A complete contrast to Vientiane, we did a huge amount in Luang Prabang. While slightly touristy, it is so beautiful it’s hard not to love it.
You can’t miss Wat Phou Si – situated on a hill, it’s visible from all over the town. We cleverly decided to climb it in mid afternoon when the humidty was at it’s worst, so it was a real sweat fest. The temple itself is small but the stupa is beautiful and of course the view is amazing.
We also visited Wat Xieng Thong which is stunning both inside and out, with some beautiful detailing on the temple itself. The grounds were undergoing some serious maintenance when we visited so some buildings were not accessible but the temple was worth the visit no doubt.
The Royal Palace (Haw Kham) is located across the road from Wat Phou Si. I wouldn’t say its an absolute must see but it was interesting enough. It’s unusual as it now doubles as the national museum, since it hasn’t been a royal palace since the monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975. Yet it still contains many royal artefacts, and celebrates the former royal family to an extent. I liked the old Royal car collection outside, sadly you weren’t allowed to take any photos.
We ate like kings in LP. I don’t think we had a bad meal the whole time we were there. On our first night we went to a BBQ place by the river, where we cooked meat, fish and veg on a grill built into our table until we were full to bursting.
We sought out some Khao Soi, which is something I had previously only heard in connection to Chiang Mai – the Thai version is a mild curry noodle soup with chicken. The Lao dish of the same name is totally different, aside from it has noodles in it. The base stock is like Pho, but it is topped with a pork mince, tomato and fermented soy bean mixture, that when stirred in gives the broth an incredible flavour.
We had various different types of Larb, already one of our favourite dishes – the buffalo version was tasty. Also Luang Prabang sausages (also possibly buffalo) are incredible.
The most bizarre dish we tried was another local speciality – fried river weed. It took me a while to find somewhere who actually served this, but when we found it it was delicious and very unhealthy. Very thin crispy sheets, somewhat like seaweed, served with a super spicy chilli jam.
You can’t miss the night market in LP – every late afternoon/evening, the main road is taken over by red gazebos with vendors selling all sorts of crafts and souvenirs. It is, unlike the Vientiene one, 100% devoted to tourists but worth a look at least once. It is extremely cramped and crowded though, and hard to get out of once you get in!
La Pistoche Bar & Swimming Pool
One day we decided we needed to cool off – the humidity in the area at the time was extreme which made sightseeing very hot and sweaty work. We had read about La Pistoche bar and swimming pool so decided to check it out. Now it is signposted from all around town but be warned, it is located right on the outskirts and a LONG walk. However it is well worth the trip.
On entry you need to pay 70,000 kip but 50,000 of this can be redeemed against food and drink and anything you don’t spend will be refunded when you leave. There are 2 pools, a smaller one with volleyball net, and a bigger one with plenty of seating around and a swim up bar.
I expected the place to be full of tourists but actually there were probably more local families around. We had a great afternoon there, drinking a few beers and cocktails and having a refreshing swim. There were plenty of songthaews outside when we left which was lucky as we really didn’t fancy that walk again.
Kuang Si Waterfalls
The Kuang Si falls are without a doubt the biggest attraction outside of the town. Not a day went past where we wern’t asked again and again by tuk-tuk drivers if we wanted to go. We kept putting it off, because we had seen a lot of waterfalls so was this one really so special?
We did eventually relent after bumping into some people we had met on our way into the town. They said it really was wortht he trip so we decided to do it. After negotiating a price to and from the falls (40,000 kip each) we set off with a group of German travellers in a songthaew.
So the first thing – the falls are a LONG way from LP. It took a good hour of twists and turns and near head on crashes with other songthaews but we did eventually make it. We bought out tickets and headed in, taking a few photos at the bottom of the falls. Noticing everyone seemed to be heading for a route marked ‘top’ we decided to follow them. Big mistake.
It was hard enough getting up, steps had been carved out of the mud but ropes were required for some parts and it was a tough climb…for very little reward. There were a series of pools at the top with incredibly slippery walkways crossing them. If you went to the edge you could just about see the falls coming down, but it was so precarious you couldn’t see much.
We started to make our way down another route, when it started raining. Heavily. Worse, this route had no steps, only paths. We didn’t have hiking boots – only flip flops. What followed was probably the only time when travelling that I was genuinely scared we were going to get hurt. We just couldn’t walk – we’d slip and crash down a rocky muddy path for metres before grabbing some vines to stop us. It was terrifying, and when we reached the bottom we were drenched and totally covered in mud.
Cursing our luck we searched for somewhere to swim, which is surprisingly difficult – it seems about 80% of the pools have signs saying no swimming. Eventually we found somewhere to swim and once the mud was washed off, it was all worth it. The pools were a beautiful blue and the numerous small waterfalls just begged to be climbed and jumped off.
It was amazing and I’m glad we did it. Just wish we hadn’t gone up to the top. If you visit and there is the slightest hint of rain – DO NOT go up there!
One thing we didn’t see was the morning Alms Ceremony. A lot of people think this is a must see, getting up early to give alms to the monks but nothing we read beforehand made us even remotely interested – the idea of throngs of tourists staring at the monks and taking pictures in their faces did nothing for us. Also, I don’t know why it has become such a big attraction in Luang Prabang, because all over Laos and Cambodia we had seen Monks collecting Alms from locals…we didn’t get why you ‘had’ to see it here.
As it happened, the day we left for the slow boat we inadvertently did see the alms ceremony, on a special day – the start of Buddhist lent. As we took our tuk-tuk to the boat dock, the traffic suddenly got heavy, before we realised it was because hundreds of locals were at the side of the road and monks were walking past. Granted, we only saw it in passing, but it was a nice bonus, and there were no tourists in this part of town.
Where We Stayed
We rested our heads at Luang Prabang Boutique House, recently renamed from Rattanakone guesthouse. For $28 per night we got a lovely big room, nicely decorated, with A/C, TV and breakfast. The only downside was that their WiFi was horrific – their router could not cope with more than a few people connected.