Monday 17 June 2013

Chill Out: Luang Prabang, Laos

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One final place in Laos that I can't fail to mention is the country's capital of calm, Luang Prabang. This is the type of place that you plan to stay a few days and end up staying a few weeks.

Luang Prabang is situated on the meeting point of two rivers, the Nam Khan, and the Mekong.  Because of its access to the Mekong, Luang Prabang has always been an important location in Laotion history.  In the wet season the rivers rage below the town, but in the dry season the meander calmly by leaving the residents perched up on high (you can see in the top photo the rough water line - everything below the lush tree line will be covered in water during the wet season!).

We had 5 days of rest and relaxation in this most charming of towns before we had to head back to the hustle and bustle of work and I think we spent it well.

There are a variety of things to do and not do in and around the Luang Prabang area. Whether you're into hiking up a waterfall, relaxing along the banks of one of two rivers, or shopping 'til you drop at the local boutiques and night market, you can do it all and more here.  Luang Prabang is a burst of colour and has a vibe all it's own.

Because we had five days to explore the area we took life at leisurely pace. During our time there we explored both the town and surrounding areas and all agreed that this was a place worth coming back to (or like many foreigners in the area, staying for longer than planned - some never leave!) We did end up losing a day due to a serious case of food poisoning, but with no knowledge of where it came from (a cooking class, and many foods from the night market were enjoyed the evening before), alack and alas I rallied the following day and made up for lost time!

Haw Kham

Haw Kham was originally built in 1904 as the royal palace but today is home to the national museum.  You can't take photos indoors at all, but once inside you are led through the palace which remains furnished as it was last used in 1975 - before the family was overthrown by communism. My favourite room was the simple Queen's bedroom. She had an eye for mid-century modern furniture and the juxtaposition between that room and the wildly ornate entrance halls is simply awesome. The grounds are expansive and well kept and offer a veiw into the life a 20th Century Laotian royal.

View from the top: Phu Si

Across the street from Haw Kham is the main entrance to Phu Si, Luang Pranbang's largest hill.  The climb and resulting exploration of the hill, its several temples and many buddhas was one of my favourite activities.  The climb to the top is a relatively easy (though not for the faint of heart) 300ish steps, with a lot of places along the way for a rest and a view.  The top of the hill is hiding a tiny little temple and a near 360 view of the surroundings.  My recommended route is heading in through the main (north) entrance and then taking the other path down, it winds at a more leisurely pace down the hill with many little stops a long the way (including a Buddha for each day of the week).  With so many nooks and crannies to explore, coupled with the fact that it spits you out near the back of small, but beautiful, Wat, this route can lead to a happy hour or two of exploring the unexpected.  Bonus: you'll end out on the main strip very close to two excellent cafés - a perfect way to finish!

A few other highlights within town were the many (many) Wats, several great cafés and restaurants, cooking classes, the daily night market, boutiques featuring local artisans, and the Monks Alms procession.  Please take special note that if you are going to be attending the Alms procession, which takes place at sunrise each day, you should do so with respect.  After arriving and not knowing at all what to expect I was disgusted by the number of people who acted like the monks were the feature act in a circus.  For that reason, I don't actually recommend going, but if you do please keep a distance, do not use flash photography, and remain silent. Treat it like the procession of faith that it is.

Edge of town: Nam Kahn River meets the Mekong River

Outside of town even more delight away you, namely waterfalls.  This area of the country is home to some of the most breathtaking waterfalls I have ever seen. With water that is crystalline blue, and stones that are pearly white, these are a must see.

Kuang Si waterfall

Again we rented some motorbikes and found our own way around (though tuktuks are readily available if you prefer someone to do the finding for you). We started our day of waterfalls with the Kuang Si, likely the most popular of the waterfalls around Luang Prabang and with good reason. The picturesque beauty of place is a treat for the eyes, and the many pools and trails offer a variety of activities. A hike to the top is well worth it, and if you're there in the dry season (as we were) you can walk right to the end of the falls (as we did) - but it's a long way down, so do be careful.

Feels like the edge of the world

A long drop down!
Our next stop was the Tad Thong waterfall which was far less busy (just the way I like it!), and only slightly less awe inspiring.  There is a trail that loops you through the jungle and takes approximately 45 minutes to complete which can be rewarded with a dip into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

Tad Thong waterfall

Some practical notes for your stay include the fact that everything has an entrance fee, but none of them are high.  It's HOT in February so plan accordingly. And while our hotel was very nice, and the staff very pleasant, if you have a chance to stay in the town centre, do so.  We stayed a 10 minute cycle out of town, but because the town itself was so pleasent and calm (this is not a place to come for late night partying, but for day time chilling) we had wished we'd stayed there instead.

Places of note:

Café: Le Banneton also has an outpost in Luang Prabang (first mentioned here), but you should also not miss the ever charming Le Café Ban Vat Sene which feels airy and chic and offers some truly great croissant.

Restaurant: So good that we went twice, Tamarind Restaurant is a must taste.  Offering modern Lao cuisine on the banks of the Nam Khan river, this tranquil spot should be top of your list.  Reservations recommended, many people were turned away at the door.  They are also home to the most popular cooking class in town, which was unfortunately booked solid while we were there.

Shop: Ok Pok Tok creates some serious beautiful textiles, all of which are made using the Village Weavers Project to promote the skill and economy of the local women. There are two outposts in town, and the main studio 5 minutes out of town that also offers classes and beautifully outfitted accommodation.

Please note: these businesses are not sponsoring this post. Any recommendations made here are based solely on my experience while visiting. I try to make a note of mentioning establishments that are authentic, have excellent service, and where possible are connected to some greater good.

When all is said and done, each place we visited in Laos had it's own vibe and feeling.  I hope I've managed to convey an honest and open image of my time in each space.  The following are the remaining photos I'd like to share from Luang Prabang that help to capture (my take) on the town's amazing ambiance.

If you ever have questions or comments about this, or any, post please don't hesitate to leave a comment below! Until next time!

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