French tarts and temples – Luang Prabang, Laos

DSC_0823 As soon as you step on to the streets of Luang Prabang, you know you are somewhere regal and very different to the rest of Laos.  It’s not just the clean and well maintained streets, the manicured gardens, the French colonial architecture and magnificent temples.  Luang Prabang is classy, sophisticated and culturally rich – a direct legacy from being the former capital and home to the now abolished Lao Royal family.  This legacy has been cultivated and fine tuned to attract mainstream tourists and their $$’s; it became a UNESCO World heritage site in 1995.  Old colonial buildings are now converted into shi shi boutique hotels, guest houses and cafes and a newly built international airport now makes Luang Prabang the second gateway for tourists exploring Laos.

Luang Prabang is most famous for its temples and monasteries – it is Lao’s centre for Buddhism and Buddhist learning.  The city is also known for its Royal Palace, French colonial architecture, arts scene and natural beauty – it nestles among mountains at the point where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meets. I spent two days in Luang Prabang – which is just about right to get a sense of this charming and unique town…

Wats, temples and monasteries

Luang Prabang has over 30 wats and without doubt, some are the finest I have seen and are true national treasures. You can book a tour or tuk tuk to take you around, but I walked between those I saw.  The centre of Luang Prabang is a peninsula and lovely to wander around – bikes can be hired too.

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Wat Sop Sickharam and morning alms (act of giving)

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Every morning just after dawn, young monks from the monasteries quietly file on to the streets to collect alms – their food for the day.  The people of Luang Prabang give this.  Its well worth getting up to witness …

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It’s all over within 20 – 30 minutes – after a quick thanks, it is back to normal temple life…

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Wat Xieng Thong 

This wat is famous for its mosaic detail and architecture.

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Wat Ho Prabang

This wat is just inside the Royal Palace grounds and famous for being home to the Pra Bang, or golden Buddha, a priceless national and religious treasure.  There’s armed guards around here protecting it – but they are very discreet!

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Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham

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This wat is famous for its four tier roof – most have three.  I was also taken by its intricate details and French lighting!

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..and a few other beautiful wats around Luang Prabang…

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I also visited the Royal Palace.  Inside you can see how modestly the Royal family lived, and past state gifts, including a piece of the moon from the USA.  Photography is not allowed inside.

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Colonial cuteness

Aside from the lovely temples, wandering around Luang Prabang you could easily feel you are in France.  The colonial architecture is everywhere and most is beautifully restored and functioning businesses and homes…

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Behind the four main streets in Luang Prabang you will also find markets, hawker stalls and smaller businesses…

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Kouang Si waterfalls

Outside Luang Prabang, tourism authorities have expanded the appeal of the town by developing a nearby beauty spot – Kouang Si waterfalls.  Its 40 minutes away and accessible via a tour, which is a shared tuk tuk, or you can hire privately. AC minivans can also be hired.

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This makes a nice afternoon trip as you can have a cooling swim…

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And admire the pretty flowers!

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Another couple of treats that make this excursion well worth doing…the sun bear rescue centre and sanctuary on the way up to the falls… now, say “awhhhh”…

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… and the newest attraction – the  Kuang Si Butterfly Park – about 300 meters downhill from the waterfalls entrance …

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Inside a beautifully appointed enclosure you will find almost 100 different species of butterfly.  They are still building their collection as there are several hundred species in Laos! Founded and run by a Dutch couple, this is a very nice park and worth popping into. These butterflies are beautiful. Here are my best shots …

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 The Night Market

Every evening, traders from the surrounding villages descend upon Luang Prabang with their wares and set up the night market.  You will find mainly arts and crafts, backpacker clothing such as “elephant baggies”,  plus  food hawkers.  Haggling is order or the day …

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 For eating out in Luang Prabang, the choice is vast.  There is wholesome cheap hawker right up to pocket burning haute cuisine in the more exclusive hotels and restaurants.  I went a bit mad for the French cafes and my firm favourite was Le Banneton Cafe and French Bakery.  Delicious French tarts, and inspired the title of my post – you can enjoy both there.  It is opposite Wat Sop – very convenient for breakfast after alms…

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How to get there

By Air – Luang Prabang International Airport; Lao Airlines flies to Vientiane and Pakse.  They also fly to Chang Mai and Siem Reap.  Other carriers include Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi and Bangkok Airways to Bangkok. Check on-line for any new routes as they launch etc

By bus – Luang Prabang has a number of domestic and international bus services, including Thailand and a 30 hour bus to Hanoi! Minivans also ply the more popular tourist routes, such as Vang Vieng – a mountainous 7 hour journey.  Check locally with agents or at guest-houses.

Where to stay

This depends entirely on what you want to spend – Luang Prabang caters for every budget from $5 to $500 plus.  More up scale and pricey options are on the peninsula, with a number of nice guest-houses after the post-office/roundabout.  All the main online booking agents have listings.  I stayed at the quieter far end of the peninsula stumbling across the excellent Somvang Khily guesthouse. Very clean and comfortable and reasonable, close to the river and some nice restaurants nearby. I turned up on spec and haggled a 20% discount.

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Overall, Luang Prabang is a great place to visit, especially after being “up-country”. Great food, interesting things to see and do, nice people and a very relaxed atmosphere. Be warned though – Luang Prabang has already added that extra “0” common in world heritage site locations – everything is double the cost compared to the rest of Laos and suddenly quoted in $’s, not kip.  When you question the prices, incredulous looks are followed by “but that’s only $10”, when in Vientiane it’s $5.  This obviously irks me, so stand your ground.  I was interested in one curio and was quoted $60.  I laughed and walked away, and it immediately came down to $20.  It was still over-priced, so I kept walking.

Failed shopping negotiations aside, I really enjoyed my time both in Luang Prabang and in Laos. The country offers so much, it is excellent value for money and it really is still opening up to tourism.  I still have to explore and trek the mountains and paddy fields in the north, the nature reserves, Pakse and 4000 islands in the south.  During my last gorgeous Laos sunset over Luang Prabang I promised myself I’d come back.  Laos is a huge gem in Southeast Asia’s crown.

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