Truth be told, I hadn’t really thought much about travelling to Luang Prabang until a few months ago. I knew it was a destination that I would eventually explore but I was ‘distracted’ by other places. However, I was given an opportunity to visit Luang Prabang in early July, and after spending a couple of days in this incredibly lovely town, I had asked myself, why didn’t I visit it sooner? If you’re wondering where to go for your next holiday, have you thought about this charming UNESCO World Heritage town? Here’s how you can make the most out of a 4-5 days itinerary in Luang Prabang:
Explore the Town
It’s easy to explore the town of Luang Prabang – either on foot or bicycle – as the town is relatively small. You can explore its magnificent gilded temples (33 to be exact) and the Royal Palace Museum or enjoy the ambiance of French colonial buildings that are converted to cafes, restaurants and shops. Perhaps you would like to climb Mount Phousi, a hill located right in the town centre, to get a spectacular view of Luang Prabang and to catch the sunset.
Luang Prabang is a treasure trove of discoveries. So, take your time to simply meander down the streets to soak up the surroundings and observe Lao life. Make sure you take a short break for Beer Lao!
Shop at the Night Market
The main street of Luang Prabang is closed off to vehicles from 5pm to 10pm every evening for the night market. Hill-tribe traders come to the night market to sell various items ranging from apparels, locally-produced textiles, woven blankets and bed covers, embroidered bags and purses, ceramics, silver jewellery to handicrafts.
Although I find that most night markets in South-East Asia sell the same old tourist-oriented junk, the night market is Luang Prabang is exceptionally different particularly the hand-woven embroidered bags, purses, blankets, bed covers and cushion covers which feature their unique Lao designs and colours. Look out for those items, and don’t forget to haggle!
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Sign up for a Street Food Tour
If you’re a foodie and keen to sample a variety of local cuisine, why don’t you sign up for a street food tour in Luang Prabang? I went for a street food tour with Backstreet Academy, and our guides took us to a couple of places to sample different types of local food like pork stew, noodle soup dish and coconut pancakes. We also visited a vegetable market of local produce and a night food market.
Wake up early for Alms-Giving
Luang Prabang is renowned for its alms-giving to Buddhist monks at dawn – a highly revered ritual for the locals. The idea of alms-giving is for the monks to make merit as well as to collect food for their meal which is eaten only once a day. Food given to the monks is usually sticky rice, and sometimes fruits and traditional sweets.
Tourists are allowed to partake in alms-giving but I would strongly urge you to purchase your food in advance, dress conservatively and be silent. If you really must have photographs of yourself giving alms, please do not take selfies or please advise your photographer not to shove his/her camera right in front of the monks. Be at a respectable distance.
That said, I was a little surprised to see the monks emptying their food bowls in a plastic-lined waste paper bin placed strategically at every few metres. Perhaps surprised was an understatement, I was actually shocked to see this action. Our guide could not explain why the monks did this but later I learnt from a friend who had travelled to Luang Prabang many times that the reason why the monks empty their food bowls is because the bowls get filled up with food but they still have quite a distance to walk to the main town centre. Therefore, they empty their bowls every now and then during the walk so that they are able to continue receiving alms until they reach their destination. The food in the bin is then given to the poor in the villages.
If so, then why do the monks have to walk quite a distance to receive alms knowing that there will be many people lining up to give alms? Does this mean that the monks are also playing up to the tourists? Or is the act of receiving/giving alms the main reason, but throwing away food does not matter? How do we know for sure that the food in the bin is given to the poor? And why a simple and logical explanation was not offered by the guide? No locals have been able to give me a clear-cut answer to this. However, as soon as I saw what had happened, I had lost interest in the ceremony.
Nevertheless, if you’d like to see or partake in this ceremony, please be at the town centre by 5.30am as the alms-giving typically ends around 6am.
Go on a Day Trip Excursion
There are a number of places to visit outside of Luang Prabang and you can easily make a day trip excursion to these places, among them are Laos Buffalo Dairy and Kuangsi Falls.
Laos Buffalo Dairy is a socially-responsible enterprise that produces commercial dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and ice-cream made from buffalo milk. Laos Buffalo Dairy is the only buffalo dairy in Laos, and it organises guided tours and cooking classes for tourist groups who visit the dairy and production facility. You can feed, bathe and even take a selfie with a buffalo! One of the activities that you must do is to have delicious ricotta cheese balls and cheese cake at their café!
Just twenty minutes’ away from the buffalo dairy is Luang Prabang’s famous Kuangsi Falls. Kuangsi Falls is a huge waterfall that flows through limestone mountains and tropical jungle and out into three-tiered cascading aquamarine pools. Try not to spend too much time swimming at the lower pools but hike up to the top to see the tumbling waterfall as well.
If you’d like to go further afield, you can go on a responsible village tour just a few hours’ drive from Luang Prabang. A responsible village tour is essentially having an experience interacting with villagers, learning about their daily lives in the village, mingling with them over lunch or watching and understanding their traditional skills especially weaving.
There are many tours promoting responsible village tours but some may not provide adequate insights about the village or proper translation for guests. I had the privilege of experiencing good service by Trails of Indochina who have knowledgeable guides for they were able to explain well about the village, its people, their crafts, history, culture and everything else that we wanted to know.
Although Luang Prabang is currently seeing an increase in tourism ever since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage destination, the town still manages to maintain its natural beauty and charm…well, at least for now. Along with the easy-going nature of the locals, Luang Prabang will definitely leave a lasting impression on you.
*My trip to Luang Prabang was sponsored by Destination Mekong and Luang Prabang Tourism, and the street food tour by Backstreet Academy. All opinions shared in this post are my own.
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