Luang Prabang – a hidden beauty in SE Asia

Notes from our journal – Dec 2018

Just saying out loud the name of this place makes us relax. As our Airbnb host said, there is nothing to be rushed in Luang Prabang; it is a place to unwind, relax and take things slow.

The beauty of LP is that it is so unassuming – from the beautiful Buddha temples to the quintessential French bakeries; from the jazzy night market (still peaceful though) to the street food to watching the sunset over the mighty Mekong river; LP is unlike any other town we have been to. Literally meaning “Royal Buddha Image“, it is an old royal capital city in north-central Laos, encompassing the UNESCO Town Of Luang Prabang World Heritage Site.

Royal Wat, Luang Prabang

We included LP in our itinerary, primarily to explore the Kuang Si Falls, but we fell in love with everything in this exquisite place.

Getting there and setting in (Day 1)

LP was the start of our 12-day South-East Asia trip covering Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia. We love to take weekday flights after working hours and catching up on meals at the airport lounges.

Though we had to travel overnight, reaching LP was surprisingly easy (for a city we had not heard about much). We took a Thai Airways flight from Bangalore to Bangkok, loading up on some more food and watching a movie, and then another smaller flight to LP which was reasonably empty (and on which Soh joined two more seats and just crashed).

The magic of LP began even before we landed. The airport is a small building settled in a valley, with the landing strip giving a scenic welcome surrounded by hills and greenery. The building itself is reminiscent of the quaint small town airports in India, where you walk on the tarmac itself.

A short 15-minute process later (because of Visa on arrival for Indians), we were outside the airport and inside the country.

And true to the small-town feeling, we were able to take an auto-rickshaw, right from the airport to our Airbnb stay, 20 minutes away. The homestay itself was a humble building of two floors (as was most of LP), but our room was facing the river. The serene view coupled with a calm breeze was enough for us to crash onto the comfortable beds.

Refreshed, we started out, by early evening, to explore the town on foot. There is the easy availability of two-wheeler rentals throughout the town, but we decided to stick to walking on the first day. Very quickly we stumbled  from the calm of our homestay to the calm of the café, Utopia. True to its name, it provides a perfect setting overlooking the river (like many in LP), lounge seating which was a mix of bean bags and low carpets, and a chill ambience.

It was just the first day of our trip and we were excited, but the vibe of the place held us to an idling evening.

After mustering some strength with a few hearty dishes, we set out again on foot. We walked along the curving river, noting the many cafes and the tourist population around the town. There were a couple of tourist spots that we skipped for the day, but soon ended up in a busy street, the night market. A pedestrian-only stretch, which is set up only in the evenings, we stumbled from one stall to another, not really sure about what to buy (though Soh was keeping an eye out for deals).

Usually, we buy souvenirs of a place only towards the end of the trip. But here, in the well-lit night market, we decided to buy a couple of items on the first day itself, mainly because we found some really good options, and sauntered back to our homestay, to plan for our next few days.

Getting around and exploring (Day 2)

We started the day with a lazy breakfast in our Airbnb and then dozed off again for some time. Jet lag maybe? We finally stepped out to the Royal Wat Road for lunch. (And also realized that the only thing we had done in LP till now was eating!)

While planning our trips, one of the things we discuss is transit. We either prefer using local transportation options of bus/tram/metro or renting our own vehicle, which gives us the flexibility to explore like a local or be spontaneous with our plans. In LP, the best option we figured was renting a scooter (on which Iti is always scared). So on our way to lunch, we found a decent outlet on the main road and close to our Airbnb, and picked from one of the many options. The rental was reasonable, but they did ask for a deposit of a passport which we were hesitant about. We spoke to our hosts, who reassured us about the practice and its safety. So off we went on our red two-wheeler.

Since card payments weren’t widely accepted, we also exchanged some USD and got some local currency, while also carrying Thai Baht (remaining from our earlier trips) which were accepted at most places.

After these basics sorted, our next stop had to be food, and we ended up at BOUANG Asian Eatery. A sumptuous (local lasagne for Soh) and yummy (vegan burger for Iti) meal later, we started roaming around on our scooter and exploring the town.

LP is based on the banks of the Mekong river, so the easiest thing we thought of doing was taking a boat ride on the river. We found one vendor and luckily not much crowd because the tourist packages do this mostly in the first half of the day (when we had slept). What we also realized was that in LP, similar to India, negotiating at the vendor place was easier and a better price than booking online.

We took a long wooden boat, with some shading and were able to get a different view of the city from the waters. We enjoyed the gentle sailing through water which was accentuated by the perfect afternoon breeze.

Soh was almost drowsy, and maybe sensing that, our boatman then asked us if we wanted to explore the other side. It is a non-touristy side of the town, so we were conscious not to be a disturbance, but walked through a village, crossed a number of temples (wat) before ending up at Wat Tham Sakkalin.

This is a cave temple and we found a local who took us inside as a guide; inside the cave is a stone ceiling with beautiful patterns. There were also relics, stone patterns and an old Buddha made from wood.

After further exploring, we took a forest path, which with a short climb of stairs, brought us to the hilltop, Wat Khokphap, and with it a gorgeous view of LP and the surrounding area.

Our boatman picked us up from a new spot right next to the forest path, and the ride back was another smooth sailing and we were happy with the excursion.

By the time we returned back to the central town, it was still late afternoon, so we thought of checking out a fine dine place we had read about – Manda de Laos, a serene Laotian restaurant hidden away in a magical setting of lily ponds and reeds. With its unique environment and with dusk falling, it made for a memorable setting.

We grabbed drinks and a small appetizer and then, gradually, sauntered towards the Royal Wat Road. Very soon we were hungry again and gorged on some delicious cheese crepes in the night market.

Picnic outing to Kaung-si falls and pizza (Day 3)

Kuang-si was one of the reasons we had stumbled upon LP, and so we had a whole day for visiting and enjoying the place. True to our learning from travelling, we started the day early (with a heavy breakfast) and off we went on our two-wheeler.

Luckily we didn’t get much traffic en route, one because we were hoping to get lesser crowds there, and two because Iti really shone with her navigating skills from pillion – turn left direction with a right hand out for explanation! But the ride otherwise, driving out from town and among so much green, was wonderful.

As was the falls and the area around them. We walked around, snacked on munchies, hiked to the top (which not many people do), and eventually jumped and swam in the turquoise (and cold) water. Needless to say, we were spellbound by the beauty of the place.

By the time we were out and dry, we were hungry again (obviously), we found a tucked place where we could enjoy our meal (and Soh’s beer), next to the waterfall!

We were tired by the time we reached back and took a lazy evening and were almost ready not to make too much of an effort for dinner when we found out (our Airbnb host again) about a place, which serves one of the best wood-oven pizzas in LP, that is open only on Tuesdays and Fridays and is literally called Secret Pizza!

Luckily it was a Friday, and we had to try, so we helmeted up and with approximations, since Google Maps wasn’t properly marked, were able to reach the place. The place itself is effectively a front yard converted to seating for 50 people but with a wood pizza oven and a cosy bar.

There was a lot of local crowds, mixed with tourists, which gave us confidence about the food. But with crowds comes waiting, which we did do for some time, but eventually just shared a table with a group of Irish tourists. We ended up having a jolly time in conversations, sumptuous pizza and great desserts.

Some more food and exploring (Day 4)

LP is filled with a mix of food joints – happening hang-out pubs, small roadside vendors, to old European themed bakeries. That is where we found ourselves in this cute place, Le Banneton Cafe, to get our fill of croissants and be transported to a bakery in France, buzzing with conversations with an air that was filled with coffee and sugar.

Fueled by the energy, we went exploring Mount Phou Si and its 350 stairs climb to the top, to take in another 360 degrees view of the city and the river. And it is a breathtaking view. The stupa on the peak is the one visible from across the town and acts as a navigation guide for the locals.

The climb down was easy, but we were not done and went exploring the compound of Wat Xiangthong – such a beautiful, charming and absorbing place that we bought a painting of it.

After so much exploring, and a pit-stop at the Novelty Cafe for some more delicacies, we went back to the Royal Wat – one of our favourite place in town, where we went every day.

As the evening was winding down, we walked along the Mekong river enjoying the sunset, and then strolling in the night market (and controlling Soh’s urge to buy everything).

Since it was our last night, we wanted to explore a little bit more of LP. And going further away from the central town and French quarters, we ended up further inwards and in a local market. The place was full, but not with tourists – this (and similar such settings) was where the locals met, ate, shopped. We ended doing our own bit of shopping, though with hand gestures and translation apps, since being a local market, English was not much help.

But this also brought fore the reality of different sides of LP – the bubble of the idyllic french quarters with its eateries and tourists vs the rest of the city and Laotian people. We were glad about a chance to explore this side of LP.

Winding down (Day 5)

We had an afternoon flight out to Hanoi, so had thought of a free morning. But then we did go out for this small alms ceremony which the local monks carry out.

Based on a couple of recommendations, we had heard about this ceremony but had been debating whether we should go or not. Every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms. It is a silent ceremony in which the monks walk big and small streets, quietly open for alms or bhiksha from the people (Soh had also seen this in Nepal), and they live on that. It is a highly spiritual and silent ceremony, which in recent years has become a bit of sore with tourists creating noise around the participation and selfies!

After some discussion, we decided to go on our last day in LP, early in the morning, but with a promise to ourselves that we will keep our distance and respect the silent nature of the occasion. But our hopes of going very early and experiencing some decorum vanished quickly as soon as we stepped out on our scooter. This was the first time in LP where we saw almost 7-8 tourist buses rolling in, filled with folks, making it noisy and rendering it nowhere close to the spiritual aura we were hoping.

Even with crowds causing some disturbance, the monks continued along on their path and in a way it was beautiful to see them ignoring the material world and going about with their ethereal exercise.

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Our last afternoon in LP we went around the town on foot again and ambled along the river, soaking in the colonial architecture, and ended up at our favourite cafe, Utopia, to wind down our zen time, before taking an auto-rickshaw to the airport.

Luang Prabang was a beautiful place with a unique calm of architectural, religious and cultural heritage. With a blend of rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences and numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries, and the delightful people, LP is a must-visit place in any SE Asia itinerary. We hope to go back there someday along with exploring other areas of Laos.

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Have you been to Luang Prabang? Or planning to?

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