Luang Prabang – a Tranquil Hideaway on the Mighty Mekong
When we planned our trip to Luang Prabang, we didn’t really know what to expect. Having visited many South East Asian cities that have become overrun with backpackers and tourists, I assumed it would be similar in some ways to cities like Phuket in Thailand, or Siem Reap in Cambodia. But really, it was nothing like that.
Beautiful Town and Its People
Luang Prabang is a truly beautiful urban oasis – although using the word “urban” probably is not the most appropriate here. It is a mix of urban, suburban and village life, all rolled up into one. It is a city alright, with all the exciment and ammenities one would expect; yet, it retains a wonderfully relaxed paced of life and a lovely communal vibe.
A big part of Luang Prabang’s income comes from tourism. We know this because its large night market, selling textiles, crafts and food, takes up a large portion of the city centre and caters primarily to tourists. Nevertheless, the vibe here is completely different from other places in South East Asia.
South East Asians in general are not very aggressive – we’ve had some negative experiences in tourist traps elsewhere in the world, but never in SEA. It is no different in Laos. In fact, I find Laotians to be even nicer and more relaxed in general. In any case this is not a fair comparison because we didn’t encounter any tourist traps in Laos.
In the market you can find some truly beautiful things – cashmere scarves, woven bags, handmade ceramics, all for a decent price. But the best thing is that the vendors don’t call out at you to come and look at their wares. They wait for visitors to approach them and state a pretty fair price for their goods. This can be negotiated, but the starting price itself is usually acceptable considering the quality on offer. This made shopping in Luang Prabang one of the nicest street market experiences.
This is just one small aspect of it. There’s also the stunning beauty of the market lit up at night and the wonderful smells and sounds coming from food being prepared. The moment you step into the food section of the market, you are surrounded by the delicious smell of barbecued meat, freshly crushed herbs and sweet, ripe fruit. The market is both authentic and clean, and has a fantastic vibe. We highly recommend the barbecued meat and Laotian “pho” – which is like Vietnamese pho, except a little sweeter and more commonly made with pork or chicken. The lady whose stall we ate from also placed a huge amount of fragrant herbs into our bowls of noodle soup, which made it all the more delicious.
Luang Prabang is, in some ways, “gentrified”. Here, we found everything from French style cafés serving great coffee to Asian fusion restaurants serving up Laotian ingredients with a western twist. Our favourite restaurant though is Tamarind, which we visited twice while we were there. We really loved the authentic flavours offered up in this restaurant, paired with its great location beside the Mekong. The restaurant serves up dishes “tapas” style, with each dish being made of several small bites that can, and should, be shared with your travelling companions.
Monks and Temples
Here, you can really feel how East and West has come together in a delightful mix of sights, sounds and tastes. One thing I really enjoyed was watching the Buddhists monks, in their bright orange robes, walk across the city about their daily tasks.
Monks have been in Laos for many hundreds of years, their daily core duties having changed little – the contrast of the past and the present, east and west, has probably given many visitors something to think about.
One of the things that is usually recommended is to climb Mount Phousi, which is right in the middle of the city centre. It takes some effort to climb the three hundred plus steps to reach the top of the hill, but its nothing anyone in decent health can’t manage. The best time to get to the top is of course sunrise of sunset. If you want great photos unobstructed by other tourists, then we would definitely recommend sunrise.
At its peak, there is a Buddhist shrine that has been dated to 1804. You’re not allowed to sit on the shrine, but you can rest on its steps as you watch the sun set over the glorious Mekong River. From here, you can enjoy panoramic views of Luang Prabang and its many temples. Looking farther into the distance, you’ll see how the city is bordered by mountains, half covered in mist.
Where we stayed in Luang Prabang
While in Luang Prabang, we stayed in Mekong Estate. This estate consisted of several villas around a pool, with a view over the Mekong River. It was a stately place, with beautiful furnuture that was a mix of French and Laotian design.
We were in Laos in January – it was therefore a little cold to be taking dips in the pool – but the afternoons were wonderfully sunny and we enjoyed many hours taking in the sun and reading, while enjoying a gin and tonic – or two.
If you want, you can have breakfast served outdoors. This is a lovely experience as I found the cool morning air (along with the croissants and fresh tropical fruit) quite rejuvenating. To take away some of the sting of the cold though, the lady who served us breakfast always set up a small stove of coals at our feet and made sure there were enough blankets around to keep us warm.
Luang Prabang is one of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited. Of all the locations in South East Asia I’ve been to – and I’ve been to many – this is probably the one I would most like to revisit. I enjoyed everything – the kindness and openess of the Laotians, the varied but mild climate, the fresh, healthy and unique cuisine and most of all, the wonderfully relaxed pace of life.