Luang Prabang is on the list of must-see Southeast Asian cities. With royal roots, pristine temples, French colonial architecture, Buddhist monasteries, chic shops, bustling markets, and plenty of nightlife, Luang Prabang is a tourist dream–albeit less dreamy with all the touristas it attracts. We tried to see past the swarms of Westerners and focus on this riverside town’s beauty, history, and thriving culture and really enjoyed it once we did.
Smack in the center of the old town Luang Prabang is Phu Si hill. High above the streets you understand why this lovely peninsula, with rivers and mountains on both sides, was chosen as the royal center of the “Kingdom of a Million Elephants.”
Temples, shrines, and peaceful parks dot Phu Si hill while ornate staircases lead to different parts of town. Hold the scaly Naga handrail as you climb, just be careful it doesn’t grab you instead!
Th Sisavangvong is the main street of the old quarter and each evening it closes for the dynamic Hmong Night Market.
As far as night markets go, Luang Prabang is definitely the best one we experienced in Southeast Asia. Hmong textiles’ embroidery and motifs are so vibrant, that no matter the age or even quality of the piece, it’s great fun to browse or buy. We bought a vintage beaded sash and a set of antique palm-leaf rice baskets.
If you are into traditional textiles and weaving, we’d recommend a trip to Ock Pop Tok. This fair-trade weaving center offers classes in weaving, dying silk, drawing batiks and is just a pleasant place to poke around or grab a bite.
As honeymooners hard at work, we reviewed Villa Maly…a fantastic boutique hotel in a former royal residence. The staff pulled out the stops for us—going as far as to tag our names on the bathroom walls (with permanent paint!) and graffiti the mirror with lipstick hearts! We adored everything about this hotel—service, design, food, location, and history. Stay here if you can!
The next morning we set our alarm for 5am to experience the sunrise procession of monks collecting alms. There are over 1,000 Buddhist monks that live in Luang Prabang and each morning they are given sticky rice, fruits, and snacks by devout locals (and now plenty of tourists). Seeing the saffron-cloaked monks stream through the streets and the people that care for them is a beautiful thing, it’s just sadly been sullied by the all tourists hovering and taking flash photography. We watched from a distance and still felt like a bit of an intrusion.
One of the most striking things about the monks in Luang Prabang is how young they are. It turns out many rural families send their boys to the monasteries for an education they couldn’t get otherwise. Regardless of when boys join the monastery, most Laotian males serve a spiritual term of a few months to a few years as an essential step to reaching manhood.
Since we were already out and about at 5:30am we continued to the morning market. In the alleys behind the royal palace, locals lay out blankets with the fruits and veggies they’ve grown, fish they’ve caught, or goods they’ve made. This market made us finally feel like we were in Laos again.
Luang Prabang is a great city to rent bikes and ride along the river, cut through little streets, and explore it’s 80+ temples. At the tip of the peninsula is perhaps the most pristine wat, Xieng Thong, built by King Setthathriat in 1560. The architectural details inside and out of these buildings are incredible…especially the gilt panels depicting erotic episodes from Ramayana.
As luck would have it our new French friends from the Muang Khua, our RTW buddy Deb Gersten, and this amazing guy biking the world for two years, were all in town and up for drinks! We met at this very cool river bar called Utopia and swapped crazy travel stories from each of our global escapades.
Ever been to Luang Prabang? Interested in going? Let us know what you think with a comment below!