Chilled-out and friendly, Luang Prabang is one of Asia's most charming small cities. Its mix of cultural, historical and natural attractions lure growing numbers of travelers every year, yet its character remains intact.
The survival of so much of Luang Prabang's ancient and colonial architectural heritage is fortunate, given how many times the city has changed hands, often after fierce battles. This treasure trove of Lao and French architecture is the main reason Luang Prabang was added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1995.
The city's location at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and at the crossroads of waxing and waning empires has subjected it to several faraway rulers, which in ancient times included the Dali-based Nanzhao kingdom and the Khmer empire.
More recently, invading Burmese armies temporarily annexed Luang Prabang in the late 1700s. From 1828 to 1893 it was a puppet of the kingdom of Siam. Brutal attacks by the Black Flag Army (黑旗军) plagued Luang Prabang from 1887 until the arrival of French troops in 1893.
Laos was a French protectorate for 60 years, during which time its royal capital remained in Luang Prabang while Vientiane served as the administrative center. In 1945 Japanese troops occupied the city for a short period of time.
One of the darker periods in Luang Prabang's history was during the American war in Vietnam. US planes bombed Luang Prabang and virtually all of the rest of Laos, which was a Vietnamese ally.
More bombs were dropped on Laos during the conflict than were dropped in total during the Second World War. To this day, undetonated cluster bombs dropped by American planes still kill unlucky people and animals. The US government is still unwilling to assist with disposal of the remaining bombs, a job that is presently done by volunteers such as UXO Laos.
Luang Prabang hasn't always been subjugated by outside powers. Beginning in 1353 it was the capital of one of Southeast Asia's largest empires, the Lan Xang kingdom. After Lan Xang's collapse in 1707, Laos splintered into three independent kingdoms. One of these was the kingdom of Luang Prabang, named after its capital city.
The chaos of the past feels far away in Luang Prabang, but this city of 100,000 that reopened to tourism in 1989 is still imbued with a strong sense of history and identity. One of the best places in town to learn more about the area's history is Haw Kham National Museum. The museum, also known as the Royal Palace Museum, was the home of King Sisavang Vong during the French protectorate days a century ago. Its hybrid of Lao and French architectural styles makes it one of the city's more distinctive buildings.
Not only does the museum do a competent job of introducing the royal history of Laos, it also houses the Phra Bang from which Luang Prabang derives its name. This 83cm statue of the Buddha is cast in bronze and covered in gold leaf and was used to spread Theravada Buddhism throughout the Lan Xang kingdom. Local legend has it that the city's safety depends on the Phra Bang, which has been captured twice by Siamese armies, and returned after political upheaval ensued in Siam.
The entry fee at Haw Kham National Museum is 30,000 kip (23.7 yuan) and it is open between 8am and 11:30 am and then 1:30 pm to 4 pm every day except Tuesday, when it is closed. There are local drama or dance performances in the adjacent theatre at 6:30pm on selected days of the week, which cost 80,000 to 150,000 kip.
One of the more popular free attractions in Luang Prabang is the collecting of alms by Theravada Buddhist monks at dawn. Townspeople and a few tourists kneel to present the orange-robed monks with donations of food.
Buddhism doesn't only serve to reinforce the friendly, hospitable demeanor of locals, it is also a major influence on the city's appearance. The numerous wats (temples) around Luang Prabang and their accompanying monks are inextricable from the city's character.
One of the best-known wats in Luang Prabang is Wat Chom Si, which overlooks the town from atop 100-meter Mount Phou Si and is flanked by the Nam Khan and Mekong. The wat is a popular spot for photographers who often have to jockey for position with their cameras to shoot sunrises and sunsets. The entry fee for Mount Phou Si, which is also home to Wat Phou Si and several other shrines, is 20,000 kip.
Wat Xieng Thong is Luang Prabang's oldest temple and a classic example of local temple architecture. It is located near the tip of the peninsula where the Nam Khan joins the Mekong. Open from 6am to 6pm, it is also 20,000 kip to enter.
Sunsets from atop Mount Phou Si are spectacular, but visitors need not climb a mountain to enjoy the end of the day. The waterfront along the Mekong features numerous outdoor restaurants offering a the perfect place to relax with a few cold bottles of Beerlao and some food while enjoying the sunset and discussing the next day's itinerary.
After dinner, a stroll around the night market on Sisavangvong Road offers a variety of local art and handicrafts. The daily market closes around 10pm.
Outside of Town
There is plenty to explore around Luang Prabang, starting with the surrounding countryside. Bicycles and motorcycles are available for rent throughout the city and cost 10,000/160,000, respectively. Tuk tuks, as motorized tricycle cabs are known locally, are also available, with the rate depending on your destination and your haggling skills.
Kuang Si Falls, the area's top day trip destination, is a multi-tiered limestone cascade 29 kilometers south of town. The beautiful falls dump into small milky pools that are perfect for an afternoon dip. If you don't have a bike or motorcycle, a tuk tuk ride to the falls costs 35,000-50,000 kip. Regardless of how you get there, there is an entry fee of 20,000 kip.
Along the rainforest pathway to the falls is a bear rescue center. Inside the enclosed area live endangered Asiatic black bears that have been rescued from poachers. The bears' living quarters are spacious and the animals become quite active during feeding time, climbing and playing on their equipment despite the sapping daytime heat.
The Hmong, known in China as Miao (苗族), are believed to have migrated to the region from southern China. The Khmu, on the other hand are indigenous to northern Laos, with a small migrant population in southern Yunnan's Xishuangbanna Prefecture, where they are an undistinguished ethnic group known as Kemu (克木人).
The Pak Ou Caves, 25km north of Luang Prabang, are another popular day trip, featuring upper and lower caves filled with wooden sculptures of Buddha in various poses. The caves can be accessed by road in one hour or riverboat in 90 minutes.
The boat trip costs 40,000 kip (round trip) and is a great way to see the Mekong. The cruise passes sandy cliffs, fishermen and villagers going about their day. There is also a rather touristy stop at a small village where visitors can observe villagers weaving textiles. There are also local handicrafts and wine made with snakes and scorpions for purchase.
Once at the caves, there is a – you guessed it – 20,000 kip entrance fee and then it's a steep walk up to see the hundreds of small Buddha statues. As a day trip the caves were not as compelling as Kuang Si Falls – we enjoyed the boat ride as much as we did the caves.
Food and Drink
Well over half of the restaurants in Luang Prabang offer Lao cuisine, which is a unique culinary tradition in its own right but has generally lived in Thai cuisine's shadow. As with Thai food, Lao recipes rely heavily on the strong, fresh flavors provided by chili peppers, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass and other seasonings. Fish sauce is also frequently used in preparing Lao dishes. Eaten directly with one's hands, sticky rice is the main staple. Many restaurants offer tasty pork, chicken, beef, seafood or vegetable curries.
One of the more notable local dishes in Luang Prabang is Luang Prabang Khao Soi, a spicy clear pork mince and noodle soup. This Khao Soi should not be confused with Khao Soi Gai, a chicken dish that is a local specialty in not-so-distant Chiang Mai. Buffalo sausages are also a local specialty.
Architecture is not the only way to experience the French legacy in Luang Prabang. Cafés and restaurants around town serve coffee, baguettes, baked goods and French cuisine ranging in price from cheap and cheerful to pricey by any city's standards.
Nightlife in Luang Prabang is a generally subdued affair with all bars and restaurants closed by 11:30.
Luang Prabang is filled with a growing number of foreigner-friendly guesthouses and hotels. Lodging runs from 30,000 kip/night at the low end all the way up to 5 million kip and beyond for one night at one of the few high-end resorts. In most cases, hotels and guesthouses can arrange transportation and local tours.
Luang Prabang has a tropical wet and dry climate. The best time to visit is during the dry season between October and March, when temperatures tend to hover between 26 and 33 degrees Celsius (79 and 91 degrees Fahrenheit).
There are currently no direct passenger flights between Kunming and Luang Prabang, although there once were. It seems like this will change in the near future following the opening of Kunming Changshui International Airport. There are daily direct flights between Jinghong and Luang Prabang.
Driving to Luang Prabang is an option if you have access to a car and an unhurried itinerary.
There is also a direct bus to Luang Prabang that takes around 28 hours and leaves from Kunming's South Bus Station. At present, a one-way bus ticket costs 360 yuan in Kunming and 400 yuan when purchasing a ticket back to Kunming at Luang Prabang's northern bus terminal (Kiew Lot Sai Nuan – 071 252 729). For those uninterested in long bus rides, it is possible to break up the trip in either direction, with Jinghong a logical stopping point.
Border visas can be obtained at the Mohan border crossing for many countries including China, the US, Canada, Australia and many European countries. Alternatively, visas can be obtained in advance by all nationalities at the Consulate General of the Lao PDR in Kunming on Caiyun Bei Lu.
Haw Kham National Museum image: Allie Caulfield© Copyright 2005-2018 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.