Luang Prabang is lush, quaint, and improbable. This magical town of butterflies and baguettes seems to exist on dreamlike terms – an island of civility in the savage jungle of Laos. Sometimes a pinch is justifiable to confirm the reality of it all. The green hills, gorgeous colonial buildings, and kind villagers all combine to form a thriving UNESCO heritage city that is Southeast Asia with the charming vestiges of a distant French occupation.
High in the clouds, Luang Prabang holds many treasures for the travelers willing to make the trip. Aromas from fresh bakeries mingle with the crisp mountain air along quiet streets lined with quaint guesthouses and colorful noodle stands. The easiest route to Luang Prabang is on a flight from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways, though domestic flights from Vientiane near the Thai border are also possible on Lao Airlines. Another popular route is by bus from Vientiane. A Laos visa can be obtained upon arrival and costs $35 for U.S. citizens.
Three days is barely enough time to take in the full experience of Luang Prabang, but if planned correctly, you will have time to ride elephants, swim in waterfalls, and take a lazy trip down the Mekong river.
Day 1 – Rent a bike and explore
Arriving in Luang Prabang by plane from Bangkok or Vientiane feels like landing on another planet. Green and misty like Endor, I half expected to be whisked away to my guesthouse on a speeder bike. But no, you have two basic choices for transportation in Luang Prabang: tuk tuk or car. After arriving at your guesthouse in your chosen mode of transport, rent a bike and explore Luang Prabang. Daily bike rentals should cost no more than a few dollars. It is impossible to get irreparably lost in the small UNESCO Heritage city, and locals are happy to guide your exploratory whims. Discover gold roofed temples like Wat Xieng Thong, lazy stretches of the Mekong river, and guesthouses with brightly painted shutters that retain their 19th century colonial charm. Drop by an open air restaurant along the Mekong for some fresh noodle soup.
In the center of Luang Prabang is Phou Si hill. It affords majestic views of Luang Prabang and the surrounding valley. The trek up the hill passes a number of interesting features like a dark cave filled with statues, Buddha’s footprint, and at the summit, the temple of That Chomsi.
After a day spent exploring, duck into Tamarind for a tasty and educational modern Lao meal. This small eatery is committed to providing authenticity, and their menu explains the finer points of Lao cuisine in an insightful manner. If you show up around 5:00pm and sit on the patio, then you will be treated to the echoing chants of monks from a nearby wat. Wash down the spicy dishes with an ice cold Beer Lao.
As far as lodging is concerned, Lotus Villa is a great somewhat inexpensive option with huge rooms, a lush courtyard, and a delicious breakfast. Guesthouses can assist with the logistics of all your adventures.
Day 2 – Elephants and a trip down the Mekong
The old name of the Laos, Lan Xang, means land of a million elephants. While the numbers have dwindled significantly since the age of the old kingdom over 500 years ago, many elephants still roam the dense forests of the countryside. On the Nam khan river outside of Luang Prabang is an elephant sanctuary called the Elephant Village. The scenic location in the misty hills provides a perfect place to interact with the pachyderms. You can ride an elephant down the river or even learn how to be a mahout – an elephant trainer. It is a fantastic experience and strolling down the river on a lumbering beast is memorable indeed.
Most of the elephants have been rescued from logging operations that threatened their lives. One of the resident elephants, Mae San, was given massive doses of ecstasy and amphetamines so that she would stay up all night and day logging. It seems the elephants are well cared for by the sanctuary, and tourism revenue keeps them well fed.
Upon return from your morning elephant adventure, head to the Mekong and enlist the service of a boatman to take you downstream to check out river life. Lao boatmen ply the rivers in long narrow boats, and the sights along the river include a whiskey village, river life, water buffaloes, and the Pak Ou caves if you have the time.
The Luang Prabang night market is a great final stop to any day. Stalls sell an assortment of offerings from opium pipes to crepes to snake whiskey. It is not a dull scene.
Day 3 – Morning alms, waterfalls, and bears in hammocks
In order to catch the morning alms, you will need to rise with the sun. At around 6am, orange cloaked monks take to the streets by the hundreds to collect morning offerings, or alms. They clutch small bowls that villagers fill with sticky rice, candy, gifts, and other offerings. If you stay at Lotus Villa or another guesthouse along the monks’ path, then they can arrange mats and sticky rice for you to donate. They will also instruct you on the details of the procession so that you commit no major faux pas.
After the monks return to their wats, arrange a driver to take you to Kuang Si Falls. The waterfall complex includes a number of falls and ponds ideal for swimming, so bring your bathing suit. Be sure to try your hand at the rope swing at the blue natural pool near the entrance. If you are feeling brave, follow the “do not enter signs” to unearth a hidden natural infinity pool. Located at the top of the main falls, reaching the unbelievably cool hangout requires climbing a hill, snaking back around through the jungle, and finally pulling yourself up over a small waterfall. As you sit in the pool, overlooking the jungle beyond, you will be thankful that you found your way to this small paradisal enclave. It is one of the coolest spots on the planet. Ask around to get hints on the path.
Near the entrance to Kuang Si Falls is an Asiatic black bear sanctuary and rescue center. Stop by to observe the marvelous creatures that are sadly a popular target of poachers. Most of the bears have been rescued, and they lounge around in hammocks, which is splendid indeed.
For dinner on your last evening, drop in to Blue Lagoon or L’Elephant. L’Elephant has one of the best French/Lao fusion kitchens in Luang Prabang. Both restaurants are smart bistros, and Blue Lagoon has an open courtyard teeming with tropical plants and romantic lighting.
If you have some extra time in the region, then a plethora of options exist. Mountain biking, kayaking, trekking, and visiting hill tribes are all popular possibilities. Also, if you are taking ground transport back to Vientiane, stop off in Vang Vieng for a few days. Here in the middle of Laos, thousands of backpackers visit each year to inter-tube down an especially lazy stretch of the Nam Song river. The river jaunt is serviced by many shoreline bars serving ice-cold beers, and the experience has become a rite of passage on the modern banana pancake trail.
All photography by Justin Delaney