This week's blog post is by Laura Tanner, our Wandering Wordsmith. Join her as she spends a weekend in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Luang Prabang had been on this Wandering Wordsmith’s travel wishlist for quite some time. It’s simply not been an easy place to access within a long weekend, given work and holiday schedules. From Singapore, you can get to Luang Prabang via Bangkok, or via a seasonal Lao Airlines flight 3 days a week which stops in Vientiane on the way there.
Upon arrival, though, you wonder if the difficult access is a bit of a blessing in disguise, because Luang Prabang is not crowded with the tourist crowds seen across Thailand and much of South East Asia. It maintains a tranquility and uniqueness, perhaps because of this. Once you find your likely peaceful guesthouse or hotel, here are some recommendations for what to do in Luang Prabang:
1- Wander the wats
While Thailand’s wats (temples) are larger and perhaps covered with more glitter, Luang Prabang’s are nothing to sneeze at. The old town, snuggled between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is blanketed in them. You wander around the (mainly free) wats, catching an occasional glimpse of a sleeping monk.
What I found most fascinating was the careful, ongoing repair and renovation work being done on many of the wats, often with support of international NGOs. This is a slow process, and shows the wear over time as well as giving a hint of the temples’ full glory.
Oh, and did I mention the sculptures?
2- Eat the local cuisine
Before arriving in Laos, the world of Lao cuisine was regrettably unknown to me. We were pleasantly surprised by how many new dishes we were able to try in the short time we were there. At the Victoria Xiengthong Palace restaurant, we enjoyed traditional “river weed” and learned to dip our sticky rice into tomato and smoky eggplant dips.
We also had the most delicious tamarind soup I’ve ever eaten, which tasted like a Thai Tom Kha soup happily married with tamarind. Upon further reflection, I’m not aware of having eaten other tamarind soups, but I might hesitate to do so given that they would most likely pale in comparison.
Speaking of which, you can go to the Tamarind restaurant for an even more in-depth lesson on the local cuisine, complete with a cooking class. This is a good idea if you want to take some of these flavours home with you, because Lao restaurants can be hard to find. If you have less time, just enjoy the abundant menu at the restaurant while sipping a cocktail seasoned with local chili: delicious.
3- Climb up the hill and brave the river crossing
Once you’ve toured the royal palace and the old town, it’s time to climb Mount Phousi to the temple at its peak. It’s not too far or strenuous, although it’s hot most of the year. The climb will reward you with amazing panoramic views of the city surrounded by mountains and rivers.
Maintain your bravery to cross the Nam Khan river’s bamboo bridge. Pay the small toll, and reach a little community on the other side. Here, you can visit the Garden of Eden shop, where you can make your own jewelry, guided by the helpful owner.
4- Peruse the shops
The Wandering Wordsmith is not generally a fan of shopping, especially for tourist trinkets. However, the stores in Luang Prabang did not yield the usual array of cheaply-made gifts of little use. Instead, there was interesting jewelry, handicrafts, hand-made scarves, paper cards, alongside the usual collection of t-shirts and wall prints.
There are multiple markets worthy of a meander, including the food market with locals shopping and eating, and the night market which is more tourist-oriented.
5- Watch the alms with awe
One of the main reasons tourists do come to Luang Prabang is to get up very early in the morning to watch the monks receiving alms. This happens throughout the old town, near each of the wats, and is a serene sight to see. The locals sit outside their homes or temples, and give handfuls of sticky rice to endless streams of passing barefoot monks.
Watching the almsgiving is an art, and something to be done with consideration. First, you’ll want to pick a quiet location away from the crowds of tourists that arrive by bus in the main area of Sakkaline road. Secondly, you’ll want to do a read-through of what is disrespectful in this peaceful and devoted environment (no flash photography, and keeping a distance is required). Finally, if you like, you can participate in the almsgiving yourself. The hotels will help you to manage this, providing you with instructions and sticky rice for a very unique cultural experience. In any case, you’re guaranteed amazement and fantastic memories!
Ready to take a trip to Luang Prabang?