For our holiday break this December, we decided to spend a few days in Luang Prabang, Laos. We knew little of the country of Laos or the city of Luang Prabang but were pleasantly surprised at the quaint atmosphere of the place. We flew in to Luang Prabang International Airport on a Wednesday and spent 4 days in LP. Upon arriving at the airport I was very surprised at how quiet the airport was. There were not many people moving around and you could nearly hear a whisper! We walked to the taxi desk to arrange the ride to Cold River Hotel & Guesthouse alongside the Nam Kahn River in LP Town Center. Walking outside we were met with a chilling temperature difference we had not felt in some time!
As we entered the town many sights immediately reminded me of Thailand, but as we continued I started seeing slight variations to the architecture and the overall cleanliness. The old town portion is a peninsula of land created by the divergence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. LP was occupied by the French for many years and you could see the influence in the architecture throughout the city. I noticed many more backpackers and younger travelers than we normally see around Pattaya. The city is very funky, hipster-catered, full of western tourists (lots of French and American) and expat friendly all-in-all. We arrived at the guesthouse, checked in, and went out for a nice dinner because we happened to arrive on our 9th wedding anniversary for my wife and I.
After a short walk (1 km?) we reached Sakkaline Road which is a touristy area filled with nice restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, wine bars, tour package salespeople. and more.
We went to a French-Laotion fusion restaurant, called Tangor. OH man, amazing! The food and the wine were more great examples of the French and Laotian cultures melding together in wonderful harmony.
Feeling stuffed after a great anniversary dinner we stopped next door for a bottle of Bordeaux and retired to the guesthouse for the night. I’ll mention that our room was VERY cold as the temperature outside had dropped to about 9 degrees celsius!
The next day we decided to spend roaming around LP town center. We had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, crepes, baguette with butter/jam, and spicy noodle soup (separately, not together) and started walking. Our first adventure was to scale Mount Phou Si, which is a 100m tall mountain in the old city center. The steps up were winding and steep, with little presence of side-rails in some portions to prevent you from falling down the side of the mountain (this made me a worrisome father at times). As you ascended this mountain there were many different buddhist shrines. Two notable shrines were Wat Tham Phou Si which was located halfway up, and What Chom Si which is on the very top. Exhausted and proud of ourselves, we finally made it to the top of the hill and enjoyed a wonderful sweeping view of LP and surrounding terroir for a few minutes.
Afterwards we made our way down the opposite side of Phou Si which led us down to Sakkaline Road again which was perfect for an early lunch at Le Banneton Cafe’. We had heard of this cafe on Lonely Planet’s website as a must-see stop off in LP. It is essentially a classic french-style bakery which serves crepes, baguettes, tart tatin, pate, etc. Again, the food in LP did not disappoint! Wow.
After lunch we began a walk back towards the guesthouse but made a stop off at a bamboo bridge located over the Nam Kahn River. Supposedly this bridge is only constructed 6 months out of the year as is cannot withstand the currents of the river during the rainy season. For a 20.000 kip per person you can walk across this swaying and flexing bridge to the other side where you are greeted with a bar and gift shop.
We walked across and then returned back and caught a tuk-tuk back to the guesthouse for a couple of hours of downtime so the kids could rest and enjoy some cartoons. Just before getting off the tuk-tuk, our driver asked if we wanted to go to the Hmong Tribe New Year Celebration. We declined the offer as we were not aware this was going on and wanted some rest but it sparked our interest.
We decided to check out the Hmong New Year Celebration later that afternoon as it seemed something we might never see again. The celebration lasts for 3 days! So around 3:30pm we caught another tuk-tuk for a 40-minute ride in the middle of NOWHERE to witness the event. At times we were honestly a little worried about where the driver was taking us as we traveled further and further away from the center of town. Finally we arrived in the middle of a teak tree orchard filled with people. There must have been hundreds of Hmong people in traditional dress and adornments.
WE STUCK OUT to say the least. Haha. Out of the many people we were probably 4 of the maybe 10 people who were not Hmong. We got some interesting looks and smiles but this is all something we are pretty used to at this point. The vibe was far different that LP town center where expats seem to outnumber the locals. The New Year celebration was filled with vendors selling food, carnival games, live music, clothing for sale, people with elaborate backdrops and clothing for photo opportunities, farmers selling fruit, and the locals playing a traditional game of “pov pob”. The game is played when teenage boys and girls line up across from each other and look for someone that peaks their interest. They then throw a cloth ball back and forth in a game of catch until someone drops the ball. If one person in the pair drops the ball the other person receives a gift. The presents are taken back by singing love songs to the other person. It was interesting to see lines of Hmong teens in traditional clothing playing this.
After about 45 minutes at the celebration our tuk-tuk driver (who waited for us) drove us back to the guesthouse, or, almost there because his tuk-tuk broke down a few 100 meters from our guesthouse. That was lucky for us considering it could have happened 20/30 minutes out of town. That evening as we came back into the lobby of the guesthouse we booked an excursion for the following day.
At 9:00am a songthaew driver greeted us to take us on our excursion for the day. We booked a half day trip which included the following: a trip down the Mekong River by boat to a whisky village, then onto Pak Ou Caves, and finally a trip down to the Kuang Si Falls. So, our songthaew driver took us down to the Mekong riverside where we were greeted by our boat driver and his wife, standing next to their impressively long, wooden and enclosed, long-tail boat.
We stepped inside and made our way upstream towards the whiskey village. We had the boat all to ourselves so our kids entertained themselves by running up and down the vessel.
The views along the river were spectacular! We saw small rice fields, rows of various crops alongside the water, fishermen, houseboat communities, wild cattle, and steep mountains.
After about and hour we arrived at the first stop, the whisky village. We stepped off the boat and walked up a bamboo bridge into the village. The whisky was being made over a wood fire and the men had their finished products on display. Some bottles had scorpions, snakes, spiders, preserved in the bottle.
I asked him if there was any purpose to it or just for looks and he said, “Old Chinese people believe it gives them energy for the boom-boom”. Hahaha.. Ok. I tasted a few of the whiskeys and we toured around a few other parts for about 20 minutes. Lots of the village people were selling handmade textiles. We made our way back to the boat to continue on to the Pak Ou Caves.
An hour later we were at Pak Ou Caves. Twenty or so boats were parked alongside the cave where you would then step onto a floating bamboo dock to get to the cave entrance. After a few steps you are inside the cave which is filled with lots of images of The Buddha.
If you continue up higher via the very steep steps you reach another much deeper cave. After making a small donation we were given flashlights and entered into the cave. There were impressive statues and sculptures of more Buddha images hidden in this dark cave. It was impressive and gave me a sensation that we were discovering something “secret”. It was very cool.
After seeing this we returned to our boat to go back downstream on the Mekong to LP city center. After about an hour and a half we were back to where we started and caught a ride with our songthaew driver to the Kuang Si Falls, our last destination for the day.
Kuang Si Falls was about a 40 minute drive outside of LP city center. The journey there was awesome, allowing us to see much of the untouched countryside and rice fields. Upon arriving at Kuang Si our driver directed us to the entry area which was flanked on both sides of the street with vendors selling all things tourist. We paid the entry fee and walked our way towards the falls. As you walk in, there is a bear reservation where you can see a variety of different bear species.
When we saw the falls I cannot describe how beautiful they were. The aqua-blue/green color looked UNREAL as it cascaded from a still pool of swimmers down into the streams below. I had never in my life seen such clear, pleasantly colored water.
We made sure to get as many photos there as possible and then went our way back to LP for a nice dinner and a relaxed evening as it was our last night in LP.
On Saturday morning we checked out of our room and made one last venture into the city before our early afternoon departure.
We grabbed a couple of cheap Beer Laos on tap and sat with the kids admiring this hip, kinda trendy, clean and cultured city.
We both agreed that Luang Prabang was one of our favorite cities we had visited in SE Asia thus far. I doubt we’ll ever be able to make our way back but I would recommend a visit to this pleasant city to anyone!