Luang Prabang is located in the central north of Laos and the name means “Royal Buddha Image”. In 1995, it was listed as a World Heritage Site for the preservation of its unique architectural, religious and cultural heritage. The city maintains a balanced blend of urban and rural charm, retaining much of the French colonial influences in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Since November 2016, Air Asia flies direct to Luang Prabang from KLIA2 and because of this convenience (otherwise it will be necessary to connect from Vientiane, the capital city), I decided to make a short trip there recently, for a 3-night stay actually.
I think we were rather unlucky as our flight suffered an unprecedented 8-hour delay! The flight was scheduled for take-off at 0630 (we were at KLIA since 4.00am!) but finally only took off at 2.15pm. So we were really dead-tired when we arrived at Luang Prabang but we quickly perked up when we reached our hotel – read on to find out why. However, that meant whatever we planned for Day 1 in Luang Prabang just got tanked.
The weather was beautifully cool in December with temperatures hovering around 20-22 degrees C. It dipped further at night so I think the best time to visit Luang Prabang is at year end/beginning of year! So here’s a summary of the 6 things you can do in Luang Prabang on a short trip…
STAY IN A NICE HOTEL
Hotels are generally not all that expensive in Luang Prabang. From budget stays starting at USD10-15 per night, choose one which suits your budget. We chose a very decent boutique hotel called Maison Dalabua which cost about USD65 per night (room for 2 persons) with breakfast included! From the airport, it took about 30 minutes to reach the city and our hotel. The hotel is within walking distance to the riverfront (Mekong River) and the popular Night Market.
Freshly-baked breads for breakfast!
Maison Dalabua boasts several gorgeous lotus ponds, all Unesco-classified. The hotel’s two eateries are surrounded by these ponds filled with lotus blooms in various shades. Needless to say, our breakfast views were always invigorating. Just look at those ponds!
CHILL BY THE MEKONG RIVER
As mentioned, our hotel was just minutes away from the riverfront and we walked around there every day. There are many guesthouses, boutique hotels, restaurants, cafes and al fresco stalls all along the roads by the river.
These deep-fried Mekong River fish were really good!
As the weather was cool, it was so relaxing strolling about this area around the Old Quarter and when tired, we just popped into a cafe for coffee and snacks before continuing our exploration. Our favourite haunts were the shops and restaurants between Manthatoulat Road and Sisavangvong Road.
Many of the buildings around this area reflect a charming blend of local and colonial French architecture. Many of the cafes and restaurants have maintained much of their quaint local Laotian character. There are picturesque traditional houses, colonial-style villas and Laotian Buddhist temples jostling with each other along the narrow streets.
Luang Prabang has 34 Unesco-protected wats, all located within the town centre. These wats are not merely temples for-show… they are actually working institutions where monks live and learn about ancient Buddhist studies. We saw quite a number of monk novices in the wats, going about their daily routine.
We managed to visit a couple of the more well-known wats. The most famous one is of course Wat Xieng Thong, considered the finest and one of the most important in Luang Prabang. The buildings are elegant and well-maintained, with beautifully crafted roofs, gilded facades and their famous “Tree of Life” mosaic walls.
Admission fee: 20,000 kip
The picturesque Haw Pha Bang in the grounds of the Royal Palace Museum
GO ON A RIVER CRUISE
All along the river bank, there are cruise operators beckoning visitors but we joined one from a tour operator recommended by our hotel. We were picked up from our hotel and taken to the riverbank where we walked down some steep steps and boarded the long cruise boats. The boats are sturdy and comfortable. The toilets were clean too!
Interior of the cruise boat
The weather was good and the boat ride was smooth. Passed by numerous villages where the kids would stand at the river edge and waved at every passing boat. Halfway into the ride, we stopped at a local liquor distillery. They call it a “whiskey distillery” but I’m not sure if the liquor they were making was indeed whiskey.
Jugs of fermenting alcohol at the “distillery”
Complimentary sampling of alcohol!
PAK OU CAVES
Further upstream, we stopped and climbed up into the Pak Ou Caves where about 4,000 figures of Buddha are kept. All varying in sizes and positions, the figurines of Buddha are kept in the caves. Visitors can donate in the donation boxes and even have your fortune told there.
BUY LOCAL STUFF – NIGHT MARKET
At around 5pm, stalls are set up along Sisavangvong Road for the daily night market. There are several hundred stalls selling all kinds of household items, souvenirs, hand-woven shawls, bedspreads, wooden bowls, clothings, shoes and many more! We went there every night and always ended up buying something each evening!
If you are looking for a rustic few days away from the maddening crowds, this city in northern Laos is worth considering. It’s relatively economical and not too long a flight away. Just chill and relax!