Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

We’d been traveling for a while in Southeast Asia – at least a few months – when we arrived in Laos. Coming from Thailand and Vietnam, Laos was a drastic change. I was so quiet, languid, so few people around the sprawling country.

We went from being surrounded by tourists in Hue, Vietnam to seeing almost no travelers at all. We’d enjoyed a few quiet weeks traveling slowly from Savannakhet (the second largest city in the country, which to us seemed more like a provincial small town), venturing into Thakhek. We traveled there to do a motorcycle loop around quiet villages, holy caves, and beautiful countryside through Central Laos. And checked out the capital city of Vientiane as well as former party town of Vang Vieng. All of these destinations were typical Laos – relaxed, idyllic, and very, very quiet (yes, even Vang Vieng).

We were ready for a change of pace by the time we arrived in Luang Prabang – the country’s most celebrated and most visited destination. We had heard about the bohemian cafes serving wine in proper glasses accompanied by cheese (!), the pleasant cobblestone streets flanked by flowering frangipani trees and ornate, glittering Wats, the delectable cuisine on par with best cafes in Paris – at fraction of the price, no less, and the exotic, languid beauty of Laos’ former royal capital.

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

That picture perfect tourist pitch is precisely what we found in Luang Prabang. But instead of soaking it all in, we spent our first day in Luang Prabang dismayed by our surroundings: the swarms of tourists, arms draped in camera gear chasing monks, the crowded temples charging admission, the overpriced Western food — Luang Prabang takes the cake for the worst, and most expensive, burger we’ve had in Southeast Asia. Instead of experiencing carefree, leisurely enjoyment, we felt guilt by association over the fact that the entire Unesco World Heritage Site has long ago turned into a Disney-fied version of its former self, and we were here to continue to partake in this tourist onslaught on Lao culture.

Fortunately, first impressions aren’t always lasting. While we never quite got over the damaging impact of tourism in Luang Prabang, we were able to look past our initial judgments and discover good reasons to continue extending our stay, spending five days and – believe it or not – enjoyed the town.

So what makes our skeptic’s case for Luang Prabang?

Volunteer Opportunities

There are so many heartbreaking things about Laos – from the unexploded ordinance (UXO) left over from the Vietnam War, to the chronic underdevelopment, to the ongoing exploitation of natural resources. While as visitors we are helpless to address those bigger issues, there are ways to give back and help out.

Big Brother Mouse is a Lao-directed organization, headquartered in Luang Prabang, which aims to spread literacy in the country. The main objective is to publish children’s and young adult’s books for schools, but the office in Luang Prabang also holds English language practice sessions everyday at 9-11 am and 5-7 pm. Anyone fluent in English can drop by and help Lao students to practice their English speaking and comprehension skills. You end up learning about Lao culture and people, and feeling pretty good about making a small difference to help others to learn. You can also purchase books, in Lao language, to be donated to schools.

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

Sports

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

Yoga classes aren’t all that uncommon across Southeast Asia – and while I enjoy going to class as part of my routine at home, I rarely do so while traveling. I can’t really get into the rhythm, I am typically focused on something else, and besides it’s always a toss up as to whether the instructor will be any good. I took the chance on sunrise yoga class in Luang Prabang at Utopia because of the location – a deck overlooking the Nan Khan river. And I am happy to report that the location was as glorious as it sounds, and the instructor was very good. It was totally an indulgence, but man, it felt good!

Another winner point for Utopia– it’s a gathering place for a late afternoon volleyball game right on Nan Khan riverfront. Curiously, during the time we were there, the players were mostly locals. We have no idea whether the games are a regular occurrence, but it was a great experience!

Traditional Steam Bath and Massage

I love experiencing local bath houses, spas, steam rooms, hot springs, etc. The only thing is that for me, the first time I go, I am always quite skittish about knowing the proper local etiquette — what is normal and expected in South Korea might be quite different from what is normal and expected in say, Laos. So Luang Prabang – where tourists abound – is a perfect place to try the traditional Lao Steam Bath and Massage. I went to Lemongrass Sauna off the main street in the middle of old town, and the staff helpfully explained everything I was supposed to do.

For 10,000 kip, I was given a freshly laundered sarong to wrap myself in, an unlimited amount of lemongrass tea served on open air terrace, and of course, access to the herbal steam sauna. I went around 4 pm right when they opened, and had the place to myself for a bit. By 5 pm, Lemongrass – much to my surprise – was packed with local patrons. I would also recommend the tradition Lao massage. At Lemongrass the massage rooms are set up on the open air terrace as well, with cotton curtains for privacy. All in all, the Lao steam and massage spa was a magical experience that I highly recommend.

Markets

If you like markets, then you will love Luang Prabang. The town hosts two big ones – one in the morning, and one in the evening. The morning market, which starts right after the alms giving ceremony, is frequented by locals to purchase their daily supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, and snacks. You can get Lao traditional breakfast here, which in my opinion is just as tasty as Western croissants, and a much better value.

The market in the evening starts at dusk and is meant entirely for tourists interested in purchasing traditional Lao crafts and souvenir knick-knacks. I am a fan collecting mementos from our travels, and the night market’s selection did not disappoint. I am a proud owner of a beautifully woven blanket that makes me super happy. Also, a big plus of Luang Parabang night market is that there is zero pressure from the vendors, that’s just not how Lao do. So, browse as much as you like without being heckled, bargain a bit, and go home with a beautiful hand-woven textile.

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

Kuang Si Waterfall & Asiatic Black Bear Park

 

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

There are a lot of attractions in Luang Prabang that we skipped out on, but we can’t recommend Kuang Si waterfall highly enough. We were in Laos in April – dry season – and had an absolutely fantastic time. The Kuang Si cascades are spectacular, the milky emerald water refreshing, and in the dry season there is opportunity to climb into and all over the limestone cliffs down which the water cascades. I am not going to say that it was the safest, but the adrenaline rush of standing under the tumbling, cool waterfall was absolutely the best. At the very top we also stumbled on a local guide who offered to take us into the jungle on his bamboo raft, making for an enjoyable – if short foray – into the areas less seen.

A big bonus is that Tat Kuang Si park also hosts the Asiatic Black Bear rescue center, which is home to over a dozen animals rescued from poachers and traffickers. The bears roam inside enclosures, and are super cute and vocal about their better life these days.

Monks

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos

I debated whether to list monks as a major highlight of Luang Prabang. The beautiful, spiritual alms giving ceremony – Tak Bak – practiced for centuries across Southeast Asia has been turned into a tourist spectacle in Luang Prabang. Even worse, as of late, the tourist participation is unwitting physically hurting the monks, as the rice sold to tourists for the Tak Bak ceremony is often old and inferior. I went to witness the ceremony, and though I refrained from coming up close, I am not sure I made the right choice to even go. What is a moment of a fleeting, exotic beauty to me is a deeply spiritual and sacred ritual for Buddhist Lao.

Whether or not you end up witnessing the alms giving ceremony, Luang Prabang is teeming with monks who are actually quite friendly when not participating in solemn religious rituals. Many come to Big Brother Mouse to practice their English. Many are out and about just having fun. Most are just boys, and they like to have a bit of diversion as much as the next kid – so strike up a conversation, or just observe from a distance the Lao way of life, which includes monkhood for most as a rite of passage.

 

Making the Case for Luang Prabang Laos  

About Jenia Ustinova

Jenia UstinovaJenia is an explorer, collector, storyteller – she is one half of team House to Laos. She is also the voice behind www.housetolaos.com, a blog about adventures, wanderlust, and quest for sustainable travel lifestyle. You can find HTL over on facebookpinteresttwitter, and instagram.

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