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Getting Away: Luang Prabang

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The view at dusk from atop Mount Phou Si
The view at dusk from atop Mount Phou Si

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.

History
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.

Haw Kham National Museum, the former royal palace
Haw Kham National Museum, the former royal palace

Around Town

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.

Wats are everywhere in Luang Prabang
Wats are everywhere in Luang Prabang

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.

Most locals get around on motorcycles
Most locals get around on motorcycles

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.

Not unlike neighboring Yunnan, northern Laos is home to several ethnic minorities. On the way back to town from Kuang Si Falls, there are a few Hmong and Khmu villages that are worth a stop.

An ethnic fashion show at the bar Hive
An ethnic fashion show at the bar Hive

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.

A green papaya salad stand
A green papaya salad stand

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.

Lodging

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.

Climate

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).

Getting There

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

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Comments

By coincidence was just listening to this slice of musical history:

www.wolfgangsvault.com/[...]

Dave van Ronk tune, also covered by Patrick Sky on "Songs that made America famous".

Less controversial these days, Patrick makes uilleann pipes

Luang Prabang is one of my favourite places in Asia. Laid back locals, cheap, great scenery, good architecture, a few really nice local sights... what more can you ask for. Perfect romantic getaway...

I think its main attraction is the Europeans exhibit. Isolated and outside their own habitat, they seem a bit unhappy yet continue to do their thing: dining, drinking, complaining about prices, complaining about the heat, complaining about the surroundings, unsuccessfully trying to haggle, taking pictures of everything that moves or -in fact- does not move (the latter probably a result of their isolation), walking around, perusing night marked trinkets and looking for unique experiences.

Best zoo ever.

Nevada

Hugh,

Nice writing and very informative piece. It's given me some new ideas and direction for when we visit there in the future. Good photos and I enjoyed reading this article very much as it brought back many fond memories we have of Luang Prabang.

When Cas & I went there, years ago, yes, I tried the "snake wine" — you know me — and of course, Beer Lao!

Nevada

Doug Culver

I went there a couple of years ago. French influenced, old Lao Capital and plenty of Western dongxi. It is also small and relaxed. A good place to spend a few days.

I agree with bluppfisk the backpackers are an exhibit in their own way, and they have changed the attitude of the locals considerably. Dealing with them is convenient because they can all speak great English and have perfectly adjusted their ways to accommodate this continuous wining and dining of the tourists, but in their hearts you feel a big distance and you feel the need to make money off the tourists is stronger that genuine hospitality. Especially if you compare it to travelling around in Yunnan or even parts of rural Laos just kilometres away from tourist centres like Luang Prabang. I agree there is an interesting cultural heritage and a general pleasant laid-back vibe. But after a week I was really fed up with those foreigner-local relations that ruin the atmosphere.

This was very well written. Your pictures are also stunning. I want to buy my ticket now! Thanks for such a nice piece!

@flengs, what do you mean by being fed up with the "foreigner-local" relations? Some of them seem quite superficial, but it depends on what level the relationship is. When both parties speak at least one of the other's languages really well, then mutual understanding will increase of course, however, this is rarely the case as few foreigners can speak Lao (except for a few words maybe) and few Laotians can speak very good English.

There is an error in this article. Lao Airlines flies only twice (2) a week from Luang Prabang to Jinghong, not daily. They only just restarted this service recently and I highly doubt there would be enough demand for a daily service at this time. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this service were to once again be suspended in the near future. Luang Prabang-Kunming flights are said to be restarted again in the near future too, but no date has been given.

Check out online copies of Lao Airlines' Champa inflight magazine for more details.

Yes that is what i meant, mostly superficial or non existant. Which I think is pretty negative. In Luang Prabang it is so apparent that a majority of the locals are totally fed up with many of the foreigners that visit the town.

Well done Hugh. I was in Luang Prabang myself in February, and it was just as beautiful and interesting as you say.

There are a variety of other things to do in and around Luang Prabang. Some of the ecotourism companies like Green Discovery offer quite a good experience, albeit at a hefty price for what people accustomed to living in China would think.

The elephant village is also worth a look. Tourists can enjoy the elephants guilt-free, since all of them have been rescued from the logging industry. Carrying tourists around, even fat ones, is much better than 700 kilogram logs, and the elephants are all well-fed and cared for.

Laos can be reached by Vientiane as well, and Vientiane is also worth a look. It's the sleepiest, shortest (no skyscrapers that I could see) capital city that I've ever seen.

Laos is not as developed as Thailand or Vietnam, and the people are much more relaxed as well. Getting away to places like Nong Khaiw, (5 hours from LP) is easy and well worth it.

how to get there

Just an additional comment about the flights, there is a daily bus from KM to Luang Prabang, leaving from south station for 385rmb around 6pm. Of course you better book your ticket in advance, my bus was full when I left, mostly with chinese work migrants and some chinese tourists. It takes a bit time, but the sleeper bus is ok and I guess much cheaper than the cheapest flight. Just expect some waiting at the border.

HUSSNAIN ALI

Hi

i like your website and like beautiful photos

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