Having a waterfall all to myself…
Starting off my series of blog posts on Laos is this first one on Luang Prabang, This ancient city and former royal capital of Laos has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite this honor, not that many tourists visit Luang Prabang, compared to the other usual tourist haunts in South East Asia. Which in my opinion is a good thing if you want to escape the tourist hordes.
Laos is the only land locked country in South East Asia. It shares it borders with 5 other countries; China and Myanmar to the north, Thailand on the west, Vietnam on the east and Cambodia on the south. The terrain is mainly mountainous and heavily forested. The Mekong River flows through a large part of Laos and the country depends on it for a large part of it’s economy. Luang Prabang was one of the ancient capitals of 3 kingdoms that formed historical Laos, but the modern capital of Laos today is Vientiane.
This is assuming that you are living in Singapore, so that Luang Prabang is reasonably close enough for a long weekend stay with a flight time of roughly 3 hours from Singapore. Scoot (ex-SilkAir) flies direct to Luang Prabang 3 times a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The flight is a loop service from Singapore – Luang Prabang – Vientiane – Singapore. If this schedule doesn’t suit you, you could try connecting flights from Bangkok or Hanoi, but the stop overs can be a real time waster if you only have a long weekend to kill.
Due to Scoot’s odd flight schedule, you could spend 3 days (Saturday to Monday, which is a typical long weekend), or 5 days (Thursday to Monday) depending on how much time you want to spend in Luang Prabang.
The Scoot flight lands in Luang Prabang just after 11.00 am and the airport is only 15-20 minutes by car/bus/tuk tuk to the city. Great timing! Since you would be just in time to check into your hotel and get some lunch.
Your first order of business is to get some local currency, and in Laos the local money is called Kips. Foreign currency like US dollars and Thai Baht are also widely accepted in the shops but at less favorable exchange rates. So it’s best to get some local currency for sundry expenses as many of the small shops and restaurants don’t accept credit cards. You won’t be able to buy Kips at money changers in Singapore, and Kips are also useless outside of Laos.
There are also ATM’s around town where you can withdraw Kips using your ATM card. Do take note of the exchange rates and transaction fees though.
With half a day ahead, you can check out the Royal Palace first. This was the former palace of the Laotian king. The palace is located in the middle of Luang Prabang and surrounded by a large garden. The palace grounds are free to enter, but you have to buy a ticket to enter the palace museum.
There are no explanations inside the museum of what happened to the royal family. And I would have to ask Google for a history lesson to learn of their tragic past. Your visit to the Royal Palace could take you 30 minutes to more than an hour depending on whether you prefer to just browse the palace grounds only, or decide to enter the museum.
“Let’s build bridges, not walls” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Probably one of the more iconic sights is the temporary bamboo bridge that crosses the Nam Khan River. There are 2 bamboo bridges, but the more well known and accessible one is located near to the southern bend of the river. These bridges are only standing during the dry season when the water level of the river is low. In the raining season (roughly April to October), the rising river washes away the bridges, and they have to be rebuilt again in the following dry season. So depending on when you visit Luang Prabang, these bamboo bridges may not be available.
In case you are wondering, it’s safe to cross these bamboo bridges. I found them to be sturdy although they were creaking under my feet. It can be scary though as I thought about falling into the muddy river which was flowing less than a couple of meters below me. And if you are also wondering, the villagers manning the toll booths usually don’t start work until 7.00-7.30am, so you can skip paying toll if you come early in the morning.
Visit the Temples
There are numerous temples in Luang Prabang. In fact, it seemed to me that for every few minutes of walking I would see a temple in front me. Most of these temples are free to enter the grounds, with a few requiring you to pay only if you intend to enter the main hall.
If you only have time for one temple, then Wat Xieng Thong is the one that you should visit. This temple has one of the largest complexes and features multiple prayer halls which are better decorated than the other temples you find in town. It was also the only temple where I had to pay an entrance fee of 20,000 Kips to enter the grounds.
Cruise Along the Mekong
Every evening, the main street closes off to vehicle traffic and transforms into the local night market. It stretches from the junction where the Tourist Information Center is until past the Royal Palace. If you are looking for local handicrafts and souvenirs to buy back for your folks at home, this would be the best place.
Luang Prabang doesn’t have much of a night life and most restaurants and bars close around 9-10 pm. The night market is the only night activity in town besides watching backpackers getting drunk in bars. By 9.30 pm most of the shops in the night market will be closing, as the main road gets cleared for the following morning’s Alms Giving ceremony.
There is a wide variety of food to whet your palate. Being a tourist town, you can find both local and western food being served at various restaurants with prices ranging from cheap to expensive.
This is the local food street that serves Laotian style street food. You will find locals eating here, as well as, tourists who come here to try out the local food. It’s located right beside the Tourist Information Center, and near the start of the Night Market.
While I found the Food Street to be an interesting insight into local food culture, I wasn’t too keen to eat there as hygiene levels left a lot to be desired. Fortunately, there are plenty of restaurants and cafes which have higher hygiene standards to choose from.
Alms Giving Ceremony
Start the day early by going to the Alms Giving ceremony which is held every morning in front of the main street near Wat Sensoukharam. Monks from the complex of temples will walk along the street collecting offerings from people. This happens just before dawn, so if you are a late riser, then this activity might not be your thing.
Kuang Si Waterfall
This is the must see attraction that everyone goes to when they come to Luang Prabang. I would recommend that you to go to Kuang Si Falls in the morning, as it would be less crowded and cooler making the trip more enjoyable. The waterfall is a good 1 hour’s drive from Luang Prabang. Luckily, you can book a tour from the local tour agencies that dot the main street of the city, or you can also bargain with the many tuk tuks and vans that tout rides to Kuang Si Falls.
Once you arrive at Kuang Si Falls, it’s a short 20-30 minutes walk to the waterfall from the carpark. It’s 20,000 Kips for a ticket to enter Kuang Si Falls. Along the way you will pass by a Wildlife Sanctuary where you can see some Asian black bears, red pandas and other endangered animals which were rescued from bile farms and the illegal animal trade.
While most of the tourists will just hang out at Kuang Si Falls. There is another smaller waterfall that is less well known but definitely more intimate where you can enjoy your time in solitude.
The tour to Kuang Si Falls or Keo Waterfall should take you 3-4 hours, and you should be back in Luang Prabang by early to mid afternoon. Once back in town, it’s time to look at some of the other sights.
What’s that you may ask? UXO is an acronym for Unexploded Ordnance, and this is one of the sad chapters of Laos’ history. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, courtesy of Uncle Sam. During the Vietnam, War, in order to stop supplies to Communist Vietnam from Laos, the Americans conducted 580,000 air missions and dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos. Many of these bombs failed to detonate and until today there are 80 million unexploded bombs littering the Laotian countryside, injuring and killing villagers who unknowingly come into contact with them.
Big Brother Mouse
Laos is also one of the most under developed countries in South East Asia. It’s very obvious that the people here need a lot of outside help to develop. As a result, there are a lot of NGO’s operating in Laos. So here is something that you might not find in the usual tourist haunts. How about volunteering your time to help out the locals? Volunteer tourism seems to be catching on nowadays, and it’s very prevalent in Laos with the presence of many NGO’s helping to set up such initiatives. One of the better organized local NGO’s is Big Brother Mouse which helps to raise the literacy level of Laotian children and young adults. Their website has more information on what they do.
This is a small market that sells mainly textiles. I found it rather miserable with many vacant shops inside. There are a couple of jewelry shops inside along with various clothing stalls, the only supermarket in town and some handphone shops.
The most prominent natural feature in Luang Prabang is Mount Phousi. This is a small hill that is considered holy by the locals. At 100m high, it’s a short climb to the top where there is a temple and viewing platforms. There is an entrance fee of 20,000 Kips which you pay when you are halfway near the top. That’s a smart way to make visitors pay, since you would have spent so much effort climbing up and to turn back just because you didn’t want to pay would be a waste.
Spa and Massage
After all that climbing up and down Mt. Phousi, it’s time to relax those aching leg muscles. There are many spas and massage shops to choose from. Prices range from the ridiculously expensive spa treatments at the luxury hotels to cheap rubs at a small shop. Do take note that most of the shops along the main street don’t have air conditioning, and the only ventilation is a fan. I visited the Frangipani Spa which is located on the same street as Big Brother Mouse and it does have air conditioned rooms on the ground floor for foot massages.
The flight from Luang Prabang back to Singapore is at 12.00 pm. Which allows for some time to do some early morning sight seeing and shopping.
If there’s a night market, then there must be a morning market. While the night market caters mainly to the tourist crowds, the morning market is an all locals affair.
After browsing the morning market which shouldn’t take you more than an hour, there’s still time for last minute shopping at the local boutiques and shops before heading to the airport. The shops here open quite early with some of them already opened by 8.00am. But if you are a serious shopper, you would have gotten your treasures over the past couple of days already.
The trip from your hotel back to the airport shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes, giving plenty of time to make it for the 12.00pm flight.
Luang Prabang is pretty small and I got around by walking. It shouldn’t take you more than 30 minutes to walk the whole length of town. But the afternoon heat can be brutal, and most of the time, the streets are empty of people as everyone is hiding indoors from the heat. Tuk tuks are available if you don’t want to walk, but be prepare to bargain on the price.
Where to Stay
Being a major tourist attraction, lodgings are plentiful and range from backpacker hostels to international chain hotels. I found that the guesthouses provided good value for money, with some boutique offerings.
You don’t have to visit the attractions in the order that I’ve listed. In fact, you can mix and match the itinerary. You could drop some of them and spend more time on those that interest you. Luang Prabang hasn’t been entirely discovered by mainstream tourism yet, so life here moves in the slow lane, and you shouldn’t try to rush through your visit. That’s why many visitors who come here don’t want to leave. It’s the laid back village life coupled with the friendly Laotians who make this place special.
Pak Ou Caves
If you have time, there is another attraction outside of Luang Prabang called the Pak Ou Caves. I won’t say much about them here since I’m going to blog about them in another post. It’s just a couple of large caves in limestone cliffs upriver, and you can book a tour with any of the agencies in town or approach some of the slow boat operators on the banks of the Mekong River. The Pak Ou Caves contain thousands of Buddha statues and are considered a sacred place by the locals. You get to the caves by boat and sometimes the tour also includes visits to other villages selling handicrafts. The trip typically takes half a day.
Below is a Google Map of Luang Prabang. Take time to explore it to find the places that I mentioned above.