Luang Prabang stole your hearts as Top City in the 2019 Wanderlust Reader Travel Awards. From its verdant views atop Mount Phou Si to the gilded splendour of the temples, we can see why...
The most famous and most eye-catching of all 33 of Luang Prabang’s temples is Wat Xieng Thong. Situated where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet, this low-roofed temple was built by King Setthathirath and houses an extremely rare reclining Buddha. The outside is impressive, too. Don’t miss the bejewelled tree of life that decorates the back wall.
Another popular option is Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham or ‘New temple’ which is one of the largest and most adorned of all the city’s places of worship. Contrast this with That Makmo, or ‘Watermelon Stupa’ (a nickname given due to its domed roof), one of the oldest temples in Luang Prabang.
Time permitting, explore the lesser-known temples on the back streets to escape the swathes of travellers. This might even offer the chance to talk to some of the monks, who may have time to share their knowledge of the wats with you. The same principle applies to watching tak bat, the morning alms ceremony, which has unfortunately become crowded and noisy with tourists. Instead find a quieter temple where you can observe the ceremony from a respectful distance.
Yet another temple sits at the top of this sacred mountain. Climb the stone steps that take you up to That Chomsi to enjoy panoramic views of the whole of Luang Prabang, with the mighty Mekong cutting a muddy path through the stunning scene.
Although popular at sunset, visiting in the morning means you’ll have the mountain largely to yourself so you can enjoy a walk down the back - past awe-inspiring giant buddhas - at a leisurely pace during daylight.
Instead, savour the sunset on a veranda hanging over the Mekong, Beer Lao in hand and away from the masses. Or you could get another view of the city by taking a boat to the other side of the river.
Not only is story-telling an important part of the city’s culture, going along to a recital also offers a unique way to learn more about Luang Prabang’s history, myths and legends. Garavek is a small theatre in the old town which holds a show every evening. The hour-long performance tells stories in English accompanied by a khene (bamboo mouth organ) about Mount Phou Si, the Mekong River and legendary characters.
For a more modern experience, go for a drink at Ikon Klub where you can listen to spoken word poetry or share a poem of your own. They also have great music nights and fantastic cocktails.
As the sun goes down, Luang Prabang’s city centre is transformed into a tunnel made of marquees as vendors set up shop for the evening. Stretching for longer than the eye can see, the night market sells everything from art, hand-made lampshades and textiles to hand-crafted toys, clothes and sweet treats.
This may sound hectic but in a place as laid back as Luang Prabang, the reality is very different. Vehicles are banned from the centre while the market takes place, so you can stroll without worrying about impatient mopeds. And the vendors themselves are very relaxed and friendly. Their quiet approach to selling won't make you feel pushed into buying things.
If it does get overwhelming however, the road-side bars offer a perfect escape, so you can sit with a drink and experience the atmosphere of the market from a distance.
With more top chefs moving to the city, Luang Prabang is now up there as one of the best places for food in the whole of South East Asia. Relax in one of the French-inspired bakeries with a pastry and coffee while watching the sleepy old town go by. Treat yourself to dinner in the luxurious restaurants in the city centre. As well as first-class food, many of these have roof terraces so you can enjoy your dinner along with views of the night market below.
For a more traditional taste of Laos, head to the food stalls hidden down an aisle on the market. For an incredibly small price, vendors here will welcome you to their long benches and encourage you to help yourself to bowls of their food ‘all you can eat’ style. A Luang Prabang sausage is a must as is Nyam Salat (Luang Prabang salad - the tastiest egg and tomato salad you will ever have) and barbequed rice.
Get hands-on at Tamarind Lakeside Cookery School. It starts with a trip to the market to buy your ingredients before heading to pretty pavilions on the water to learn how to cook traditional dishes such as Mok Pa (steamed fish in banana leaves).
Before heading inside the gilded palace, take time to wander around the gardens. There is a statue of King Sisavang Vong, who the palace was built for along with a bizarre yet interesting vintage car collection. Also hidden in the garden is Wat Ho Pha which houses the Pha Bang, gold-alloy Buddha - possibly the most important historical artefact in all of Laos.
Leave your shoes on the doorstep and your bag in the locker before heading inside the palace. The rooms of the past royals have been left untouched so you can see them as they were on the day the family were exiled. The corridors are decorated with many treasures and there is a whole room dedicated to the gifts from other countries.
Head out of the city and into nature with a visit to Kuang Si Falls – less than half an hour away by tuk-tuk. At the very bottom of the falls by the entrance, you will find a bear sanctuary, where Asiatic black bears or ‘moon bears’ lounge in the trees while the much more active baby bears climb and play-fight.
The falls themselves are truly breathtaking and there are various points throughout the climb where you can cool off in the sparkling blue waters. Climb to the very top and stand above the waterfall for spectacular views of the verdant forested cliffs in the distance and to hear the water crashing below – a stark reminder of the power of nature.
Continue your walk deeper into the forest and eventually, after around five km, you will come to a sacred natural spring. Nearby is a butterfly park which is well worth a look.
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