Luang Prabang is the old capital of Laos and one of the most beloved cities of southeast Asia to spend a long weekend, thanks to its humble charm and well preserved cultural heritage. The city is located at the conflux of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, which gives it a natural beauty that is enhanced by the iconic riverboats always drifting past the peninsula. There are over 34 protected temples that are exquisitely decorated and carefully tended to by monks, which sit alongside French colonial architecture and more rural buildings. This interesting blend of nature and edifice and old versus new is why Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you are spending a long weekend in Luang Prabang, my advice would be to simply plan nothing and take long strolls by the rivers to soak up the culture. However if you need more tips on things to do, please read on for my guide on how to spend a long weekend in Luang Prabang.
Hang Around the Cafes
For tired city dwellers spending a long weekend in Luang Prabang to recharge the batteries, all you need is a good book and to plant yourself at one of the many cafes. Coffee is surprisingly good and there are many French inspired cafes serving creamy cafe au laits. What could be more relaxing than sitting outside and watching life go by in a picturesque town where time stops? My favourite is Le Banneton cafe, opposite the Wat Sop Sickharam which also serves amazing baguettes.
Visit the Kuang Si Waterfall
This is the famous waterfall of Laos, the one that appears in all of the postcards with its blissful aquamarine pools. It is as beautiful in real life as it looks in the pictures. You can visit Kuang Si for hiking and spectacular natural views or to go swimming, although during the cooler months (November to February) the water will be freezing.
The entrance fee to the falls is 20,000 kip and there are a lot of tourists. Follow the crowds up the walkway, past the milky pools and muddy reeds, and you will soon see the magnificent waterfall crashing down! Pose for the obligatory selfie here. The azure colour of the water is due to the deposits of white calcium carbonate which reflect in the light producing a distinct milky aqua colour.
If you are more adventurous, this is just the start of your hiking adventure. Continue walking past the main falls and take a very steep set of natural stairs up to the top of the summit. Here there are spectacular natural views and several walking trails. I decided to take the path that forked left, where I soon came to a quiet alcove at the source of the waterfall where people were enjoying some respite from the sun under the shade of the trees.
From here I followed a sign that indicated ‘this way to the caves and spring water’ which was a further 45 minute walk along a rocky path. I came to a natural cave, where I paid 10,000 kip to enter with a small torchlight. It was small and dark, with a few cobweb covered Buddha statues. By the cave is a deep green spring, where the water is calm and you can enjoy a private swim. Or simply sit back and enjoy a few cold beers from the makeshift bar.
The easiest way to get to Kuang Si is via tuk tuk for approximately 50,000 kip. It is a 30km drive from Luang Prabang and a great day trip.
Go Temple Hopping
Laos is a Buddhist country and places of worship are called Wats or Temples. There are over 70 Wats in Luang Prabang, all of which are maintained and cared for by monks, making it a highly devout city. Before visiting a Wat you should be aware of the proper etiquette to avoid causing offence. Dress respectfully and ensure your shoulders, knees and midriff are covered. Remove your shoes before entering the main building. Feet should never be pointed at the Buddha so if you wish to pray, kneel down or cross your legs. Never touch or make provocative gestures towards the monks or Buddha statues.
The most beautiful temple in Luang Prabang is the Wat Xiengthong, and it is the only temple that charges entry. The buildings are adorned with colourful cut glass and mirror, which makes the whole place light up in the sun. The central building is majestic gold and donned by sparkling blue pillars, whilst the smaller buildings are decorated with mosaics featuring devout worshippers. However the highlight of my visit here was seeing a monk walk by with his pet monkey!
Wat Sop Sickharam is one of the smaller temples on the main thoroughfare and a more humble example of a Buddhist place of worship. Whilst still ornately decorated, the buildings are smaller in size and coloured tiles are used in place of mirror and glass embellishment.
Give Alms to the Monks
There is a large monastic community in Luang Prabang who look after the cities’ temples. At sunrise each day, the monks seek alms. Sunrise usually occurs between 5.30am and 6.30am, but as the monks do not have watches they judge sunrise by looking at their palm and waiting until it is light enough that the lines on their hand become perceptible.
The monks walk silently in single file through the streets with a bowl. The local people are waiting for them with freshly prepared sticky rice, and they place generous scoops in the bowls for the monks as they walk by. Monks live very humble lives and what they receive during this morning tradition is their only sustenance for the day. The practice is hundred of years old and it creates a special bond between the people who feed the monks, and the monks who provide spiritual redemption to the people.
This beautiful tradition is at risk of becoming extinct because of disrespectful tourists. Some tourists use it as a photo opportunity and loudly disrupt the proceedings, which are supposed to occur in silence. Tourists also buy other food, such as wrapped baked goods, and give them as alms which the monks cannot eat. Sometimes you can see the monks throwing out the food they receive from tourists. Waking up early to watch this tradition is special. Just remember to keep a respectful distance.
Drink Cocktails by the River
Luang Prabang is located on a peninsula where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers intersect. There is nothing more peaceful than slowly getting drunk in the afternoon by these muddy streams, which are dotted with colourful riverboats and set against mountainous terrain.
Utopia bar is a great chill out bar in Luang Prabang. It is by the foot of Mount Phousi overlooking the Nam Khan river. This sprawling space looks like it was designed by hippies and marijuana smokers. There are throw pillows, blankets and comfy cushions everywhere, with lots of small tables and ashtrays, so you can lay back and enjoy the view and a good smoke. Utopia also serve reasonably priced cocktails that are not diluted, as well as beer, wines and snacks. Watching the sunset here is an incredible experience.
Take a Boat Trip to the Pak Ou Caves
The Pak Ou Caves are two spiritual caves inside limestone cliffs where the Nam Ou River and Mekong River meet at Ban Pak Ou. The ferry departs opposite the Mekong Coffee Lounge and it is a very pleasant one hour boat ride.
The caves are filled with statues of Buddhas of all sizes and styles, from tiny palm-sized painted ornaments to large metallic statues. In olden times, pilgrims would embark on a difficult and long voyage to reach the caves and after paying homage they would donate a Buddha idol. Overtime, the caves have accumulated thousands of Buddhas. When you reach the cliff, you ascend the narrow stairs to the lower caves where you are required to pay a small fee. You can continue a steep ascent for a further 5-10 minutes to reach the upper caves.
Some people complain the Pak Ou Caves are a tourist trap, given the 20,000 kip fee to enter. However the real money-spinner here are the toilet facilities, which charge 10,000 kip and do not flush or have toilet paper.
After the caves, the ferry will stop at the Whisky Village on the way back to Luang Prabang. Here you can sample and buy potent home-made spirits. However I was more fascinated by the woman of the village, who sit outside their homes weaving scarves. Whilst the quality is humble and threadbare, the designs and colours of the scarves are gorgeous so I purchased a few to take home with me. Unfortunately I lost them before I reached home again…
There is also a temple at the end of the Whisky Village with some weird and wacky statues that is worth visiting.
Watch a Show at the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was build in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong during the French Colonial era. A special way to experience the luxuries of the palace is to watch a traditional Laotian performance. Performances are held four nights a week and are based on Buddhist legends. The performers are mostly young adults and they dress in ornate outfits. The main characters wear scary, painted masks. In this way, Luang Prabang can help preserve its cultural heritage and pass on artistic traditions to the next generation.
Eat the Local Food
Laotian food is more simple compared to its southeast Asian neighbours and is often described as a poorer version of Thai food. The cuisine has been influenced by locally available ingredients as well as Chinese and Indian immigrants, French colonialists and neighbouring countries over the years. Their staple dish is sticky rice however curries, stews, soups and salads are also prevalent. The dishes I tried were less spicy or fragrant than I expected. Because Laos is a poor country, it has less access to rich ingredients, herbs and spices.
A common regional dish is Or Lam, which is a meat stew flavoured with lemongrass and bark shavings. I went to the scenic Viewpoint Cafe, which looks over the Mekong River, to try this special dish. It arrived with a side of sticky rice served in a small wicker basket. The stew was watery and there were large fatty pieces of meat as well as mashed eggplant and bark. You can nibble on the outside of the bark to extract more flavour whilst eating your meal. It was an interesting experience, but not something I would be craving to eat again.
The best meal I ate during my long weekend in Luang Prabang was fish laab, which is a cold salad consisting of fresh herbs and fish (or meat) that is common to both Laos and Thailand. I went to one of the numerous small cafes on Khem Kong road, opposite the Mekong River, and was pleasantly surprised by the freshness of the fish flavoured with plenty of lime and coriander.
If you want to splurge one evening, and I suggest you do, then treat yourself to an amazing French meal at L’Elephant Restaurant. The restaurant is located inside a classic 60s colonial building with grandly tiled floors, high ceilings, large wicker chairs and stately tables. You will need to make a reservation in advance. The menu is influenced by both French and Laotian cuisines and inspired by the seasonal vegetables and herbs available in their own organic garden. I enjoyed a thick cut, juicy pork chop on the bone, served with blue cheese sauce and Asian greens.
The best way to learn about how the locals live and eat is to go outside of the main strip of Luang Prabang and visit the Phosi Market. The market operates from 9am to 5pm daily, and it is where individuals and restaurants purchase all their produce, meat and vegetables from. You can also sample different street foods here including noodle soup, pancakes stuffed with herbs and vegetables, roasted chicken and home made sugary pastries.
Hike Mount Phousi to Watch the Sunset
If you are spending hot days lazing around the cafes during your long weekend in Luang Prabang, burn off those calories with a good walk up Mount Phousi! Start your walk at the golden Haw Pha Bang temple and take the steep set of stairs up, where you will pay a small entry fee. As you make your ascent there are some caves and statues of Buddha. It takes about 20-30 minutes to reach the top, where you are rewarded with a panorama of Luang Prabang and the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. The best time to climb Mount Phousi is in the late afternoon to watch the sunset. You can then walk down the alternate set of stairs arriving at Sisavangvong Road, where you will be in the heart of the night market.
I hope you enjoyed my highlights of how to spend a long weekend in Luang Prabang. Remember, this is the town that time has forgotten, so whatever you do during your visit here, please do not rush…