On all sides, blue mountains emerge from the thick emerald forest like silent stunted sentinels. Glassy gray meandering rivers reflect slivers of the sky, peppered occasionally with flocks of silhouetted birds. This is a sacred and seldom-seen corner of the world—the perfect place to stop and soak in the stunning beauty of Laos.
Nestled on a small peninsula between the Mekong and Khan Rivers, the town of Luang Prabang, Laos, looks like an illustration out of a weathered volume of fairy tales. Often called “The Last Untouched City of Southeast Asia,” Luang Prabang has been casting its veritable charm on visitors for centuries.
The natural splendor of the town is complemented by its unique culture and architecture. Like the whole of Laos, Luang Prabang has been shaped by a gamut of social and political groups over the centuries, but perhaps the most noticeable outside influence has been the French. With its quaint cobblestone streets, delicious baguettes, and decorative brick buildings, Luang Prabang exhibits a unique fusion of French and Southeast Asian style and tradition that may take some visitors by surprise.
“I cannot quite explain it, but I honestly was in awe the entire time I was in Luang Prabang,” says Meredith Chapman, a recent visitor from southern California. “When the butterflies passed me by, I had to honestly consider if I had died and gone to heaven. Laos was colonized by the French, so we munched on countless baguettes while watching the locals ride their bikes with parasols in one hand. It looked quite like France and Thailand had a love child.”
A week in Luang Prabang will provide plenty of time to relax in the charming boutique-style rooms and experience the must-sees. In addition to taking a dip in the waterfalls, riding elephants, and visiting the plethora of wats (Buddhist temples), here are five things you cannot miss during your stay in Luang Prabang.
Climb the Mountain
At the center of town, Phousi Mountain juts into the sky to offer a breathtaking panoramic view of Luang Prabang. For a small fee, you can scale the 328 zigzag steps to the top, where you will find the beautiful and sacred Wat Chomsi. As you look out over the town, you’ll notice the French influence in the red terra-cotta-style roofs and the orthogonal street system. If you get the timing right, you can witness the otherworldly sunset that bleeds over the Mekong River every evening as the monks beat out a haunting rhythm on the ritual drum.
Feed the Monks
Sai Bat, the monks’ morning procession of alms-gathering, is a unique opportunity for visitors to connect with Buddhist tradition. If you’re willing to get up before the sun does, you can catch the daily parade of orange-robed monks, who pad single file through the streets in the blue dust of dawn. Locals and visitors alike sit along the streets to watch the ritual procession. If you’d like to participate in the alms-giving, enthusiastic street vendors will gladly sell you rice or other food that you can drop in the monks’ baskets as they pass by.
Browse the Markets
The streets of Luang Prabang are lined with small shops that offer an impressive array of wares. From Hmong textiles and silver jewelry to silk skirts and hand-painted canvasses, there is bound to be a shopkeeper in town who has something for you. If the day’s shopping doesn’t satiate your appetite for souvenirs, in the evenings the main road is transformed into a tunnel of crimson tents, beneath which local vendors sell provincial handicrafts. Most of the goods here are handcrafted, but there are some vendors with especially unique skills such as woodcarving, doll-making, and rug-weaving.
Ferry the Mekong
You cannot forgo experiencing the wonders of Luang Prabang from the majesty of the Mekong River. Most boat tours offer rides to the sacred Buddhist Pak Ou caves or to one of the local weavers’ villages. But floating the Mekong is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. From the boat, you can see local fishermen on the lookout for a fresh catch as they wade through the shallows with hand-woven nets. You can see farmers tending the terraced gardens that are carefully carved into the river banks and fathers skimming by on smaller boats, trying to teach their children the ways of the water. Take this time to sit back and study the Mekong’s mirror of mountains and sky, contemplate the lifestyle of the Laotians, or simply rest your feet and dip your toes into the cool water.
Visit Big Brother Mouse
Looking for a way to contribute while in Laos? Big Brother Mouse is a non-profit organization in Luang Prabang that offers visitors the opportunity to provide meaningful service. Established in an effort to encourage literacy in young adults, Big Brother Mouse welcomes tourists who want to help local Lao people with English reading and conversation. The locals are always eager to test their English skills on native English-speakers—two-hour conversation sessions are offered every morning and evening. This is an excellent way to connect with residents of Luang Prabang and perhaps expand your cultural horizons. Donations of books in both Lao and English are also appreciated.
More Than a Tourist Destination
With the shockingly blue waterfalls, sparkling gold-and-red wats, and exotic scenery in Luang Prabang, it’s easy to slip into the belief that you are so far removed from the rest of the world that your worries and cares will never find you. However, a contrived, sour mood can settle over the town during tourist season (November through May). This occurs when many travelers abandon cultural sensitivity in the name of photos and fun.
When you visit, remember that Luang Prabang is more than a tourist destination. It is home to people of a rich cultural and religious heritage. Perhaps the best trip to Luang Prabang is one in which you take the time to appreciate and understand the people, rather than trying to haggle the best bargain or snap the prettiest photo. Breaking away from the typical tourist crowd will enrich your experience.