Flying into the Luang Prabang Airport was absolutely breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. The airplane lowers into a slim valley set between two beautiful mountains covered in green foliage and floating clouds making for beautiful views, but one false move and we’re all goners.
Luckily, we arrived safely and headed to obtain our visas upon arrival. Our visas cost approximately $35 US dollars per person plus a one dollar processing fee. We needed to fill out some paperwork during the flight and we brought passport photos with us. For an added fee they will copy your passport photo for you if you don’t have photos. Although everything is done by hands the line moved relatively quickly and we were in and out of the customs area within about 20 minutes. We changed some money into Lao Kip and headed out!
The city of Luang Prabang is quaint, picturesque and charming. It’s roots are French and therefore there is an interesting mix of Asian and colonial European architecture vibe and ambience throughout the city.
Since we had a full week here, I won’t go through daily activities, but simply share some exciting activities and interesting tidbits from our time.
This is the city I was most excited to stay due to the hotels I had carefully hand-selected. Both were boutique hotels, and since I couldn’t choose between the two, we chose to do a few nights in each: the Maison Dalabua Hotel and My Dream Boutique Resort. They were both lovely, but were very different from one another.
The Maison Dalabua is a French-owned hotel boasting charming wooden bungalow huts overlooking a blooming lotus pond. I was in love at first glance. Our room was large and decorated with French antiques and Asian-weaving projects.
I have this thing with lotus flowers, they are just so magical. They close in the afternoon and open in the morning. According to Buddhists.org:
“The lotus flower represents rebirth, both in a figurative and a literal sense. The rebirth can be a change of ideas, an acceptance of Buddha where there once was none, the dawn after one’s darkest day, a renaissance of beliefs or the ability to see past wrongs. It also represents a symbol of fortune in Buddhism. It grows in muddy water, and it is this environment that gives forth the flower’s most literal meaning: rising and blooming above the murk to achieve enlightenment.”
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I honestly don’t understand why anyone would want to be anything but a peaceful Buddhist. If I am ever inclined to become religious one day, Buddhism is definitely where it’s at!
The second hotel, My Dream was a zen-like property overlooking the river, with all teak-wooden rooms and a beautiful “yard” area where you could relax in little huts and read over looking the Nam Khan river.
Both hotels were wonderful spots to recharge and relax, and I am so thrilled I was able to experience them both.
The city of Luang Prabang has a lot to offer. It’s small and cute main road has a plethora of Lao restaurants, touristy shops and temples to check out. Every night, vendors set up shop for a night market where you can buy all sorts of items as well as street food.
Rain or shine, this market goes on nightly. We had a lot of fun buying items here, and often enjoyed a crepe or Mango smoothie for dinner too!
We were all templed out after Bagan but we did manage to stop and see a couple temples. One was at the top of Mount Phousi, a 100-meter high hill right in the middle of the city center with the temple Wat Chom Si at the top. The temple was nothing to write home about, but the mountains encased in fog overlooking the city was a glorious view. Climbing the approximately 300 steps to arrive there was worth it!
The other temple we stopped at was called Wat Xien Thong, and had some beautiful glass mosaics of Lao life and culture.
One day we went to the Elephant Village, recommend to me by fellow travel writer Eric Rosen. I always take special care to make sure that any elephant activities I participate in treat the elephants well, and this particular spot is a rescue center and conservation center where they really do treat the elephants well, which is important.
Here we were able to ride, bathe, feed and play with elephants, as well as take a brief boat tour up to the Tad Sae waterfalls. The day was lovely, and I fall more in love with these majestic creatures every time I see them!
We took advantage of what was pretty much the only day the sun poked through the clouds and rented a motorcycle to head out of the town and into the countryside to visit the Koung Xi waterfalls.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, and well, it totally blew my mind.
An astounding wonder of nature, and it was so refreshing to enjoy wading into the cool water after a brief but intense hike through a steep, muddy forest to the top! (during which Jorge managed to break his camera and drop his phone into a pool of water…sigh…).
The best part was that the fish in the water are the kind they use in the fish pedicures, so they nibbled away all the dead skin on my feet, yay! The waterfalls also have a small moon bear conservation center and was funny to see the bears lumbering around and playing.
This is for sure an absolute must-do if you visit Luang Prabang, and luckily, no matter what season you visit it, it always has water flowing.
Of course, one morning we had to wake up at 5:30 to see the townspeople giving alms to the monks. I tried to stay in the back a bit, as I had read that often times tourists get in the monks faces and disrespect the practice. It’s a sacred practice (locals supporting the Buddha by giving food and offerings to the monks) and special so I actually waited until we were in our second hotel, which was a bit further away from the city center in hopes of having a more local experience. We stood behind a few women in the pouring rain and watched them give the monks rice and to my surprise, umbrellas. It was a very beautiful, peaceful thing to see…and I kept having to remind myself they do this every single day and it’s an important, religious moment for them.
Something else special we did was visit Big Brother Mouse to offer English conversation to young Lao students wanting to practice their English. You simply walk in and start chatting. I sat down with two young men (one 17, one 21) and was later joined by two more, and Jorge had his crew as well. They asked me a lot of questions about my life and told me about their lives too. One of the boys was one of 10 kids, and his family lived on a farm outside of the city. He is spending his summer in the “city” (if you can call Luang Prabang that!) working to save for university and trying to improve his English. It’s clear these teens have very little in the way of opportunities and it was nice to get to know a bit more of the Lao culture and know that we were doing our part to give back. I strongly encourage anyone visiting Luang Prabang (and I think there is also a center in Vientiane) to pop in and offer your native English skills to help out a Lao local. (from 9-11 am or 5-7 pm daily). One curious thing about this was that it was filled only with guys, almost no women.
As far as local Lao food goes, we tried a variety of spots and my favorites for Kaiphaen, which is a restaurant created by Friends International, a charity that helps low-income kids train as chefs and waiters. We went to their sister restaurant in Cambodia last summer, Marum, and if I can help out a great non-profit while enjoying a lovely meal, than great! A highlight for us was the food Kaiphaen, which the restaurant is named after. It’s crispy, nacho-like chip made of cooked river seaweed found in the Mekong.
Another cool spot we enjoyed was Dyen Sabai, which features Lao fondue, which is not cheese at all. They actually put a stove at your table and you cook your own meal. We got the chicken fondue, and they bring out your stove, light it up, and then give you raw chicken, veg, and noodles, and you boil your own soup and then cook your own meat. Jorge and I had so much fun doing this, and it was delicious. The only negative was that we were sweating so much after…the hot stove mixed with the hot humid temps was just too much.
We took quite a bit of down time in Laos, reading and relaxing by the pool, napping, just biking around the city (both our hotels offered free bikes, which was great) and dining and drinking along the river. After a busy, activity-filled Myanmar trip, we were so happy to just chill out a bit.
Next up, two-day cruise along the Mekong, coming soon!