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Impressions of Luang Prabang Laos

Luang Prabang is located in northern Laos in the countries mountainous region. Hazy, green limestone hills surround the city.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is just a small section of town located on a peninsula created by the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River).

It is charming in character and picturesque in setting.

It felt slow and sleepy compared to other SE Asian cities we had recently visited. It has a very relaxed feel, in other words it is a welcome reprieve for weary travellers.

Originally founded almost 2800 years ago, the town has an exceptionally rich mixture of traditional Lao architecture and French colonial houses. The town is also accented with an abundance of ancient Buddhist temples.

Many of the traditional Lao houses are built of wood and panels of plaited bamboo packed with mud or clay.  Brick colonial buildings feature balconies and wooden decorative features.

The multitude of Buddhist pagodas are superbly decorated with sculptures, engravings, paintings, inlays and gilding. Each pagoda is fitted with large temple drums which are occasionally banged in a seemly random fashion, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning. 

Other times there are choruses of monks chanting in Pali Sanscrit.

Words I would use to describe the town:

  • Charming
  • Picturesque
  • Romantic
  • Spiritual
  • Calm
  • Walkable
  • Laid back

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There are palm trees, trumpet flowers, and water Lilly ponds that reflect the verdant surroundings.

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Basket shops selling hats, baskets, fish traps along with decorative woven baubles.

Photo Gallery of Luang Prabang

The Lao People

The Lao people are equally as charming. The place is very much a reflection of its people.

The Lao people we met were open, friendly, polite and generous. They are also courteous, tolerant and respectful.  They are a very laid-back people so sometimes things don’t always happen when or as promised.

We were sitting outside of a temple listening to the monks chanting performing an initiation ceremony in Pali Sanskrit. A local man came over asked where we from. He explained the importance of the monks, how he himself had studied as a monk in the past, and how the monks look after the less fortunate. He said we could go in side to witness the ceremony. We declined saying we did not want to interfere and were happy to listen from outside.

A few minutes later some folks offered us a soft drink. Our new acquaintance explained it gives Lao people joy to be able to give.

We were touched by this genuine insight. 

Parlez-vous Français?

You hear a lot of French spoken here both by the locals and the multitude of French speaking tourists.

Government buildings have signage in both French and Lao. 

Lay of the land

Sisavangvong Road runs down the center of the UNESCO area of town terminating at Riverview park. It is the only main street that has opposing traffic. This road has its share of art galleries, shops, massage joints, restaurants, North face discount outlets, tourist information offices, temples and ATM machines.

This is the street where the night market takes place.

The Royal palace also takes its spot between Sisavangvong Road and Khem Khong along the Mekong River.

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Kingkitsarath Rd runs along the Nam Khan River and is a one way street – in theory but not in practice. Landside are restaurants, hotels, wine bars etc. The tree lined promenade steps down to the river boat jetties and seating for el fresco dining Asian style. There are random raised beds full of herbs vegetables, and leafy greens. Garbage receptacles made from woven bamboo keep the scene green.

The street features tangles of overhead electrical wiring interwoven with masses of spider webs.

Pretty vistas overlook the river

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The opposite side of the Khan River is mirrored on the surface of the slow moving water.

 

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Riverside Park is located at the end of the peninsula where the two rivers meet. The park is covered in palms trees and provides stunning vignettes of the Mekong River. A sometimes there bamboo bridge may or may not get you across the Khan from the end of the peninsula.

The main drag

Kingkitsarath Rd  becomes Khem Khong Street at the park and continues to run along the flow of the Mekong. It is also a one-way street, but with a little more discipline. The street is lined with tourist vans, cafes, some undeveloped green space on the steep bank down to the river. Restaurants with viewing platforms overlook the Mekong where  the tour boats are docked.

People hustle tourists for tours and cruises in polite low key Lao manner. Hand painted signs are nailed to trees advertising cruises and restaurants.

There are some very large trees, orchids, and jack fruit hanging in clusters
 
The two story French colonial buildings on the land side of the street have been converted into restaurants, cafes, bars, and guesthouses.

 The main one-way streets are connected by narrow cross alleys paved with red terra cotta bricks. The alleys feature tropical plants, roaming chickens, clothes out to dry, pots with tomato plants.

There are sidewalks and for the most part they are kept free for pedestrian use– very unusual for an Asian city.

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The air was often a grey smoky haze as a result of all the local agricultural burning. This made for very moody red sunsets over the Mekong.

There are always monks in various shades of saffron to be seen

Dried patties of river seaweed dry on racks on the sidewalk on the hoods of cars in either green purple or tan. Racks of drying cakes of sticky rice were also common.

The markets

The morning market is pretty grim, featuring medieval butchery and lots of flies. Also local produce, river fish, both fresh and dried in various shapes and sizes, the fresh fish are laid out on banana leaf so they can stare at passer byes. There are live crabs, cooked crabs bound in bamboo, local crafts and weavings, rice paper umbrellas, baked goods, grilled stuff on sticks, grilled Laos sausage, dried chillis in bags, tiny birds in tinier cages, clothing, fresh hen’s eggs, fresh flowers, flower garlands and incense for temple offerings.

The night market was shoulder to shoulder crowded.

Laos food

There are loads of places to eat in Luang Prabang including French, Lao, street food, holes in the wall places, Western and fusion cuisines.

For me I found Laos cuisine to be interesting yet unassuming.

After recently being in Thailand it is maybe it is not fair to compare the two.

However there are similarities between Northern Thai food and the Lao food we had in Luang Prabang. Larb (laap), papaya and banana blossom salad etc.

In my opinion Lao food is missing the flavour, the colour, and the panache of Thai food. For me the traditional Lao cuisine did not result in anything really memorable or inspiring. I found it beige and overall kind of meh.

The Luang Prabang Sausage, however is to die for – Sai oua, is a pork sausage seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, ginger, garlic, and kaffir lime. Sometimes white rice is added allowing a fermentation thing to happen giving the sausage some additional zing.

Maybe we did not give the local cuisine a fair shot? Maybe it was a case of eating at restaurants dumbed down for tourists palates? Who knows?

I do think Laos cuisine needs a second chance!


Tourism

The new Chinese high speed train connecting China to the Lao capital Vientiane, brings in tons of tourists who are shuttled around in fleets of vans and roam the streets and sites in gangs. They are easy to spot, usually impeccably dressed busy taking glam shots of each other. Sometimes they do not display the same magnitude of respect to that of their hosts.

There are some aspects of over tourism that are a bit cringe worthy and uncomfortable in Luang Prabang, specifically the alms giving ceremony which has become a tourist spectacle.

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Lurking dangers

Like in Cambodia there is evidence of the violent recent past. The unexploded ordnance (UXO) information centre in Luang Prabang is a real eye opener.

In a nut shell,

Loas was and is still the most bombed nation per capita in history. During the Vietnam war over 580 000 bombing missions dropped 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos between 1964 and 1973.

The majority of the UXO’s are from cluster bombs. More than 270 million sub munitions or “bombies” were dropped onto Laos, of which up to 30% failed to detonate. That is up to 80 million palm sized bombs ready to kill or maim.

 

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In the post war period from 1974 to 2008 over 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of UXO accidents.

UXO Lao continues to educate people about the dangers of unexploded ordnances. The organization employs over 1000 people and has an operating budget of approximately US$6.5 million, to clean up the mess.

Death or injury from unexploded ordnance (UXO) remains an everyday reality in many parts of rural Laos.

Venturing out of the city

We decided to take our chances and venture out of town. Our objective was to escape the heat at the Kuang Si Falls, a series of falls and pools surrounded by lush tropical jungle 30 km from Luang Prabang.

They are absolutely stunning.

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The waterfalls are beautiful as long as you get there before the tourist hoards arrive.

The bridge offering a view of the falls looks very sketchy (lots of corrosion)  – another reason to get there early. Before the structure gets overloaded.

 

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We also wanted to visit the Bear rehabilitation center where Asian, Sun, Moon, and Black Bears lounge around. They live a far better life now than the bile production machines they were once imprisoned as.

Our wander out of town also gave us an opportunity to see how more rural people live. The hilly lush countryside is covered in jungle, banana crops, coffee plantations, vegetable plots, and palm trees. Agricultural burning adds to the thick grey air.

Small villages also dot the side of the road.

The bumpy narrow winding road was jarring in spots and gives an idea of what the epic road journey to Vientiane must be like. I almost felt sorry for the sunburnt backpackers who were trying to save a Kip or two by contorting into a tuk tuk. More business for the massage joints I guess.

The times are a changing?

I can’t help but have the feeling that Luang Prabang’s charm is about to be over run. The current work on damming the Mekong just upstream is kind of ominous in a way.

I have a feeling things are going to change in Luang Prabang. I could be wrong, however I am glad l got to see Luang Prabang when I did.

PS: We stayed in Luang Prabang for 10 days in March 2023

 

 

About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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