If traveling is your thing odds are you have heard about Luang Prabang already. Heck, you’ve probably already been there! But if you haven’t, I’ll set this straight right from the beginning: Luang Prabang is Asia’s real pearl or orient, hand doen. I know, I know, Manila in the Philippine’s has had the luxury of having been recognized as such for decades, but trust me: I’ve been there too and unless traffic, pollution, theft and chaos are your idea of splendour then Manila might be all kinds of things, but not the pearl of orient. Not that I have anything against the city, but some things must change if we are too be fair.
Luang Prabang has been on budget traveleres’ itineraries for a few decades already, but even so it is still off-radar for most travelers who visit South East Asia, missing out a relatively accessible city that will linger memories of what exotic Asia probably was in the so called “old days”. This laid-back city with a population of just over 100,000 individuals lies in north Laos, where Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River- just about 425 kilometers north of the country’s capital: Vientiane
Getting to Luang Prabang
Reaching Luang Prabang can be as easy or adventurous as you want: there are direct flights from several capital cities in neighbouring countries (perhaps Bangkok being the cheapest), there is the slow boat that takes two days from Huay Xai in the Thai border (stopping in Pakbeng) costing about 200,000 kip, the fast boat joy ride you should avoid unless risking your life is your idea of fun (accidents resulting in deaths occur ever year, particularly during dry season) costing about 350,000 kip and lasting about 6 hours, and then there is the 10 hour van ride or 15 hour bus ride from Huay Xai costing about 120,000- 140,000 kip depending on how good you can bargain. Transportation from other cities is available too, thought not as common.
I did not find the road trip particularly beautiful, with rolling mountains and lush vegetation in the distance being the most commone scenery. I was charmed though by the dozens of small straw-made villages that popped around the road, where children played in the mud and the elder could be seen cooking, building more houses…or watching TV (??!!). After ten hours of travel it does get weary, and the closer your get to Luang Prabang the worse the roads seem to get, but it is all part of the adventure travel experience. And we were lucky- travelers who followed the same route the folling day told us it had taken them 15 hours because of mud slides that had blocked the road more than once. Long story short: if you’re not willing to cope with this then I strongly recommend you fly.
Finding budget accommodation is not a problem in Luang Prabang. There are dozens of guesthouse where you can find a room for 4-10 USD, all of them offering simple yet clean rooms, many with private bathroom, Wi-Fi, free coffee and all the linen you’ll need: Levady Guesthouse, Soutikkone Guest House and Cold River Guesthouse are just a few. And if it’s hotels you’re after, there is no shortage of those either.
Formerly a french colony, food in Luang Prabang is one to indulge yourself into. Buffalo steaks and sausages, fried dried seaweed with sesame seeds dipped in a chili sauce, laam phak- a thick, savory stew of vegetables and local herbs- and laab paa, a “salad” of minced Mekong River fish with a spicy-tart dressing and full on french bakeries are just some of the dishes to try. I particularly loved trying different meals in the night market’s food alley, where you could even find a simple buffet for 1.5 USD!
What to do in Luang Prabang
Perhaps one of the most interesting experiences you can observe anywhere in the world is the Alms ceremony in which Monks at dawn collect alms of rice from kneeling villagers (and early-rising tourists). Ask your guesthouse host to assist you the day before in preparing if you’d like to get up and give alms in the morning. Visiting the many temples are a must, as is walking to the top of Phou Si hill for a great view of the area. The slow boat ride to Pak Ou caves (the famous Buddha Ceves) north of town allow a formidable experience which usually includes a small stopver at a village where you can buy, among other things, liquors made at the local brewery, the night market is not very big but not to be missed either, and cooking classes are a popular activity among visitors too.
After spending three days in Luang Prabang (could have easily spent a couple more) I fell in love with this place. It’s roots are still embeded deep within the local culture despite its increasing popularity, there is a pacefull aura that follows you wherever you go, and Lao people are among the friednliest you will find anywhere in the world. Of all the experiences I had when there there are two that deffinetly stand out: the time we spent speaking with a local monk who explained what his chores, resonsibilities and reasons for being at the temple were ( did you know that monks are auto didactic, meaning they set up their own schedules and learn by themselves?), besides asking me for some help on his spanish lessons, and one fantastic massage we had during which a heavy storm began, with rain and thunder mellowing our already relaxed moods and finishing just as we were about to walk out the front door.
There are many well known places in South East Asia any traveler wants to go there, and then there are those some of you might have heard of yet are unsure about whether to go or not. If Luang Prabang is one such place, make sure you don’t skip it. And if it’s not in your to-visit list, I highly recommend you include it…right now!
Have you visited Luang Prabang? What are your thoughts about my pearl of orient? Do you have yours? Share it with us, and this post too if you likeed it!