By Carlos Melia
When I was prompted to visit Luang Prabang, the first thought which came into my mind was, what is there to see or experience? I mean, to me travel these days is all and only about experiences. Laos had never before been on my radar, and I am so happy I took the time to explore this captivating destination, that will transport you to traditional South East Asia heritage and traditions among breathtaking panoramic views and unique sunsets.
Like many other tourists, the main reason behind this trip, other than to satisfy my crave for new and alternative destinations…was the need to renew my tourist visa to Thailand. A friend of mine suggested Luang Prabang, and a brief two hours flight from Bangkok after, there I was at the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, for a two day visit. I have to say, I came without great expectations, and wow I was amazed by this stunning, surprising, and intriguing destination.
Luang Prabang, is a small town located in north central Laos, an UNESCO World Heritage site (1995) due to its cultural and physical significance, comprised by four main roads on a peninsula formed between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
(flickr photo album) Luang Prabang as seen by Carlos Melia
The Mekong River is the World’s 12th longest river in the world, and the 7th in Asia. It is an important trading route, defining the borders between Laos and Thailand, and flows all the way from China. This river offers the most stunning panoramic views, and a perfect spot to hide in the shade at many of the food stalls over its stream. A chance to try true Laotian cuisine and the best noodle soups I have tried in my life.
MUST Do and See
Luang Prabang has both natural and historical sites, like the Kuang Si Falls and Pak Ou Caves. Visit the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum and the Wat Xieng Thong temple. Along with the wats (temples) a significant part of the old town’s appeal are the French provincial style houses. But my must do and see were:
The Food Markets and Bazaar (day/night)
The best way to explore Luang Prabang and learn about it, is by renting a bike and spending the day roaming around. The food markets and bazaar take place all day and night. Try the street food, if you dare enough like I did, or just go on a shopping spree of shirts, bracelets and other souvenirs.
(video) Night Markets of Luang Prabang
Mount Phoussy and Wat Phra That Chomsi
Karma is the fuel of Buddhism, and there are several alternative ways of balancing your accounts to secure a place in nirvana, and that is what I did at Phoussy Temple, right in the town of Luang Prabang. The ancient tradition of freeing birds from their cages and taking offerings to Lord Buddha at Mount Phoussy. Offerings come in a way of flowers, 3 burning incense and a candle. It will take you over an hour, and 60,000 Kips (approx. USD 7).
(video) Freeing birds at Mount Phoussy
One of the most interesting aspects of Mount Phoussy lies in the legend which surrounds it. Tradition has it that at the site of the sacred hill there used to be a deep pit that led to the centre of the earth.
Getting extra good Karma is not the only reason to climb the 328 steep steps up to Mount Phoussy. Stunning panoramic views of Luang Prabang are awaiting for you at the top, also Wat Phra That Chomsi, and breathtaking views of the sunset over the Mekong River. Worth doing it, and afterwards venture to the night markets, food stands and bars.
If there is one thing that defines this destination it is its true South East Asia heritage, relaxation, and magical charm. While walking around the town, I heard the chantings of the monks and saw a long line of them walking to the temple, so I decided to follow and join them in this chanting session. I admit that, silly me, the experience moved me to the point of tears. Things like this are just priceless.
(video) Monks Chanting in Luang Prabang
Where did I stay?
At the spectacular AMANTAKA by Aman Resorts. (website) the perfect match for such a mystical, relaxing and captivating destination. Set on a large garden estate, Amantaka is housed in a graceful French colonial building, which was a former hospital. Airy and elegant throughout, the décor and furnishings reflect the town’s French colonial history. Situated just south of Mount Phoussy, the resort is conveniently located right in the center of town. While remaining very private and quiet, Amantaka is within strolling distance of the bakeries and restaurants lining the town’s main street. The fabled night market, the picturesque banks of the Mekong River and the former Royal Palace are also nearby. Amantaka derives its name from the word aman, the Sanskrit word for ‘peace’, and from tipitaka, meaning ‘the teaching of the Buddha’. Spend the day lying by the main pool or at your own villa, take one of their bicycles and explore Luang Prabang and the banks of the Mekong River, and return to enjoy authentic Lao and French-influenced cuisine in a number of dining venues.
(*) Other alternative options are: La Residence Phou Vao by Orient-Express and Luang Say Residence.
Favorite Restaurants and Bars?
Of course, nothing can beat the food stalls on the stream of the Mekong River or the night street food markets in town. But, if you want to fancy it up a notch, then your best options would be the ones below. Please try the Khao Piak Lao Breakfast during your stay, it is my favorite – rice porridge with chicken, boiled eggs, coriander and fresh garlic… yummm.
Pack Luck Wine Bar
If there was a spot I wanted to come over and over while in Luang Prabang, that was my corner at the Pack Luck Wine Bar in Ban Vat Nong. Such a quite, cozy and wonderful venue. Not the best views, not fancy… just plain and basic in perfect syncronisity with the magic and charm of this town. Rome, the manager, and all the staff were amazing, they will greet you with a friendly smile eager to share their own inside tips on how to better experience and live Luang Prabang while you sip your drink. Great selection of wines, fantastic atmosphere to unwind and live this destination in full. Now when the sun goes down, and everyone is out, expats and locals mingle and socialize, so be there early to make sure you secure your spot. (www.packluck.com)
Le Cafe Ban Wat Sene
Just sit at the outdoor tables, see the local people pass by, with the chanting of the monks in the back, while you enjoy a cold beer and some local delish, especially the tapenads and tapas.
Traditional, as well as more creative, French and Lao cuisine made of local natural produce grown in their own gardens. A typical 1960’s colonial building a stone’s throw from the Mekong River to welcome you. Managed and operated professionally, friendly and flawlessly, risking to say, L’Elephant is the most outstanding restaurant in Luang Prabang. Must try is the Banana Leaf wrapped Sea Bass on coconut milk. Yannic, one of the owners, French-Lao, not only took excellent care of us during our dinner at L’Elephant, but also happily volunteered to show us Luang Prabang by night. (www.elephant-restau.com)
La Residence Phou Vao by Orient-Express
Offering inside and outside seating area, and the Doc Champa Bar, with views to the swimming pool and beyond to Mount Phoussy. Experience the romantic glow of candles and lanterns hung among the shrubs and trees of the hotel’s lush gardens. (www.residencephouvao.com)
So grab a bike and wander around. This is the best way to explore Luang Prabang. Eat at the food stands and night markets and experience the local culture. I did that and fell in love with the destination. Of course at night I was returning to my stunning hotel, the Amantaka by Aman Resorts, guilty of being spoiled. Enjoy.
Heading this Thursday to a three week trip through Germany, Turkey and England. PRIDE Season in Europe this year. So I will return with lots of new material to share with you all. Till next adventure in full luxury. Happy PRIDE everyone. Carlos Melia
Carlos Melia is a Travel Expert, Blogger, Niche Marketing Consultant, Jetsetter, and Bon Vivant, who travels around the world discovering what’s new and cool in Luxury Travel and Hospitality. His reviews on hotels, restaurants, destinations, and attractions, based on his own experiences as an OUT Gay Traveler can be found at www.carlosmeliablog.com