Luang Prabang: worthy of the hype?

Monks collecting alms at dawn

Monks collecting alms at dawn

If you visit Laos you will almost certainly spend at least some of your time in Luang Prabang. While Vientiane is the adminstrative capital there is little doubt that Luang Prabang is the cultural, historic and tourism centre of Laos. If you travel here by boat as we did, approaching the city along the Mekong the buildings are almost unseen amid the trees and the high river bank. Yet once you climb the steps from the landing points you are quickly transported into another world.

Ok, first you need to get past the pushy tuk-tuk drivers. They’re touting their wares, just as they do elsewhere in this part of the world, although as with other traders in Laos they stay on the right side of the acceptable level of harassment. As you walk on you will soon be surrounded by wats, and likely see monks performing their daily duties around the temple grounds.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Luang Prabang is really about monks and wats (Buddhist temples). They are everywhere, and you will often be stopped by monks as you linger in the grounds, eager to practice their English. They were very happy to share with us their daily lives, their plans for life after the monastery (girlfriends feature high on the wanted list!) and their curiosity about us falang (foreigners).

Lao ladies chatting on street corner

Lao ladies chatting on street corner

While the monks were relaxed about talking with us during the afternoons, in the dawn light they were altogether more formal, as they collected alms from the local people and tourists. This is an ancient ceremony that is carried out each morning, as they march through the main street on their way to the temple, and the people of Luang Prabang pass their gifts (sticky rice and bananas mainly) to the monks. The whole ritual took place in silence (although the street vendors are trying to sell over-priced donations to the tourists to give to the monks).

A deserted wat on the left bank of the Mekong

A deserted wat on the left bank of the Mekong

We also took the chance to cross the Mekong on the local passenger ferry (a long motorised canoe) and explore the small villages on the other side. Here, as the only foreigners we were greeted with curiosity, laughter and various attempts by local children to extract money or soft drinks from us.

There are many great spots around the city to chill out and enjoy the great views of the river and of the temples. And when you’ve had enough of walking there’s always the chance to indulge in a Lao massage. We had a head, back and shoulder massage and it was one of the most pleasant experiences, even if at times I was forced to conceal a yelp of pain.

Luang Prabang: where different worlds mingle freely

Luang Prabang: where different worlds mingle freely

There are of course countless opportunities for tourists to spend their dollars here, and while many local seek to profit from the visitors to this city they seem to manage a balance between selling and harassment that is sadly missing elsewhere. Even at the crowded night market, the stall holders invariably smile and greet you, allow you to browse and will not chase after you if you decline their offers.

The night market, Luang Prabang

The night market, Luang Prabang

There were many individual highlights in our four days in Luang Prabang, and no doubt I will add to this brief summary once back home. For now it is sufficient to say that we found this to be a truly unique city, and worthy of the high praise we had heard before. Amid all of the beautiful buildings and the serene backdrop of the mighty Mekong, the people of Luang Prabang were for me the undoubted highlight.

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3 Responses to “Luang Prabang: worthy of the hype?”

  1. I loved Luang Prabang — although it’s been close to eight years since I traveled there. It’s a very chill town and although I meant to stay only a few days, I think I stayed ten in total, taking a motorbike into the roads around Luang Prabang and enjoying the views of the countryside and the mountains! A magical place, truly!

    December 15, 2009 at 9:02 pm
  2. Jay #

    LP is an oasis compared to most Asian towns and I would definitely return. However, I discovered they use different coloured bags so other sellers know how gullible you are. Quite a clever scam.

    July 28, 2010 at 12:25 am
  3. Thanks Jay. Haven’t heard of that scam! Makes me want to go back to test it out 🙂

    July 28, 2010 at 10:25 pm