As soon as we caught our first glimpse of Luang Prabang from our AirAsia flight we knew we were entering a different world to the one we had just left behind in Bangkok.
We had booked a guesthouse, Villa Senesouk, within the UNESCO protected township and upon arriving in this area the first thing you notice is the combination of the French colonial and Asian architecture. Stone and brick masonry, and wooden window shutters are fused with the angled roofs so popular throughout Southeast Asia.We spent a lot of time during our nine-day stay just exploring the township, both on foot and by bicycle, however we still managed to visit some local attractions. Here are some of the highlights and disappointments during our stay.
Every evening from 5pm until around 10pm a section of Sisavangvong Road is closed to vehicles and stalls are set up. The majority of these stalls sell solely souvenirs with multiple stalls selling the same or very similar items as one another. The markets are only really to service the tourists with very rarely any locals seen strolling through the stalls, except for the local food section which runs down a small alleyway off one end. Both Paula and I saw lots of great things that we would have loved to buy as most of the prices seemed very reasonable even without the mandatory haggling. However there is little point in buying artwork, bowls or the like when we don’t have a house to put them in. Also ever-present at the night stalls were the baguette and crepe stalls. Lincoln’s go-to-dish by the end of our stay was a Laos baguette with egg, tofu and chilli sauce in it and for only 10,000 LAK ($1.80 NZD) it was a bargain and a pretty damn good meal. Braxton, who was not quite as adventurous, would prefer just ham and tomato sauce.
Mount Phousi rises directly out of the UNESCO township and was only a short 5-10 minute walk from our guesthouse. The mount rises about 100m above the town and offers 360 degree views of the township and surrounding area. On top of the mountain is a small Wat, as well as various shrines and statues, including a Buddha’s footprint scattered amongst the slopes of the hill. We had read that the mount gets extremely busy at sunset so about 1 hour before the sun dropped for the night we paid the small ticket price 10,000 LAK ($1.80 NZD) per adult and started the 355 step hike up to the summit to get a good spot. It was lucky we did as not long after arriving it was left to standing room only. We however managed some great seats at the base of the temple and settled in to wait for the sun to make its descent. For the next 40 or so minutes cameras clicked steadily and once it did finally leave our sight the crowd of people started clapping and cheering. This resulted in Lincoln asking “why?” I told him they were actually clapping me not the sun, however for some reason neither him or Braxton believed this.
Royal Palace Museum
Built in 1904 for King Sisavangvong after the previous palace was destroyed by invaders in 1887, it was then taken over when the communists came into power in 1975 and the royal family were sent to re-eduction camps. After renovation, the palace was converted into a museum that was opened to the public in 1995. Entry fee was just 30,000 LAK/$5.45 NZD for adults and the children were free. We weren’t allowed to take bags or cameras into the museum however there are lockers available to safety leave these items which is free of charge. There were many interesting items throughout the museum including royal jewels, weapons, clothing, replicas of the king and queen’s bedrooms, a series of sketches depicting Lao history and the walls were adored with mosaic images created by beautiful coloured glass. The museum is set amongst beautiful gardens in the centre of town and is well worth a visit to explore and learn more about Lao history and culture.
Big Brother Mouse
Big Brother Mouse is an organisation that assists Lao students who are learning English and asks for anyone able to, to go along and help their students practice speaking conversational English. We arrived one morning and there were already about six students waiting and more arrived during the two-hour slot. It was very interesting to speak with these people about their lives, the history of Laos, their plans for the future, the best food to eat in Laos, New Zealand and Logan even taught them some Kiwi slang.
We also took along some no longer needed books to donate, which they either use to help the students with their reading or sell them to raise further funds. The two hours went very quickly and while it was hard to give students one-on-one time, we hope we helped and encouraged them a little more with their learning.
One of our “must do” activities in Luang Prabang was the morning alms. This ancient tradition involves up to about 200 monks from various temples walking single file in silence through the town at sunrise while locals offer them food as gifts. This sacred tradition dates back about 200 years unfortunately however this has seemingly turned into not much more than a money-making opportunity for locals and for tourists looking for a photograph to hang on their wall when they return home. Despite not being religious I found the daily ceremony incredibly difficult to observe with locals trying to sell sticky rice and treats to gift to the monks and the endless hoards of tourists yelling to one another, while cutting in-front of the monk procession and taking photographs with their flashes still active. All three of these things are posted throughout the town on signs reminding people of the required etiquette, however they are definitely not followed and as such, do take away the feeling of awe and amazement of this tradition.
Mekong Delta Sunset Cruise
We had always planned to take a boat out on the Mekong for sunset and after the first day of cycling the streets where we were approached by numerous long-boat drivers we knew it would be something to try out. So after packing our bags with some snacks and drinks we boarded our boat and made our way up the Mekong observing the local’s fishing and children playing on the riverbank. After about 15 minutes the engine was cut and we slowly and quietly drifted down the Mekong watching the sun set. The view from Mt Phousi was spectacular in its own right but this was something else. For me (Logan) this was without a doubt my highlight of Luang Prabang and for the low price of 100,000 LAK ($18 NZD) it was definitely money well spent.
Kuang Si Waterfalls & Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre
After numerous prices from tuk tuk drivers and private minivans over our first week in Luang Prabang we got one driver to 200,000 LAK ($36.36 NZD) for an 8 hour day. This was basically the same as paying for the four of us to go with a tour group but we would be on our own timeline rather than someone else’s. The waterfall is around 30kms out-of-town but the road is quite narrow in parts and has numerous large potholes so it was about a 45 minute drive. Entry fee was 20,000 LAK ($3.63 NZD) for adults with the children being free of charge; this gave us entry to walk around the bear rescue centre before making our way through to the waterfalls. The Kuang Si Waterfalls are a truly stunning sight and while they may not be very high they do have some stunning scenery.There are three main tiers and many locations safe for swimming, we choose the main pool area as there was a large branch you could walk out on and jump into the water. This was the best way to first enter the water as it was quite chilly but refreshing after having walked to the top and back. There are many areas to sit and enjoy the beauty of the falls including the brilliant turquoise colour of the water, this is caused by the oxidation copper nitrate from inside the limestone of the valley.Our family’s resident animal expert, Lincoln, was hugely excited to visit the sun and moon bear sanctuary and took photos and videos to cut together and present the below short vid of what he liked and found interesting; as well as some of the butterflies we saw at the below mentioned butterfly park.
Kuang Si Falls Butterfly Park
Just before the waterfalls there is butterfly park that a Dutch couple worked on for over a year before officially opening in January 2014. The park is compact and we were in and out in less than an hour but it is well presented and we received a comprehensive guide book explaining each area of the park. One of their objectives is to provide education to both local and foreign visitors, as well as working with local schools to educate Lao children on the importance of preserving and studying nature. Adult entry fees were 40,000 LAK ($7.27 NZD) each and the children were 15,000 LAK ($2.73 NZD) each, so a little more than what we had been paying to enter other local attractions but hopefully some of that money is going towards their educational programmes.Overall, Luang Prabang was quite clean and tidy, but it is definitely geared up for tourists with the main streets lined with accommodation options, restaurants, money exchanges, massages and travel/tour agents. While we had a pleasant enough visit, we are hoping to see more of the real, raw Laos as we continue our journey south and if you wish to visit Luang Prabang we would suggest going sooner rather than later as we can only see it becoming more and more commercialised.
Average Daily Spend – $150.06 NZD ($22.44 NZD under budget per day)
– Logan & Paula