After having heard Luang Prabang extolled by many travellers I have met along my trip, my first impression of the town was, “Really? Is that it?“. I don’t know what exactly I had been expecting, but I had imagined the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang to be more charming, perhaps like the Hoi An of Laos.
Arriving late in the afternoon, I immediately set out to explore what there was on offer. As it turned out, not much.
Maybe it was travel fatigue at this stage of my travels. Or perhaps it was the fact that I really did not like my dirty, dodgy guesthouse room, which put a dampener on my mood. My expectations may also have been set artificially high after all the rave reviews I had heard. Whatever it was, I ended the day wishing I had only booked 2 nights in Luang Prabang, instead of the 3 I had already planned.
First impressions can be wrong however, and I am glad I had that extra day. With my first full day spent trekking to the Kuang Si waterfalls, my final day was spent walking slowly through the centre of town, mostly taking in the atmosphere and observing the locals (instead of rushing through all the temples in town or ticking off a list of “attractions”). Here’s what I ended up doing on a great day out.
Luang Prabang in one day
1. Walking along the Mekong River
I started the day by walking slowly along the Mekong River and got quite engrossed in watching the locals transport their goods back and forth from the town to the boats (presumably for trading in the shops on the opposite side of the river). On first glance, Lao people may seem unfriendly and stern, but I have found that they are actually rather friendly when they see you making an effort with them. Just by sitting on the steps and observing the men carrying their goods, repeatedly walking past me, a few of them stopped, tried to talk to me (they were mostly curious about where I am from and what I was doing in Laos alone), then laughed whenever I tried to tell them something in English with a lot of hand gestures to try to illustrate my point. 🙂
2. Appreciating the fusion of traditional Lao and European influenced architecture
The reason Luang Prabang was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995 is due to the exceptionally well preserved buildings that make up the town, reflecting the harmonious combination of Laos and French traditions. The majority of the traditional Laos buildings are made of wood, with colonial structures mostly consisting of 1 or 2 story brick buildings and the temples made of stone. Luang Prabang is also famous for the many pagodas (“vats”) around town, some of which are the most sophisticated that can be found in all of South East Asia.
3. Discovering new foodstuffs at the fresh food market
This is a local food market, open throughout the day where fresh fruit, vegetables and meat can be bought. Also on sale are other food products of which I have no idea about, but were rather interesting to browse through. I wasn’t brave enough to buy any of it though.
4. Seeing how the Royals used to live at the Royal Palace Museum
The Royal Palace was constructed for King Sisavangvong in 1904 and remained within the royal family until the 1975 revolution. The palace has since been converted to a museum, with various Buddhist statues, religious artefacts and royal possessions on display. Visitors are also able to view what the bedrooms of the King and Queen looked like, in addition to the reception rooms and dining room. I found my visit to the museum to be short, sweet and interesting and would recommend it to visitors wanting to learn more about Laos history and the ex-royal family.
Also within the palace grounds is the recently built Haw Pha Bang temple which houses the revered Pha Bang Buddha. Visitors are not allowed inside the temple, but can peek through the door for a glance at the beautiful interior.
5. Watching the sunset at Mount Phu Si (Phou Si)
You won’t be alone in this very popular spot for watching the sunset over the Mekong River, but it’s worth the 100 metre long climb up to the top of the hill, for views of both the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers. Also located at the summit of Phu Si is the gilded stupa of Wat Chom Si.
6. Bargaining for local crafts at the night market
Once the sun sets, the seemingly endless stalls that make up the Handicraft Night Market opens for business along the main road of Sisavangvong (from around 5.30-10pm). Most of stalls sell the same things – scarves, souvenir shirts, cosmetic jewellery, bags, lanterns, paintings and other clothes – so there’s room for bargaining. It’s definitely worth a look as there are some good Laos souvenirs to be bought for those who are looking!
Whilst I can’t say that Luang Prabang is my favourite town, I felt that two full days was a good amount of time to spend here.