Luang Prabang (ຫຼວງພຣະບາງ), also Luang Phabang, Luang Phrabang and Louang Phrabang is the former capital of Laos and is now a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Set at the confluence of two rivers that almost surround the city, and beneath a temple-topped hill, Luang Prabang is a wonderful patchwork of traditional Lao wooden houses and hints of European architecture; reminders of when Laos was part of the French colony of Indochine. Golden-roofed wats, decorated with mosaics and murals of the life of Buddha, sit under the gaze of wrap-around teak balconies and 19th century shuttered windows. All of this is set against a backdrop of verdant greenery and rugged mountains.
One of those small cities with atmospheric and charming personalities, Luang Prabang has topped the Top City category in Wanderlust's annual (popular choice) travel awards several times in recent years (2015, 2012, 2011, 2010).
As a visitor, you cannot help but be amazed by the tidiness and cleanliness of perhaps the most charming city in all of Southeast Asia. With UNESCO so closely involved and a largely responsible group of local business owners, the pressures of mass tourism development have been held at bay, but for how much longer remains to be seen. Restaurants along the main street tend to be expensive and aimed at luxury tourists, whilst lower cost venues are along the banks of the Mekong.
Luang Prabang rose to prominence as the capital of the first Lao kingdom (Lan Xang - land of the million elephants) from 1353 onwards. The city owes its present name to the Pha Bang, a revered Buddha image (now in the Royal Palace Museum) which was brought to the city by King Visoun during the golden age of Lan Xang in the early 1500s.
The fragmentation of the Lao kingdom at the end of the 16th century saw Luang Prabang become a militarily weak independent city state paying tribute to the surrounding kingdoms. Ultimately the 1887 sacking of the city by the Chinese Haw led the Luang Prabang monarchy to accept the protection of the French, whose influence led to the construction of the many fine colonial villas that sit harmoniously alongside the traditional Lao architecture.
The city fell into decline in the latter half of the 20th century following the reluctant withdrawal of the French, and the 1975 revolution which brought an end to the Luang Prabang monarchy. The relative poverty of newly-independent Laos perhaps helped save Luang Prabang from the ravages of 20th century city planning.
The reopening of Laos to tourism in 1989 resulted in a remarkable turnaround in the city's fortunes, as crumbling timber houses and colonial mansions were sensitively restored and transformed into immaculate guesthouses and boutique hotels. In 1995 the city was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Alms ceremony — monks at dawn (05:30) collecting alms of rice from kneeling villagers and tourists, who form the majority, along Sakkaline Road near Wat Sensoukharam. Just look for the long row of rice baskets and stools that have been laid out for tourists who have paid for the privilege of giving alms. Seeing these tourists, who make up the majority of the alms-givers, seated on plastic stools participating out of fun rather than sincerity definitely reduces the authenticity of the moment. To make things worse, some are dressed inappropriately: please, if you want to give alms, at least cover up and do not show the monks your cleavage. If you are white, please keep a distance from the monks so people can take authentic photos without a European backpacker getting in the way. Ask your guest house host to assist you the day before in preparing if you'd like to get up and give alms in the morning. Please note that the alms giving ceremony is one which, while picturesque, is not without its detractors. Unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of tourists to participate in a local tradition as a means of making easy money, and sometimes sell unsuitable, stale and even unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings, and resistance to continuing the tradition. However, the government has made it clear that the monks have to continue the tourist pageant or risk being replaced with lay people clothed in saffron robes in order to keep up appearances, and thereby maintain tourist revenue. So if you wish to participate in this ceremony, prepare the food or fruit yourself, and avoid giving food of unknown quality. Another problem is the photography: while it looks nice on your collection, think about how it must feel for the monks to have hundreds of tourists photographing them every day. Some lowlifes even stand right next to them, flashing them in the eyes. Strongly consider only watching this old tradition from a distance instead of using it as a tourist attraction, as this may detract from the beauty of the ritual - both for locals and tourists alike. You can always download a picture of it somewhere on the net for your collection.
· Haw Kham — the former royal palace and now national museum, 30,000 kip, no photo/video/bag/shoes allowed, free locker. Open 08:00-11:30 and 13:30-16:00 every day except Tuesday. There's also sometimes local drama or dance performances in the adjacent theatre. In August 2011, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there were performances at 18:30 of "Search of Princess Sida", a royal ballet, with prices from 80,000 to 150,000 kip. It's important to check the timings and plan the visit accordingly.
· Phou Si/Chomsy Hill — the main hill in the city from which you have a good view of the whole area. It's not a very steep climb from the bottom and sunrise and sunset are the most sensible and rewarding times to go up. There is a near-panoramic view from the top. There are 2 entrances from ground level: 1 on the north along Sisavangvong Road, facing the Royal Palace, and another one on the East, on Sisavang Vatthana Road. The northern entrance has about 130 steps up to the ticket counter, and another 190 steps to the top. Even folks with low fitness levels should be able to complete the climb, although it can be tiring for the unfit. The eastern entrance is longer than the northern one by a factor of 2 or 3, and is hence less steep and has more points of interest along the way, which are perfect excuses for stopping for a breather on the climb. Entrance fee 20,000 kip.
· Sunset on the waterfront — take a walk along the Mekong, or sit and enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants and watch the sun sink into the horizon. If having dinner, make sure to bring some mosquito repellent or wear long trousers. Mosquitoes love stationary targets.
· Vat Xieng Toung — the oldest monastery in the city and one of the most beautiful. Opens from 06:00-18:00. Entry fee 20,000 kip. One entrance on the road along Mekong river, the other on the by-lane off the main road.
· Vipassana temple and park — this golden temple, highly visible from Phou Si, is a shrine for Buddhists who practice Vipassana meditation.
· Vat Khili, Vat Sibounheuang, Vat Sirimoungkhoun Sayaram, Vat Sop Sickharam — small cozy nice temples. Really great atmosphere of real temples. Located near Vat Xieng Toung. No entrance fee.
Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted but the exchange rates vary. There are some ATMs accepting Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Eurocards. These ATMs are situated mostly in Sisavangvong Road near the end of the Night Market. The ATMs dispense currency in Lao kip and generally allow a maximum withdrawal of 2,000,000 kip with a charge of 40,000 kip. Multiple withdrawals are allowed to a daily maximum of 5,000,000 kip. If you arrive by plane, there is an ATM and a money changer at the airport which is open for a few hours of the day, so don't count on changing there. Also, their rates are significantly worse than the banks in the city.
The Night Market (on Sisavangvong Road) caters to tourists with every kind of souvenir you could want and closes at about 22:00. Particularly good are the duvet covers, cushion covers, and pillow sets. They will custom manufacture one to your dimensions in one day. It is well worth a look and the hawkers are very pleasant to deal with and amazingly non-pushy by Asian standards. Traders range from young children to the elderly who usually make the items they sell. Good-natured bargaining is advisable, but don't obsess over this and ruin your experience as well as giving the trader a bad day. It should be understood that the quality and design of goods is lower in the market than in the legions of increasingly chic shopss in the city.
There may well be some souvenirs available made from endangered animals. Avoid buying rare pets, leather, ivory, talons, dried sea creatures (starfish, etc.), fur, feathers, teeth and other products. This is the best place to buy lower end souvenirs and hone your bargaining skills.
The Lao aesthetic sense is quite evolved in its own way, and this can be seen in the higher-end shops:
· Ma Te Sai, Ban Aphai, Luang Prabang, ☎ +856 (0)71 260654. A fair trade shop selling handicraft and products from villages all over Laos. Specializes in handwoven, naturally dyed cotton. Supports local artisans. The motto is: From the Village, For the Village. Ma Te Sai can also organize handicraft and weaving village tours.
· Ock Pop Tok, 73/5 Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang, plus 2 other shops in the city, ☎ +856 71 253219. An ethical trading company with superb galleries. Also runs classes and visits to village weaving facilities.
· TAEC Boutique, Ban Wat Sene (on the main street across from Hotel Villa Santi), ☎ +856305377557. 09:00 - 21:00. Artisan-made textiles, jewelery, basketry and carvings from Yao Mien, Akha, Kmhmu, Tai Daeng, Katu and other ethnic minority groups of Laos. A fair trade shop of the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre. TAEC works with over 600 artisans in 33 villages across Laos.
There are no McDonald's restaurants or any other multi-national fast food outlets in Luang Prabang, or elsewhere in Laos.
Restaurants line Sisavangvong Road and the roads along the Mekong and Nam Khan. Food runs the line from standard SE Asian backpacker fare to more traditional Lao dishes, including buffalo sausage, right up to very high quality French cuisine.
There are also numerous market stalls for cheaper food, including baguettes, crepes, and pancakes. Stalls along an alleyway between the night market end of Sisavangvong Road and the Mekong offers superb Lao street food at bargain prices.
The much recommended street-food market located east of the Tourist Information building as posted on PBS Gourmet.com, said to be one of the must-see street food markets in SE Asia is quite disappointing though. A dozen or so buffet dishes per table-stall is offered at 15,000 kip (as of February 2015) per plate. They are displayed in aluminum basins with no warmers and by the time it's 20:00, the food is cold (however most vendors are more than willing to heat up your food in a wok, after which it's a lot more palatable). The taste is also bland, nothing outstanding or super noteworthy more than any indifferent buffet offerings in other parts of the world. Also, one must contend with a barrage of flies. Basically, if one sees one table, one has seen it all. However, there is large range of salad items and because everyone is packed into the tables to eat, it is a great way to meet other travelers.
While the buffet tables are the cheaper way to eat, be wary of the hygiene and note the distinct lack of local customers which is an indicator of the standard of food on offer. You'll never encounter fatter flies elsewhere in SE Asia. For a bit more, a tasty alternative are the grilled fish, chicken legs, and buffalo sausages sold just before the main "buffet" area. Delicious and worth every overcharged kip. Even tastier if you are tired of fried rice from the dozens of cafes that have sprung up on every corner.
A large Beerlao should not cost more than 10,000 kip, and 8,000 kip for the small dark variety, pretty much standard throughout the country. Most riverside places offer the same prices for beer and generally the same foods. Prices of food can vary wildly, though. Shop around and don't be shy about asking prices directly if anything is unclear.
Probably the one dish most recommended is the Lao version of fried spring roll: vegetarian at 3,000 kip, or pork at 5,000 kip per piece.
The bundles of dried seafood snack have a texture is like chewing salty paper.
Local specialities include:
· French baguettes and other bakery items.
· Local watercress, which is very peppery.
· Fried dried seaweed with sesame seeds dipped in a chili sauce.
· Buffalo steaks and sausages.
· Luang Prabang Khao Soi: spicy clear mince and noodle soup which is very different from the Chiang Mai version. Try a great one at the crossroad to the night market for 15,000 kip