Everyone says that you’ve got to spend some serious time in Luang Prabang. Everyone raves about the history, the atmosphere, the architecture, the scenery, the people, and above all, the food. It’s such a popular place with travelling types, that I was more than a little sceptical about what we’d find when we bounced into town after three hair-raising hours in the back of a minibus. If the driver had had his way, we’d have only taken two and a half hours to get down from Nong Khiaw, but luckily, we got stuck behind some politician’s motorcade, which slowed us down nicely. I’m pretty sure that any overtaking manoeuvre would have seen machine guns being produced, and would have quickly ended up with us vanishing down the side of a cliff. Which is nice.
We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay, so after getting from the bus station to the centre of tourist-ville on the back of a converted motorbike thing, we settled ourselves in the first cafe we found, and checked the internet for recommendations. As we’d not eaten anything, food was ordered. And bloody hell, food was delivered. All of the food in Laos has been pretty good, but this was off the scale good. Way better than expected, much better than you get at home. Fresh, and perfectly cooked to order. We sat down, and savoured it for a while. And then had another drink. And a cake.
I eventually got up and started wombling around the hotels and guesthouses looking for something that would fit us all in, and wasn’t mad expensive. The kids had already decided where they wanted to stay, but at £200 a night, we’d had to over-rule them. With a bed secured for each of us for five nights, we unzipped our bags and exploded into the room, before heading out for beer and pizza.
Now, The Lonely Planet describes Luang Prabang like this:
“Languid and lovely Luang Prabang is one of the most alluring places in Southeast Asia. Nowhere else can lay claim to the city’s old-world romance of thirty three gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine. It’s a unique place where time seems to stand still amid the breakneck pace of the surrounding region.”
And I think that they’ve completely nailed the description. We’ve completely fallen in love with the place, and have extended our stay here as much as we can without running the risk of missing our flight to Hanoi. Life here runs at a different pace to the one which we’ve become used to over the last six months, and indeed, is sleepy even by Laos’s almost horizontal standards. There’s not a great deal to see, or do, which suited us just fine. In my mind though, the highlight has got to be the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. Deep within a steaming hot jungle, these are a series of picture perfect falls and pearlescent blue pools which just beg you to swim in them. The water is icy cold, but is a welcome relief from the jungle heat and humidity. And what’s more, there’s a bear rescue centre on the way to the falls that houses a set of horribly mistreated “moon bears” who have been rescued and are now recovering from the poachers and sadists that keep them chained up to “harvest” their stomach bile in the name of “traditional medicine”. They’re all too damaged to be safely released back into the wild, but have found a safe and secure place to see out their days. Check out
for more info.
I’ve been too lazy to try and get the kids to document their thoughts on their favourite part of Luang Prabang, but I think that they’d be torn between the fantastic selection of cake that’s readily available here – we’ve had to imposed a limit of two pain au chocolat a day – and the oasis tucked deep within Luang Prabang called La Pistoche. It’s a super chilled swimming pool with palm trees, a happy hour that lasts all day, and an ambient/chillout soundtrack casually mixing with the sound of the local roosters and pigs. The kids love a swimming pool, and this is probably the best of the bunch that we’ve visited over the last six months.
Despite the soporific atmosphere of Luang Prabang, one morning we actually managed to drag ourselves out of bed before the sun came up to watch the traditional procession of monks receiving alms from the lay-buddhists. It’s been happening for centuries, and we were hoping that the culture, sanctity and spectacle of it would have been preserved as well as the rest of the town. It also came with the bonus being a great photo opportunity. Sadly, as we walked out of our hotel, the roads were choked with the minibuses which had unloaded scores of tourists who were busily buying inappropriate food items that could be given to the monks whilst they all had their photos taken. The image of three fat Russians sprinting down the road to try and get ahead of the monks so that they had one more selfie opportunity pretty well sums it up. The always gracious monks take the cake and sweets that they’re given, and then either throw them in the bins specifically placed every twenty metres to hold the unwanted “gifts”, or give them to the kids standing on the corners with carrier bags bursting full of confectionary. Once the procession has passed, the tour groups congratulate themselves on their collective Facebook updates, and vanish back to their hotels for a proper breakfast. The stall holders that flogged the stuff the monks didn’t want, go to the monk-bins to retrieve it. A quick dust down, and it’s ready to go tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It was certainly a spectacle, but not the one we were looking for. Floss went out the next morning, but set off earlier, and managed to get away from the tour groups and see how the locals do it properly. The magic is still here, you just have to work a bit harder to find it.
The rest of our time here has been spent being very chilled indeed, taking long, slow walks around town, visiting temples, people watching and eating cake. The best sport, as with everywhere else, is monk watching though. Seeing a monk on a motorbike, or a monk on a mobile phone will always put a smile on our faces. But Luang Prabang has done much more than just put a smile on our faces. For a start, it’s put inch our our waistlines, but it’s also really slowed us down, recharged our batteries and re-energised us for the upcoming adventures in Vietnam and Thailand.
Lao PDR – please don’t rush!