Luang Prabang

Even the most jaded travelers can easily be lured by the color which is the first of Luang Prabang’s virtues. The scent of street-side fresh coffee, river activity, produce markets and spicy food soon follows. And then the broader aesthetics begin to unfold. Encircled by mountains, and set 700m above sea level, Luang Prabang is now Laos’ foremost tourist showpiece. The brew of gleaming temple roofs, crumbling French provincial architecture and multiethnic inhabitants will absolutely make avisit here like a true vacation from vacation.

Things to do in Luang Prabang:

  • Wander the historic temples, brick alleys and French colonial villas of the Unesco World Heritage city. Start your day at dawn, when the temple drums break the early morning silence and saffron-clad monks walk the misty streets to receive rice from the townspeople for their daily meal. Buddhists believe that by giving rice in this life ("making merit"), they are ensuring that they will not go hungry in their next life.
  • Hop on a boat and drink up the scenery along the Mekong River, Nam Ou or Nam Tha.
  • Trek to waterfalls and tribal villages in the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
  •  Contemplate the huge, enigmatic stone jars at the Plain of Jars.
  • Ride elephants and visit Thai Lu villages in Hongsa.
  • Marvel at the Pathet Lao’s former cave city in Vieng Xai, a legacy of the Second Indochina War. 

Where to go in Luang Prabang:

Wat Xieng Thong is the premier wat of Luang Prabang. Built in 1560 by King Say Setthathirat, it is situated at the tip of Luang Prabang's peninsula where it juts out into the Mekong. Xieng Thong survived numerous invading armies, making its facade one of the oldest originals in the city. To the left of the main temple, find the "red chapel" and its rare statue of a reclining Buddha that dates back to the temple's construction. The statue is one of the premier Buddha images in the country, with an attitude sublime. The glass mosaics adorning all external buildings date from only the 1950s, but are fun depictions of popular folk tales and Buddhist history. Facing the courtyard from the temple steps, the building on the right contains the funeral chariot of King Sisavang Vong with its seven-headed naga (snake) decor. The chariot was carved by venerated Lao sculptor Thid Tun. There are also some artifacts inside, including ancient marionettes.

Wat Wisunarat/Visoun is known for its absolutely huge golden Buddha in the sim, the largest in town at up to 6m tall. The wat was constructed in 1512 and held the famous Pra Bang Buddha from 1513 to 1894. On the grounds facing the sim is the famous That Makmo, or watermelon stupa, a survivor since 1504. Wat Aham is a few steps away from the Wisunalat sim.

Wat Ahan Located between Wat Wisunarat and the Nam Khan, Wat Aham was formerly the residence of the Sangkharat (Supreme Patriarch of Lao Buddhism). Two large banyan trees grace the grounds which are semi deserted except for the occasional devotee who comes to make offerings to the town’s most important spirit shrine at the base of the trees.

Wat Mai is one of the jewels of Luang Prabang. Its golden bas-relief facade tells the story of Phravet, one of the last avatars, or reincarnations, of the Buddha. This wat held the Pra Bang Buddha from 1894 until 1947. Stop by at 5:30pm for the evening prayers, when the monks chant in harmony.

Royal Palace Museum Built for King Sisavang Vong from 1904 to 1909, it was the royal residence until the Pathet Lao seized control of the country in 1975. The last Lao king, Sisavang Vattana, and his family were exiled to a remote region in the northern part of the country and never heard from again. The palace remains as a repository of treasures, rather scanty but still interesting. You can begin your tour by walking the length of the long porch; the gated open room to your right has one of the museum's top attractions, a replica of a golden standing Buddha that was a gift to King Fa Ngum from a Khmer king.

Don't miss the busts of the last dynasty of kings. The central throne room is done in colorful glass mosaics dating from a renovation in the 1930s. Past the throne rooms is a compound of large, spartan bedrooms with what little finery was left after the departure of the last king. The temple at the compound entrance is a gilded wedding cake, and the large Soviet-made statue of Sisavang Vong, the first king under the Lao constitution, has a stiff raised fist like a caricature of Lenin.

Pak Ou Caves The longtail-boat ride on the Mekong is alone a worthy day trip. This stretch of river is lovely and from the base of the cave entrance, you get a view of the high cliffs and swirling water of the Nam Ou River as it joins the Mekong. Inside the caves are enshrined a pantheon of Buddhist statuary. A half-day trip often includes a visit to a weaving village or the Lao Whiskey village, where you'll have a chance to try some really potent local brew.

Kuangsi Waterfall was a tower of champagne-glass limestone formations until the whole structure fell in on itself in 2003. The falls are still beautiful, but less so. The ride here, however, is quite spectacular. Another option, Tad Se Waterfall, is 21km from town and good for swimming, even if it's less spectacular in height than Kuangsi. During the rainy season, the falls are stunning.

Phu Si Mount Rising from the center of town, Phousi has temples scattered on all sides of its slopes and a panoramic view of the entire town from its top. That Chomsi Stupa, built in 1804, is its crowning glory. Taking the path to the northeast, you will pass Wat Tham Phousi, which has a large-bellied Buddha, Kaccayana. Wat Phra Bat Nua, farther down, has a yard-long footprint of the Buddha. Be prepared for the 355 steps to get there. Try to make the hike, which will take about 2 hours with sightseeing, in the early morning or late afternoon to escape the sun's burning rays.


How to get to Luang Prabang:

By Plane: Lao Airlines has daily flights from Vientiane to Luang Prabang for about US$52 one-way. Two flights weekly connect Luang Prabang with Xieng Khouang (US$40) and Pakse (US$135). There are no direct flights to the far north; for that, you'll need to fly directly from Vientiane.

The Luang Prabang International Airport handles international flights from Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Siem Reap. On Lao Airlines, the cost is US$118 to Bangkok, US$72 to Chiang Mai, US$115 to Hanoi, and US$135 to Siem Reap. On Thai Air, Chiang Mai flights are US$85. Visas are available on arrival at the airport. Airport transport is best arranged through any hotel. Otherwise, hop a shared, three-wheeled jumbo for US$1 or so.

By Bus/Minivan: The overland route to Luang Prabang from Vientiane takes about 10 hours by public bus. There are international warnings about travel on this stretch, and though it has been quiet in recent years, you should ask around before hitting the road. The trip is bumpy and winding, and local buses are often packed. However, the jaw-dropping scenery, past the mountains and limestone formations at Vang Vieng and several Hmong hill villages, is well worth it. The bus costs about US$9 and has a few morning departures from Vientiane's Northern Bus Station. Luang Prabang's NaLuang Bus Station is a US$1 per person shared tuk-tuk ride from the town center. There are also daily connections to Phonsavan US$9 and the far north.

By Car/Jeep: The mountain route by rented vehicle takes 7 hours and costs about US$230, plus US$60 per day, plus extra for the driver's meals and accommodations.

By Boat: Boat travel to and from Luang Prabang is quite popular. The local boat from Houayxay (near the Thai border) departs for Luang Prabang every morning. Arrive early at the riverside quay. The trip costs about US$12 and takes about 1 1/2 days to complete. You'll stay overnight in Pak Beng, a village with basic accommodations, before arriving in Luang Prabang in the afternoon of the next day.

Speedboats also connect Luang Prabang with Houayxay if they get enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. Speedboat travel is uncomfortable, noisy, and dangerous, but it cuts the travel time to around 7 hours.

Luang Prabang’s northerly location gives it more pronounced seasons than other Southeast Asian destinations, although the climate is still is decidedly tropical. As in Thailand to the south, there is a cool and dry season from November to March, which is the best time to visit. The monsoon begins in April, and peaks in August, Luang Prabang has a greater temperature range than more southerly cities. Nights can be very cold from December to February, while days in March and April can be extremely hot, before the rains arrive.

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