homemade ice cream at Jome Bakery. As good as any artisanal ice cream back home.
Kuang Si Waterfall
There are a lot of attractions in Luang Prabang that we skipped out on, but we can’t recommend Kuang Si waterfall highly enough. We were in Laos in April – dry season – and had an absolutely fantastic time. The Kuang Si cascades are spectacular, the milky emerald water refreshing, and in the dry season there is opportunity to climb into and all over the limestone cliffs down which the water cascades. I am not going to say that it was the safest, but the adrenaline rush of standing under the tumbling, cool waterfall was absolutely the best. At the very top we also stumbled on a local guide who offered to take us into the jungle on his bamboo raft, navigating the calm pool of water, which was pretty neat.
Tat Kuang Si park also hosts the Asiatic Black Bear rescue center, which is home to over a dozen animals rescued from poachers and traffickers. The bears roam inside enclosures, and are super cute and vocal about their better life these days.
If you like markets, then you will love Luang Prabang. The town hosts two big ones – one in the morning, and one in the evening. The morning morning, which starts right after the alms giving ceremony, is frequented by locals to purchase their daily supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and snacks, such as fried bugs. Mhhh, delicious. Also, you can get Lao traditional breakfast here — in our humble opinion just as tasty as Western croissants, and a much better value.
The market in the evening starts at dusk and is meant entirely for tourists interested in purchasing traditional Lao crafts and souvenir knick knacks. I am a fan collecting mementos from our travels, and the night market’s selection did not disappoint. I am a proud owner of a beautifully woven blanket that makes me super happy. Also, a big plus of Luang Parabang night market is that (as you would expect) there is zero pressure from the vendors, that’s just not how Lao do. So, browse as much as you like without being heckled, bargain a bit, and go home with a beautiful hand-woven textile.
I debated whether to list monks as a major highlight of Luang Prabang. The beautiful, spiritual alms giving ceremony – Tak Bat – practiced for centuries across Southeast Asia has been turned into a tourist spectacle in Luang Prabang. Even worse, as of late, unwitting actually physically hurting the monks. Adam from Getting Stamped has a very thoughtful post on the subject. I went to witness the ceremony, and though I refrained from coming up close, snapping pictures in monk’s faces and carefully followed some basic rules, I am not sure I made the right choice to even go. What is a moment of a fleeting, exotic beauty to me, is a deeply spiritual and sacred ritual for Buddhist Lao.
Sticky rice is steamed at dawn by the local residents ever morning for the Tak Bat ceremony, who then line the streets every day ready to pay their respects to the Buddhist monks. Luang Prabang, Laos.
Whether or not you end up witnessing the alms giving ceremony, Luang Prabang is teeming with monks who are actually quite friendly when not participating in solemn religious rituals. Many come to Big Brother mouse to practice their English. Many are out and about just having fun. Most are just boys, and they like to have a bit of diversion as much as the next kid – so strike up a conversation, or just observe from a distance the Lao way of life, which includes monkhood for most as a rite of passage.