10 Reasons to Visit Luang Prabang

Prescott, our friend Andrea, and I have just returned from a Thanksgiving vacation in Luang Prabang, Laos — and we have decided that it’s one of our favorite places in Southeast Asia! We were ready to return the minute we left, and we are now happily recommending it to everyone else. Here’s why:

1. Temples: What New York is to skyscrapers, Luang Prabang is to temples. You lose count after a while, though each temple complex is unique in its own way. They are majestic …

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… sparkly …

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… golden …

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… and quietly restrained:

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With temples come monks (and novice monks) in orange and saffron robes:

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You see them all over town…

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… and people wake up at 5:30 in the morning to go out to the street to give them alms:

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There’s so much to say about religion in Laos that I’ll cover it in another post. You could spend days and days just looking at temples.

2. This Waterfall:

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That’s Kuang Si Falls, and it’s one of the most stunning waterfalls I’ve ever seen. Sitting at the end of a fairly short trail about half an hour outside of Luang Prabang, it cascades down …

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… and down …

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… and down …

 

 

… and down:

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There’s a swing up at the very top…

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… three different levels of pools for swimming at the bottom …

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… and a million places to take stunning photographs in the middle:

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3. Bears: There’s a bear sanctuary here! You pass by it just before you get to the waterfall, and I can’t believe that it doesn’t get more press, because you can see Asian black bears right up close:

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The Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, operated by an organization called Free the Bears, rescues bears that have been trapped by poachers (who harvest the bile from the bears’ gallbladders for sale to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine). You can watch them just lazing around:

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They even have a bear cub!

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And in a nod to bear education, they also have these guys …

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… and this one, if you don’t mind your bear a little worse for wear:

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So if the waterfall alone isn’t enough to make you trek out to this part of the world, the bears offer an extra bonus.

4: Restaurants & Cafes: There’s something wonderful about the intersection of French and Southeast Asian food, and this far-reaches outpost of French Indochina is one of the few places where you can still find the two merging in all sorts of places. The food scene here is delightful. Our favorite restaurant ended up being Bouang Asian Eatery, where we would happily recommend the pumpkin curry, the organic fish special, the tofu salad special …

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… and the truly yummy Bouang Mess (their tropical version of the Eton Mess):

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We were also huge fans of the chai lattes and mango with sticky rice at L’Etranger Books & Tea (they also show a different movie upstairs every night for those in search of evening entertainment):

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And if you don’t care quite so much about the food, you can sit and have a relaxing meal at the Viewpoint Cafe, where you’ll look out over the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers:

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5. Peace & Quiet: Most cities in Southeast Asia are one level of crazy-busy after another, filled with scooters and honking horns and smog and people and people trying to sell you stuff and shops that spill out onto sidewalks. Luang Prabang is like an oasis that somehow has remained quiet and sane. The streets are nearly empty, the buildings are low-slung, the atmosphere is restrained.

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We weren’t sure whether this was due to the relative poverty of Laos, or to the fact that Luang Prabang is less well-known than lots of other tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, or to the city’s decision not to let large busses into the town — in any case, we couldn’t stop remarking on the sense of calm. It’s lovely just to stroll down the streets and alleys.

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It’s an easy city to walk around…

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…but if your feet are feeling tired, you can always take a brightly-colored tuk-tuk:

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And if you really want to get away from it all, it’s easy enough to grab a bike (I recommend one with gears and working brakes — mine had neither), put it on what passes for a ferry …

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… take the 6-minute boat ride to the other side of the the Mekong ..

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… and bike through the countryside and tiny villages to your heart’s content.

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6. Teaching English: Want to meet real Laotians and do some good at the same time? Luang Prabang offers tourists the unique opportunity to have English conversation practice with young Laotians at a nonprofit organization called Big Brother Mouse.

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This is a great way to learn about life in Laos while also helping people learn English. You can stop by their shop any time between 9:00-11:00 am or 5:00-7:00 pm and just chat with random groups of people. There’s no time commitment and no curriculum. I talked with two 19-year-old young men (one aspiring hotelier, another budding restaurant manager) on my first visit; on my second go-round, I read a book, worked on grammar, and sang Celine Dion with two girls in their early teens. It was one of the best things I did in my time in the city.

7. Textiles: Laos is famous for its weaving and batik traditions, and you can see beautiful pieces just about anywhere you go. For an introduction to Lao hill tribe culture and crafts, you can visit the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC), a tiny museum in an old colonial house. There, you can see traditional embroidered tops …IMG_6443

…skirts…

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… and headwear:

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They also have a room dedicated to musical instruments, where even the mouth harps benefit from embroidered embellishments:

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If you’re lucky, you may catch someone doing batik work in the museum’s backyard education area:

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Another place you can watch artisans at work is at Ock Pop Tok, a boutique and craft center where 50% of all of the proceeds go to the weavers themselves.

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There’s a loom right outside …

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… and stunning weavings for sale inside (I cast longing glances at this one, but at over $1,500 USD, it’s going to have to wait for a different buyer):

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8. Storytelling: Our favorite evening event in Luang Prabang took place at a theater just half a block from our hotel:IMG_6801.jpg

This performance involved a highly entertaining young man telling us a series of traditional Laotian folktales, interspersed with tunes played by a much older man on the khene:

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The storyteller is a truly gifted performer — I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this before. I still laugh thinking about him.

9. Chang: If you stop by the Victoria Hotel (the last residence of the Lao royal family) on any given evening at 7:00, you can pull up a chair …

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… order some popcorn, and settle in for a fascinating, strange movie experience:

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Shot in the jungles of Laos and northern Thailand in 1925 and 1926, this quasi-documentary tells a story of man vs. jungle. In the words of the film (silent, of course), “Before the most ancient arose, before the first city in the world was built, before man trod the earth — then, as now, there stretched across vast spaces of farther Asia a great green threatening mass of vegetation … the Jungle …”

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The plot centers around a Laotian family that’s trying to hack out a life just beyond their village, but whose enterprises are regularly interrupted by various scary members of the animal family. Prescott, Andrea and I spent a lot of time cringing at the treatment of the leopards, tigers, and bears on screen, but it’s clear that in the 1920s, these were all terrifying creatures. And the filmmakers — the same guys who would go on to film King Kong — actually put their lives at risk to take some of the shots in the movie. They also shot great footage of one of the giant elephant herds that used to roam this area:

 

I should note that while this film had mild success when it first came out, it was largely forgotten for nearly seventy years, and the score was lost entirely. The music you hear in that clip was recorded by the Champasak Shadow Puppet Theater in 2014.

While this movie was about man vs. nature, the true star of the show was Bimbo the pet monkey:

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I’m not sure I liked this movie — there’s just too much animal cruelty — but as a look into early filmmaking in and about Southeast Asia, it’s fascinating.

10. Things Drying by the Side of the Road: I am thrilled (for no particular reason) every time I stumble on vegetables, fruits, fish, or grains drying out on trays on the sidewalk in Asia. There’s something lovely about how practical and beautiful this is. So I’ll end by sharing a sampling of what you might see in your wanders:

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