About 2,300 feet above sea level at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers sits a beautiful and quiet city nestled in the mountain ranges of Laos. According to legend, it’s a place where Buddha smiled on his travels. Nature still seems to define the ancient city, once a royal capital of the powerful kingdom of Lane Xang (the Kingdom of a Thousand Elephants). Today, almost 50,000 people call Luang Prabang home.
The easiest way to reach Luang Prabang is by plane. For a city of its diminutive size, it supports a small international airport with daily flights to Bangkok and frequent connections to hubs in Cambodia and Vietnam. Travel by car or bus is possible, but the Laos capital of Vientiane is an 11 hour ride. Roads between cities in Laos aren’t in great shape.
Made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995, the well-preserved wooden and stone architecture of Luang Prabang is one of the city’s most distinctive features. For a peninsula with only three main roads (two of which are bordered by rivers), it’s an easy place to get around even without a car or motorbike.
Visiting Luang Prabang is like taking a trip back in time about 60 years. It’s a city that wakes up late and goes to bed early. Most shops begin to open around 8-9 a.m. and the city pretty much shuts down by 9 p.m. As part of a daily ritual, locals start their day giving alms to the monks starting at about 5:30 a.m., so early bedtimes are enforced.
If you’re up and about in time to see the alms ceremony, it’s worth having a walk up to the top of Mount Phousi, a 355 stair climb from the center of town. Views at sunrise and sunset are amazing, with the former being the quieter and less frequented of the two. There’s a small fee to pay about halfway up, 20,000 Kip or $2.50 USD.
Bridges are key infrastructure in a city with two rivers. The “bamboo bridge“made entirely of (you guessed it) bamboo, crosses over the Nam Khan River. For a nominal toll of 5,000 kip or about $.60 USD, you can brave the crossing yourself during the dry season. The bamboo for the bridge is harvested on the far side of the river. Talk about green infrastructure!
Once the wet season arrives in late May, early June, the bridge must be dismantled and then rebuilt 6 months later. The toll covers the staffing and maintenance of the bridge.
After 6 p.m., the toll collector leaves, so for those willing to cross the bridge in the dark (not us), you can enjoy happy hour or dinner on the other side.
Kuang Si Falls
The top attraction for visitors to Luang Prabang is Kuang Si Falls, a gradually cascading three-tier waterfall with crystal blueish water, located about 30 kilometers South of the city. About a 45 minute ride by taxi or tuk tuk, Kuang Si starts getting busy around 10 a.m., so best to get there early in the morning or later in the afternoon.
The entrance fee is a ridiculously low 20,000 Kip or $2.50 USD, which gains you admission to the falls for the day as well as the wild bear sanctuary on the way up. When we walked by, most of the bears were stretched out for afternoon nap time.
The main path up to the falls leads you past the lower and upper pools before you reach the main viewpoint of the 50 meter waterfall. There is a road and an ADA ramp to the upper falls for anyone who needs assistance to enjoy the view.
There are hikes from the viewpoint bridge that lead up to the top of the falls on each side, creatively named Path “A” and “B.” Path A (to the left facing the falls) is the easier of the two, but still a good 15-20 minute cardio climb before reaching the top. We never found another official viewpoint at the top, just shallow pools and trails leading to nearby villages.
After a sweaty hike to the top and back, enjoy a swim in one of the designated areas in the upper pools. Don’t mind the fish – they’ll nibble, but won’t eat much.
If visited outside the amateur hours, Kuang Si can be a relaxing and peaceful experience. There are plenty of food, beverage and craft vendors in the main parking lot if you forgot your water and picnic lunch or were hoping to pick up some souvenirs.
Another highlight of a visit to Luang Prabang is taking a cruise up the Mekong, the world’s 12th longest river. You can hire a private boat for about $60 USD (with some negotiation) for the morning that will take you to sights like the caves or waterfalls.
Our hotel provided a complimentary sunset booze cruise, so we enjoyed watching the sun set on the Mekong a couple of nights. The boats, called “slow boats“, are long and narrow and are carved out of wood.
You can take multiple day cruises up the Mekong, or just head out for an hour to enjoy the views of the mountains and villages from the water.
The typical route of a slow boat is to motor upstream and then shut off the motor and float downstream. The slow boats occasionally turn perpendicular to the rest of the boat traffic on the river leading to some close calls.
On our second night, we celebrated Alisa’s birthday with a coconut cake. The four other cruisers joined in with singing happy birthday and shared some cake and a toast to the birthday girl.
Big Brother Mouse
When you tire of being a tourist in Luang Prabang, you can give something back to the community by a visit to Big Brother Mouse. Every day at 9 a.m. or at 5 p.m., you can drop in to volunteer as an English language coach to students, mostly young men ages 18-24. Each session is a couple of hours and students come to practice their conversation and grammar or get help with their homework.
Alisa and I spent two mornings volunteering at Big Brother Mouse and it was by far our most rewarding time in Luang Prabang. On the first visit, I coached an 18 year old who was just beginning to study English. At least 50% of the economy of Luang Prabang is dependent on tourism and most tourists speak English or French. I spent a fair amount of time helping him with the medical and trade-related terms in his notebook and world geography using the maps on the walls of the room.
Alisa spent her time coaching a young monk named Jam, whose English was quite advanced in comparison to the other students. She learned that many young men will become monks for a few years as a way to deepen their religious study and the rest of their educational curriculum is far superior to the public schools. While there are strict rules that govern interactions between monks and women, Jam seemed quite comfortable talking with Alisa and was both happy and surprised when she returned to talk with him a second time.
So Long, Luang Prabang
There are many reasons to add Luang Prabang to your “bucket list,” not the least of which is the beautiful and gentle nature of this city compared to other tourist sites in SE Asia. Be prepared for the inflated economy that comes with the beauty. Goods, services and hotels are more expensive here than in Vientiane or Vang Vieng. Still, you can stay at a luxury hotel for under $100/night.
Spending one day walking the streets and a quiet evening along the Mekong river is enough to understand why this place is special and why Buddha smiled here.
So long, Luang Prabang.