Laos is a country with a magnificent natural, religious, cultural and historical legacy. Although it is no longer a constitutional monarchy, Luang Prabang remains the jewel in the Laos crown. This ancient city was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995, and is a perfect illustration of its country's rich heritage.
Getting to Luang Prabang, from Bangkok, Hanoi, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur is quite easy now-a-days, but arriving from Hong Kong, takes a bit more patience. My journey involved a four-hour layover in Hanoi (where there is absolutely nothing to do), book-ended by one and half hour flights. By the time we finally arrived in LP we were knackered, so we just had some wine and went to bed.
The next four days were spent mixing exploration with relaxation, whilst indulging in good eats and drinks. See below for all of my recommendations.
*STAY AT THE BELMOND - If you can, I highly recommend it! The hotel is beautiful, service is impeccable, the food is a gastronomic delight and the wine is delicious! Also, the pool is an necessary oasis, given Luang Prabang's year-round high temperatures and humidity.
*MOUNT PHOUSI (AKA MOUNT PHU SI) - This sacred hill is right in the middle of Luang Prabang town, with Wat Chom Si temple at its summit. Unfortunately, there is no way around it, you're going to have to climb about 300+ steps if you want to get to the top. It's a very popular tourist spot at sunset, but it gets insanely overcrowded, so we battled the mid-day scorching heat, to avoid the masses.
About midway up, you'll have to pay 20,000 KIP, in cash (~£2). Once you make it to the top and stop sweating, be sure to take in the stunning panorama of Luang Prabang and the tranquil valley in which it sits.
You'll also pass golden Buddha statues (the Happy Buddha, with its big, round belly is pictured below) Keeping in mind that this hill is sacred, be sure to dress appropriately (despite the heat) and behave in a respectful manner.
*STROLL AROUND LUANG PRABANG TOWN - Although the town center is quite small and consists of only four main roads, there is a lot there to keep you occupied. Visit the former royal palace square (which consists of the National Museum, the theater and Temple Haw Pha Bang). There are also many lovely cafes to pop in and shops to peruse.
*SA SA SUNSET CRUISE - This slow-boat cruise sets sail down the Mekong River everyday around 4:30pm, and returns two-hours later. It'll set you back 95,000 KIP (which includes a mojito). Our voyage started out serene and calm, but the sky turned dark and it became apparent, quite quickly, that we were about to enter the eye of a storm.
First we had lightning, then came the thunder and finally the torrential rain. Despite getting soaked to the bone, we had a great time.
*KUANG SI FALLS & BEAR SANCTUARY - These stunning waterfalls might just be the highlight of your Laos trip!
Some basics: The falls are about a 45-minute drive from LP. They are open everyday from 8am until 5:30pm. It costs 20,000 KIP to enter (have cash). You'll want to go early to avoid the busloads of tourists who arrive around noon. Bring a swimsuit and towel, if you can/want to swim, as well as a dry bag and a change of clothing. I recommend wearing sturdier shoes than flip flops (although I didn't) and insect repellent. The best time of year to go is December through April/May, when monsoon season has ended and the pools are calm and a lovely turquoise color. From July to October (when I went), heavy rains can transform the otherwise picturesque teal water into a muddy brown and swimming can become impossible.
After paying your entrance fee, you'll pass the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center, on the way to the falls. It's operated by Free the Bears and is home to more than 20 rescued black bears.
As you continue walking, you'll see the first set of falls and tiered pools. You'll start to feel dazzled, but stay the course, things keep getting better...
Walk further and the things continue to get more impressive. You'll think you've gotten to the main falls around this point in time, but you'll be wrong...
After a few more moments of walking, you'll come to the grandest falls of them all! Stand on the wooden bridge for unobstructed views of the cascading waterfalls. Now is not the time to stop though. Persevere!
There are two ways up to the top of the falls - to the left or to the right. We climbed up to the right and it was VERY steep, and also slippery from the thunderstorm the previous night. To the left, however, there are steps, which make things more navigable, despite heavy water flowing over them at points. I suggest going both up and down on the left side.
Since many people don't bother hiking all the way up, the top of the falls is very peaceful. There's a rope swing up there, and a small picnic area for relaxing. You can also take a dip if you want to cool off from the hike.
*FESTIVAL OF FIRE BOATS - It was serendipitous that we were in Luang Prabang on the 14th October, which happened to be the day of the 2019 Festival of Fire Boats. This event only happens once a year (dates vary) and it signifies the end of Buddhist lent. During this festival, each family in Luang Prabang make a large boat out of bamboo and banana trunks, colorfully decorated with bright colors, candles and money. There are more than 20,000 boats. They parade their boats along the main street before setting them afloat down the river, wishing good luck for the future and paying respect to the spirit of the waters.
*MANDA DE LAOS - This Laotian restaurant was incredible! I was initially drawn to it for its magical and unique scenery, overlooking the UNESCO classified lily pond, but ended up going back three times because it was so delisious.
*CHEZ MATT - Head here for a cheese plate and some French wines. I'm not sure if the card machines were down when I went or if it's always cash only.
*EAT ALL THE KHAO NOM KOK AND LAAP - The two Laotian dishes that I am now obsessed with are 1) The bite-sized coconut cakes, made with rice flour and coconut cream. These semi-sweet street treats are ridiculously tasty and addictive. And 2) Laap, a meat-based dish, flavored with things like lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion and ground toasted rice. Once it's all mixed together (in front of you), you spoon it into lettuce, wrap it up and enjoy!
Know Before You Go:
Lots of paperwork needs to be completed upon arrival (bring a pen).
For US citizens, a visa on arrival is necessary (you'll need two passport photos and $36 USD).
My UK Vodafone worldwide corporate plan covered my mobile for £5/day.
A taxi to the hotel took 12-minutes and cost 50,000 KIP.
All prices at my hotel were in USD, so be careful. You can easily rack up quite a hefty bill if you're not careful.
Don't drink the tap water in Laos. Bottled water only.
Watch out for pick-pocketing at night markets.
Make sure you have insect repellent with you.
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