Luang Prabang is the greatest city in the world. Perhaps, that is an overstatement. With a population hovering around 100,000 it may not be large enough to be considered a city. Luang Prabang is then the greatest town in the world.
The dirty little secret is this – Laos and its cultural capital, Luang Prabang, need a marketing makeover. Sure, magazines like Conde Nast and National Geographic Traveler will give the city its due props with articles titled “Best Kept Secrets of Southeast Asia” and “SE Asia’s Hot List” but, please, this is petty patronization. This city, this town, should not be condensed so easily to stroke some pedantic travel expert’s ego. A UNESCO World Heritage site is not a secret. And for a place to be considered “hot” is to say that it will go out of style some time later. Luang Prabang should be visited now and later, again and again and again.
Certainly, Laura and I will be back. The town’s demure beauty captured our admiration from the moment we arrived. After traveling hard to outpace our Tibet-shortened Chinese visa, we were in need of a calm, quiet place to relax for a few days. Laura’s research and Wikitravel’s glowing recommendation brought us to one of the best places we’ve stayed yet – Thongbay Guesthouse – just on the outskirts of town.
From the get-go we had the feeling that a few days there would turn into several, which is exactly what happened. At Thongbay, we had a – OK, I’ll call it cute (it was) – bungalow all to ourselves on the shores of the Nam Khan river just before its intersection with the Mekong. Made of all wood with no real frills (no AC, no TV) other than exceptional service and breakfast on the veranda, the rustic locale was exactly what we were after.
We spent a total of 8 days in the good, ‘ole LP, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll give you run-down on what to see, eat and do the New York Times way – in 36 hours.
36 Hours in Luang Prabang
4 p.m. – Bike the Drive
It being a town, there is no need for maps or public transportation, just your two feet and some wheels. Laura and I rented bikes almost every day to get to and fro and this is undoubtedly the best way to cruise the town. One of the great charms of the town is its peninsular location, carved out by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Sandwiched in between are more than thirty Buddhist temples and a host of perfectly-preserved French colonial buildings, all easily navigable on two tires. Because the whole town of Luang Prabang is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, no new development is allowed, therefore keeping away much of the over-blown commercialism found in SE Asia’s other cities.
Cool off after your bike ride around town with SE Asia’s best iced coffee. Made with condensed milk and a healthy scoop of sugar it’s more of a liquid dessert than anything resembling coffee, but it’s a great pick-me-up on a hot day.
6 p.m. – Fire on the Mountain
With your new-found sugar high, ascend Luang Prabang’s highest point, Phou Si, a hill 100m high in the center of the old town with breathtaking views of the stupa-studded province. Atop the hill is a white-washed Buddhist temple, around which tourists gather to applaud the sunset over the Mekong, an absolute highlight of any trip to Luang Prabang.
8 p.m. – Night Market
Trust me; you will never visit a market as quiet as this one, not even if you’re shopping for caskets. Every night, artists and merchants set up shop on the main road running through the town’s artery to hawk their goods. If you’re coming from just about any neighboring country (especially Vietnam) you will be shocked at the lack of hassling and the quiet and reserved demeanor with which the Lao people conduct their business. Bargaining still occurs but it is by no means cut-throat and shouting won’t get you anywhere. In a country where “saving face” and maintaining a pleasant disposition are all important, the people are generally very laid-back. People come here to sell everything from misspelled Beerlao t-shirts to hand-woven purses to beautiful hand-painted prints and cards.
Walking through the market can certainly make one thirsty, and for this there is an almighty solution – Beerlao. Grab one of the green-and-yellow-labeled pilsners and take a seat at one of the communal tables in the alley running off the main market. Here is the nightly food market, made up of an exceptional array of food stalls, selling grilled fish, sausages, pork, corn and hot and spicy noodles, plenty of reason to indulge your taste buds and order another Beerlao.
As with most Buddhist cultures, Luang Prabang is not a late-night kind of place, so it’s early to bed because tomorrow you’ll be early to rise.
6 a.m. – The Giving of the Alms
Visit in the morning and you will see lines of saffron-robed monks collecting their morning alms from the townspeople in a charitable display so beautiful to watch it will make you question why all acts of kindness couldn’t be this way. Beware, though, you will also see hordes of ugly tourists literally jogging down the street to snap photos of the collections, as it’s become tourist –chic (I say this having gone and taken pictures myself but, still, there is a respectful way of capturing the act and maintaining some distance).
8 a.m. – French Connection
After the monks collect their daily rations of rice, it’s time for you to get fed. Head to one of the many cafes in town and discover at least one redeeming quality of French colonialism – the food – over a breakfast of pain au chocolat and café au lait.
10 a.m. – Iron Chef
We had heard from many other travelers that Luang Prabang is a great place to take a Lao cooking course. We signed up and started off our all-day cooking course at Tamnak Lao by heading to the local food market to purchase fresh meats, vegetables and spices. This was a lot of fun and a great way to get off the tourist path and experience shopping in a local market.
With our English-speaking chef, Laura and I, along with about 8 others, learned to cook 6 recipes, including two Lao favorites – sticky rice, a glutinous rice used in northeastern Laos, and jeowbong, a spicy chili paste only made in Luang Prabang and typically eaten with dried buffalo skin.
The cooking class ended with a terrific lunch whipped up by none other than ourselves and included our personal favorite, laap, a minced chicken salad flavored with chili, mint, kaffir lime leaves and an assortment of vegetables.
4 p.m. – Go Chasing Waterfalls
About 30 minutes drive (you can either hire a moped or hop a local tuk-tuk) from town are Kuang Si Falls, a multi-tiered waterfall cascading several hundred feet down the mountainside. Laura and I made the trek up the mountain with a bunch of other travelers – Kiwis, Brits and Germans – to take advantage of the natural swimming pools on the upper terraces of the falls. You could spend all day here just chilling and drinking fruit smoothies, but after such a rough day you might be in need of a cocktail like we were.
6 p.m. – Slow Gin Fizzes
Sunsets in Luang Prabang are not just sunsets; they are events. There are a slew of bars practically begging you, by way of idyllic views over the Mekong, to enjoy the approaching sunset with a cocktail. Now Laura is not typically a cocktail drinker, but something about the fiery-red sun waiting to dip itself over the green jungle and into the river had her saying, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll have a drink.” Gin fizz was deemed the right choice for the moment. And there wasn’t anything slow about it. One turned to two and two to…time for dinner (or it’s going to be a very short night). If that cooking course taught you anything, it’s that there is no shortage of great food to be had in this town, so get ready.
8 p.m. – Frasian Fusion
With all due respect to the many wonderful restaurants of Laos’s capital, Vientiane, Luang Prabang would have to be considered the gastronomic center of the country. French-inspired but still distinctively Lao, Luang Prabang’s cuisine is superb. There are restaurants serving tasty Lao cuisine to suit every budget.
Laura and I chose wisely with a place called Tamarind, hidden in one of the side-streets on the Mekong side of town and specializing in traditional Lao food. This was one of the best meals we’ve had on our entire trip. We sampled sticky rice and dried, crispy seaweed, served with an assortment of veggie dips to start: a chunky tomato salsa, a smoky eggplant dip and a coriander chutney.
But the highlight was undoubtedly the lemongrass-stuffed chicken. The chicken is mixed with a variety of herbs and spices including garlic, ginger, kaffir lime and coriander, then stuffed inside a thick stalk of lemongrass, dipped in egg and flash-fried. The result – oh, dear baby Jesus! The crispy lemongrass covering gave an incredible scent and taste to the juicy and delectably-flavored chicken that was tucked inside. And with a side of peanut sauce for dipping and the local lao lao (rice whiskey) to tipple, you won’t regret eating here.
11 a.m. – Longtail It Out of Town
All your bags are packed. You’re ready to go. Stop standing there and longtail it out of town. For centuries, the Mekong has been the lifeline and main means of transport for the Lao, Burmese, Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese that call the river’s shore their home. Karst mountains, wild elephants bathing, hairless, young monks washing their clothes – there is no better way to pay witness to Luang Prabang’s beautiful offerings than to take a boat down this world-renowned waterway. A fitting goodbye to 36 hours in the world’s greatest town.
For video highlights of Luang Prabang, click here.