4 Mar 2018

Luang Prabang: A Charming Town of Wats

We had always planned to visit Laos on this trip, and after tiring a bit of our more rapid pace of moving around early in our Southeast Asia itinerary we decided to drop our visit to Vientiane, the capital, and just come to Luang Prabang, which was the capital until 1975. With that decision, we got to spend a whole week in the area and take our time soaking in the culture and seeing the sights.

Luang Prabang is a pretty small town, especially the Old Town where most of the tourist industry is concentrated. It is easily walkable and charming, though you definitely would not need to spend a full week here. If you’re planning to be pretty busy, 3-4 days would be sufficient. It reminds me a little of Hoi An in Vietnam but without the Disneyland feel and crazy crowds.

What We Did in Luang Prabang

Since we didn’t have to rush, we planned to have one major activity each day and then spend at least part of the very hot afternoon back at our guesthouse relaxing with some air conditioning and planning future pieces of our trip.

Day 1: We arrived in Laos in the afternoon, after spending a night in Kuala Lumpur, and got two spots in a van going from the airport to the Old Town for 6 USD. We probably could have negotiated a lower price with a songthaew just outside but it was nice to enjoy some air conditioning on the way.

We stayed at Villa Rattanakon, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. The staff were really helpful providing tips, our room was lovely with a great shower, air conditioning, complementary bikes to take out, a great breakfast delivered to a small table on the balcony outside our room, and ice cold lemonade or pineapple juice when we returned in the afternoon. I would definitely recommend staying here, especially since it was only 40 USD per night.

After settling in, we headed to the Night Market a few minutes away to find some dinner. Compared to some other cities, the market in Luang Prabang is pretty tame. Other than the small alley we often ate in where it’s narrow and jammed with people, the street is not too crowded. You can find plenty of clothes and souvenirs for sale but the best part is the food. We skipped some of the very popular buffet style stalls in the interest of trying to not get sick before we get to India next week and headed for some Khao Soi. Khao Soi is a noodle soup with clear pork stock and topped with a bolognese of pork, tomatoes, chilli, and fermented soy bean paste and it was delicious.

Day 2: Our outing for the day was making our way up the many steps of Mount Phousi. The “mount” is more of a large hill in the center of the Old Town and it is dotted with Buddha statues and religious buildings leading up to a temple at the peak of the hill. While walk up is enjoyable (and provides a little exercise) the views are the main attraction. From the top, you get a great view over the Old Town and across the Mekong. Entrance is 20,000 Kip/person (~2.40 USD) but is well worth it.

We took the back stairs on the side near the Nam Khan river rather than the more popular (and direct) route across from the Royal Palace. It was less crowded and took us past a cave full of Buddha statues and a building that houses what is supposed to be a Buddha footprint. I say supposed to because I was very confused to find that the footprint is huge and was not aware the Buddha was a giant…

We took the more popular route back down and it is definitely quicker but we wouldn’t miss the back side of the hill.

After our climb we went to Xieng Thong Noodle, a noodle shop near the end of Sisavangvong Road. There was one other tourist there when we visited but it seemed to be more popular with locals. They don’t have a lot of variety–you can get pork noodle soup, egg noodle soup, or pork and egg noodle soup-but what they lack in variety they more than make up for in deliciousness. I’m not sure what they put in their broth is thick and the noodles are delightfully chewy (though apparently I’m in the minority in really enjoying that). At 1.5 USD per bowl, we decided quickly we’d be back before the week was over.

You can’t visit Luang Prabang without visiting some of the many Wats (temples) that are scattered around the city and surrounding area. We spent some time exploring Wat Xiengthong with it’s detailed and colorful mosaics and quirky decorative touches.

To cool off from the afternoon heat (it was in the high 90s everyday) we stopped at Saffron Cafe for me to enjoy a coffee while we sat in the shade looking out over the Mekong. While the coffee is twice the price of a large fruit shake from a street stall; it was delicious, service was great, and having a place to sit and read by the river made it worthwhile.

Day 3: I had been itching to do more hiking and so I looked up options around Luang Prabang. There are lots of options for trekking with a guide but we decided to go with the much cheaper, self-guided walk/hike to Wat Chomphet and beyond on the other side of the Mekong River. I used the Hobo Maps area map as a guide and almost certainly wouldn’t have adventured as far without it. Some of the paths are now blocked with barbed wire fences but we enjoyed exploring even if we couldn’t go everywhere we planned. The map includes what would be a much longer bike route but we stuck to walking along the path of the Mekong and ended up doing about a 6 mile loop.

To start, we walked on to a small car ferry across the Mekong. It’s a short trip that runs almost continuously and costs 5,000 Kip /person (~0.60 USD).

From there we walked along a nicely paved path through a village until we reached Wat Chomphet. Entrance to the Wat is 20,000 Kip/person, just like Mount Phousi but the views are just as wonderful.

We then continued along paths that became less and less maintained, past Wats, and a few huts/shacks, until we reached a large Wat that was actively under construction. That is the point that marks the start of a path marked by golden cones through a forest and past several art installations and sets of Buddha statues.

From there we were going to try to complete a loop up to the the 7-head Naga on the ridge shown on the map but found that no matter which path we tried it ended in a fence or just disappeared into the forest. Instead, we finally decided to backtrack a little and follow a dirt road back to the ferry rather than following the exact same path we’d taken before.

While it did get hot by the time we were heading back, most of the path is pretty shady. We also only say a few other tourists on our walk, though many more were disembarking the ferry as we were heading back toward Old Town.

Statues we found on the path marked by cones.

After all our hiking, we wanted to relax and cool off. Almost every blog or must do list for Luang Prabang, as well as our guest house, recommends Utopia. It’s a restaurant and bar overlooking the Nam Khan that is very popular with backpackers, especially because it stays open until 11pm, when most things have already closed. We decided to give it a try. The view was just as good as promised and the space is nice with tables as well as cushions to lounge on in the sun but the service was bad and the food was worse. We ordered a tofu dish as a snack and after some confusion where after 30 minutes they brought us two cocktails we didn’t order instead of the tofu, we finally got four very mediocre barely warm cubes of tofu with a little sauce and cheese on top. You’re also able to smoke and many people were, which really ruined my ability to enjoy lounging around. Needless to say, I was not impressed and would steer clear of this place unless all I wanted was a tower of beer.

For dinner, we visited Joy’s Restaurant, which is on the far edge of the tourist area and was mostly empty both times we ate there. Their Lao food was great, and we appreciated the chance to try some dishes that most of the tourist restaurants seem to have decided were too spicy/adventurous for most visitors.

Day 4: One thing we have often enjoyed while traveling is being able to get outside the area where most tourists see. The Old Town of Luang Prabang is great but is clearly not where local people spend their time, except for working in tourist related industries. So, we borrowed bikes from our guesthouse and went exploring in the nearby outskirts of the city before the day got to hot.

We started by biking to Wat Phon Phao, which we’d noticed on our way into town from the airport. Unfortunately, we didn’t do our research in advance so after huffing and puffing up a few hills on our single-speed bikes, the main temple was closed for the morning. We could have waited for an hour for it to open but instead we decided to continue biking. We made our way across the Nam Khan River to where it is clear more locals live, eat, and shop as well as to a large local market where you could buy most anything. We did see one food tour going on there while we were there but it was mostly locals going about their shopping.

As a reward for our hard work biking around, we treated ourselves to 2-for-1 cocktails at Dyen Sabai. We were hoping this would be a better alternative to Utopia and while it was non-smoking and the cocktails were quite strong, the food was on the expensive side and service was very slow. Still we could relax in the shade and read with a view of the river. To get to Dyen Sabai, you have to cross a bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river during dry season for 5,000 kip per person roundtrip–apparently during rainy season there is a free raft back and forth instead. The fee is supposed to cover the cost of rebuilding the bridge each year because it is washed away during the rainy season.

Day 5: Our main adventure was to visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls and I can not say enough how pretty/amazing it was. After reading about options for getting to Kuang Si, we decided to pass on negotiating a shared tuktuk or a shared van and rent a motorbike for ourselves instead. After using them during our trip to Koh Lanta, Nate felt comfortable enough to take one the 35km to the falls. The motorbike was 120,000 Kip (~15 USD) for the full day but makes for a nice way to see the outskirts of Luang Prabang and means you don’t have any time constraints leaving for or heading back from the falls.

We parked our bike, paid a nominal fee to have someone keep an eye on it, and headed toward the falls. Entrance is 20,000 Kip (~2.50 USD) and is completely worth every penny. You start by walking through Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, we decided to save the cute bears until our way back to try to take advantage of showing up on the earlier side (10:00am) to avoid crowds at the falls.

After getting advice from a friend not to be intimidated by the cautionary signs about the trekking path, we ventured into a hike up from the lower pools along a forrest path that was sometimes steep, sometimes slippery, but mostly free from any other people. There is also the option to take wooden walkways and stairs up and we took that route back down but the trekking route was not bad, even in my cheap flip flops, and was much quieter.

When you get to the main portion of the falls, its beauty stops you in your tracks. The water is bright turquoise and yet you can also see the bottom in many places. There are cascades down at several different levels and the sound of the water is very peaceful. There weren’t too many people there when we first arrived but as we made our way down closer to noon, many more people had showen up.

If you don’t have mobility issues, you can make your way even further up to some additional pools at the top of the falls. There is one you can swim in and others have little wooden bridges across them.

We misread the map and thought we would easily be able to get to the water source of the falls only to later learn, after giving up on two different trails, that the source is about 2km away. Our search did take us down a path that led to a pretty pool off away from the main paths though and on our way to it we also picked up a puppy who decided she wanted to be our guide. She would bound ahead of us only to come back and make sure we were still following. She was adorable and didn’t abandon us until we got all the way back to the lower pools and she found a family picnic to crash.

Before we left, we had to go for a swim in the pools, of course. At the time I had somehow missed that there is a “secret pool” if you’re willing to ignore some signs and barbed wire but to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been willing to ignore the signs anyway (too much of a rule follower for my own good sometimes). Still, we went back to the lower pools to join about a dozen other swimmers of all ages. Full disclosure, when I put my feet in the water for the first time, I really didn’t think I was going to get in. The water is freezing and in case you haven’t learned already from my dislike of cold showers (like too many cold showers in Myanmar or at my silent retreat. But, I knew I would regret not getting in. So, with only a little cajoling from Nate, I made the plunge. I’d like to say it wasn’t so bad once I got in… but it was ice cold and there were fish nibbling at me instantly. We still swam around a little but quickly decided this wasn’t going to be a great way to relax for long. So, we got out, dried off, and headed back toward motorbike.

Safety first with out helmets for riding around Luang Prabang on our motorbike.

Day 6: Our final full day in Luang Prabang started with watching Tak Bat or the giving of alms. I originally wasn’t sure I wanted to go, assuming I would be horribly frustrated by crowds of tourists being disrespectful of the ceremony and the importance it has for Buddhists. We decided in the end to gice it a try and set our alarm for 5:00am (had we really done our research in advance we would have learned that in the winter the process starts closer to 6:00am instead of 5:30am like we thought and would have stayed in bed longer…). We walked along the main street through the Old Town until we found the area where the tourist vans that are everywhere could no longer go, beyond that point one side of the street was lined with small plastic stools and the other was lined with vendors selling food that could be offered to the monks. There were definitely people not being respectful but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected. Maybe I’ve gotten too jaded?

As the sun starts to rise, monks start to make their way along the street accepting small bits of food from those offering it. Many on the monks are young novices, more than I had expected. Watching them scurry between groups collecting their food for the day was an interesting experience and one I had not yet seen, despite traveling through several countries with very large Buddhist populations. I’m glad we observed but we also made sure we were positioned to be able to easily escape down a side street and circle back to our hotel without causing any disruptions so that we could get some breakfast.

If you are ever in Luang Prabang and planning to observe or participate in Tak Bat, I highly recommend the Wanderlust Movement post about dos and don’ts for the alms giving ceremony.

We had run out of activities and so we spent our last afternoon finalizing some travel plans, including booking our last accommodation! Many of our bookings have free cancelation to give us flexibility if we need it but at this point we have a place to stay every night through the end of the trip!

For our final dinner in Luang Prabang, we splurged (especially by the standards of Laos) by making reservations at the very popular Tamarind restaurant. They are known for offering a tasting menu of Laotian food and even though it was a whopping 42 USD for the two of us, we decided to try it. The food was quite good and there was a lot of it. We did notice that the people coming in with prearranged set meals and tour guides received much better treatment than we did. Our waiter may have been having an off night but didn’t give us much in the way of explanation about the food (a selling point on the restaurant) or ask us about our preferences for spiciness or sourness for our food.

Still, we enjoyed a variety of tasty local foods including:

  • A welcome drink (shot) of Lao Lao whisky, we chose the one infused with lemon and honey
  • Spiced buffalo sausage
  • Deep fried eggplant chips
  • Jeow mak khok, a fermented plum dipping sauce
  • Sa mak pi, bamboo shoot salad
  • Koy pa, finely chopped fish salad with herbs
  • Orlam gai, a chicken stem with eggplant, chilli wood, and local greens
  • Barbecue cured sour pork skewers
  • Soop pak, a salad of steamed local greens with sesame seeds, ginger, and chillies
  • A dessert sampler with sticky rice pudding, steamed pumkin with coconut custard, casava jelly, a crunchy cookie bar, taro jelly, a fried banana ball, and some sort of small cake.
  • Coffee or tea

I wasn’t kidding when i said it was a lot of food. We were there for over two hours eating and left completely stuffed.

Day 7: We enjoyed our last breakfast at Villa Rattanakon, packed up, checked out, had a good final visit to Xieng Thong Noodle, and then hopped in a tuk-tuk to the airport for our flight back to Kuala Lumpur (where we spend the night, and then fly onward to Delhi).

Having enjoyed a very laid back week here, we’ll be switching into high gear for our whirlwind trip through India next. We have a lot of places to visit and a lot of trains to take to get there, so the days of lazing around reading with a coffee in the afternoon are probably over for awhile.

How We Did with Our Budget

For our time in Laos, we had budgeted as much as 45 USD a night for accommodations. We ended up spending 40 USD per night for our lovely room at Villa Rattanakon, which turned out to be one of the best places we’ve stayed on the whole trip.

We had also budgeted 8 USD per day per person for food and 8 USD per day per person for entertainment. We ended up spending exactly that 32 USD per day on average, including our nice dinner at Tamarind (42 USD) on our last night and our motorbike rental for visiting the waterfalls (15 USD). Excluding that fancy dinner we would have only spent 26 USD per day total on food and entertainment.