A Beginner’s Guide to Luang Prabang

Planning a trip to Luang Prabang? There are endless things to love about this small city — temples, rivers and waterfalls, good food, nice people — so much that I have a whole separate blog post about it. If you’re on your way, here are few things you might want to know before you go:

1. Laos is a pretty conservative country, and even though there are plenty of tourists walking around town, the general expectation is that you keep your knees and shoulders covered (this is especially true for women, and extra-important in temples). Even the walking trails near the famous Kuang Si Falls — a popular swimming spot — come with this caution:IMG_6589.jpgIt’s usually warm (or hot) and humid during the day, so pack cool fabrics. Unless you want elephant pants and sundresses, I would not recommend shopping for clothes while you’re in Luang Prabang; our venture to buy a men’s swimsuit led us to Dara Market, which is not a place you’re likely to want to spend a lot of time (the changing room is behind the sheet):

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2. Going out to see the monks collecting alms at dawn is a well-worn Luang Prabang tradition, but it is important to resist the temptation to get too close.

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Some tourists chase the monks down the streets and push cameras right in their faces. There are lots of signs all around the main alms-collecting streets asking observers and photographers to be respectful, reminding them that this is an important ritual for both the monks and the people who have come out to present their offerings of rice.

From everything I can see, you are allowed to photograph monks; they just ask that you keep a respectful distance. So I ignored Andrea and Prescott’s warning that I would turn into a cockroach in my next life for doing this and snapped a few photos.

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3. If you want to visit Kuang Si Falls — and you probably do — make sure to travel during the dry season (November to May). This set of tiered waterfalls is truly stunning …

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… but the water can turn brown (and the trails very muddy) when it’s rained heavily. And it would be a shame to miss this!

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4. If you want to stay in town and have lots of peace and quiet, the closer you can stay to the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, the better.

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The streets get a little noisier and more crowded as you head in the direction of Mount Phousi. Of course, if you’re looking for quiet, you could also stay at one of the fancy colonial villas that lines the edges of town, but these are (1) generally fairly expensive and (2) a bit of schlep from most of the sights and restaurants.

5. If you want to shop for fancy local items, textiles are your best bet, and you will be able to use credit cards. If your shopping desires are of the night market variety, you’ll need the local currency (kip), and you’ll find that things are pretty inexpensive. The night market is calm and takes place right on the main street; they shut down several blocks to vehicle traffic every evening and let the tourists roam free. It sits in the shadow of the temple of the Royal Palace Museum:IMG_6660.JPG

You’ll find lots of interesting textiles at this market, though I have my doubts about the authenticity suggested by the “made in Laos” signs laid out atop many of the wares. Other than a profusion of scarves, shawls, table runners, and quilts, the stuff available here is pretty much standard Southeast Asian night market fare.

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6. Prepare for temple fatigue. There are So. Many. Temples. If you love temples, you’ll be in great shape. If you don’t, then plan carefully. If you want to choose just one, I would recommend Wat Xieng Thong (but note that this is one of the most famous — it’s both old and stunning — so it’s also likely to be among the most crowded).

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7. Things move slowly in Laos. For example, the ferry across the Mekong has no timetable — it just goes whenever the captain decides he has enough passengers (so you could wait to depart on your journey to the countryside for anywhere between two seconds and half an hour). If you’re on a timetable and will want a mini-bus or tuk-tuk, book it a little in advance of when you need it. If you’re in a restaurant, expect things to move at a relaxed pace. It’s lovely once you get used to it (and the excellent food is a bonus).

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Bouang mess, chocolate mousse, and a deconstructed mango and sticky rice at Bouang Asian Eatery.

8. If you want to see a hill tribe, be prepared to do some trekking. Numerous operators offer 2-day hikes up into the hills. There’s no other good shortcut. Should your driver to the Kuang Si Falls offers to let you see a “traditional Hmong village,” I would politely decline. You’ll just see one traditional house — and beyond that, it’s pretty much a line of people at makeshift stalls waiting to sell you things.

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9. It’s worth learning at least two words of Lao. People in the tourist areas generally speak English, but you’ll hear “sabai di” — hello — everywhere you go. It’s also nice to say “khop chai” — thank you — at the end of many transactions.

10. You will probably need to pay for a visa on arrival, which will require (1) a small photo of yourself and (2) cash. Bring US dollars for this — and note that they charge a mysterious $1.00 “service fee,” so bring one more dollar than you think you’ll need. Otherwise, once you’re in the country, you’ll carry out all of your cash transactions in kip.

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