A breeze through Luang Prabang
First published 2nd February, 2014
Five years ago, I first read Travelfish’s assertion that Luang Prabang is the destination in Laos. Though I had come close to visiting in subsequent years, LP had always eluded me, like an itch that I could never quite scratch. At the tail end of 2013, I finally made a spur-of-the-moment break for the ancient capital, and it proved more enchanting than I had imagined.
Every travel guide out there describes the bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang as “long and gruelling”. They’re not kidding. To give an idea of what the terrain is like, the journey takes 11 hours by local bus but just 30 minutes by air. The ticket seller didn’t take pity on this lanky foreigner, forcing my long legs to be folded up like origami in the tight back row.
Welcome to LP, finally …
As we set off, the friendly 19-year-old monk riding next to me popped a tiny yellow sleeping pill. For the rest of the trip, a sharp monk elbow stabbed into my thighs as the prickly hairs of a hard monk head dug into my shoulder. Though the scenery was breathtaking in places, it felt as though the bus was the tip of a pencil that wrote the letter S over and over (and over) on sloppy slopes of papier mache. Exhaust steamed inside the bus, passenger overflow relegated to plastic stools in the aisle. If you can afford it, take a plane.
A quick rest stop, with the bus pictured on the right.
The next morning I wandered along the languid riverbank draped in tamarind and starfruit trees. A traveller strummed a guitar in the shade. The word “Boat?” lifted from nearby, and a skinny man with a smooth face and jet black hair appeared with a hopeful look. Within seconds I was perched on the engine shaft of a long and thin wooden skiff painted a similar hue as the hazy blue sky.
Morning along the Mekong.
I had seen the Mekong several times before, but only in places where it formed a border between Laos and Thailand. Here, it’s Laos’ river, and it wasn’t until this ride that I came to understand just how vital a resource it is to this otherwise landlocked and mountainous nation. If Luang Prabang is Laos’ heart, the Mekong is its soul.
Enclosed in bamboo fences and tended by old women with elaborate diamond patterns embroidered on their dark blue silk skirts, vegetable gardens sprouted on the fertile flats that stretched up to steep banks. Children played “King of the Mountain” as their fathers sat motionless next to long fishing rods dangling over chocolate-milk water.
Unlike most rivers that slide steadily along, the Mekong seems to follow its own rhythms and whims, flowing this way and that, bubbling like lava and swirling unpredictably. The driver expertly skirted the black, menacing rocks that churned up just enough white water to give me a thrill. In other stretches, the surface seemed to smooth out like dough under a rolling pin.
Floating filling station.
Scraggly grasses clung to the moon-like stones. A family sat on the far bank, charcoal smoke and the scent of grilling fish billowing above. Beyond them, unspoiled jungle.
We pulled up to a floating bamboo pier, and I soon found myself strolling through the tiny village of Xang Hai. The people here seem to produce two things — silk scarves and alcohol made from rice and rye, often infused with actual snakes in an ancient elixir that’s believed to increase sexual vitality.
Approaching the whiskey village.
In different parts of the village, a group of old men showed off jagged teeth while cracking smiles and waving me over, and a boisterous group of young people yelled for me to join their karaoke and rice wine circle.
The silk weaving makes for better photos.
When I returned to find the boatman standing with a bottle in hand and guilty look on his face, he said, “Just little bit for me.” Barrels containing rye whiskey rendered from Mekong water smoked over charcoal fires nearby. Across the lane, an old woman used an even older wooden loom to fashion a pink scarf from naturally dyed threads of silk. Just down the road, a group of monks accepted a donation of onions and fruit brought by motorbike.
Singing in Lao is easier after a little rice wine.
Back on the boat, dramatic karst cliffs emerged from the haze to the north, and we soon pulled up to Pak Ou Caves. Carved like shelves into a foreboding cliff that dangles many metres over the water, monks, pilgrims and curious foreigners have been coming here for centuries.
Keeping the wheel spinning.
The age-old custom of leaving Buddha images inside the caves has created a haunting and dishevelled melange of ancient, museum-worthy pieces mixed with souvenirs bought yesterday in Luang Prabang’s night market. I had the sense that the caves are a sort of repository for past karma, which is encapsulated in the images.
Cave of ten thousand Buddhas.
Though the caves now fill up with almost as many tourists as Buddhas, the chalky air still seems to drip with a mystical power. Fragrant incense smoke mixes with mustiness; bits of gold leaf shimmer amid shadows cast by flickering candles; thick cobwebs reach from one ancient Buddha head to the next.
Yes, “haunting” is the word.
On occasion, monks spend days or weeks meditating in the darker and more distant upper cave. Near the mediaeval wooden doors that mark its entrance, pilgrims attempt to conjure their wishes by shaking out fortune sticks from a weathered crimson cup.
Gold leaf remnants on a cave wall.
Nearly five hours after setting off, our boat returned to the modest dock in Luang Prabang. We arrived just in time for a sublime Mekong sunset.
Entrance to the upper cave.
The next day, I wandered Luang Prabang’s historic area, stopping every few steps to photograph the heritage houses that line the leafy streets. Some look like estates that were plucked out of the French countryside; others feature elegant Lao-style gabled roofs perched atop rustic wooden walls. Many fall somewhere in between, and therein lies the town’s distinctive blend of architecture.
There’s nothing like a Mekong sunset.
Dozens of ancient temples add to the compelling architectural mix — and rich history — that afforded the town its UNESCO World Heritage status.
- See our handpicked suggestions for the best budget places to stay in Luang Prabang.
At the impressive 450-year-old Wat Xieng Thong, I stopped under the bronze-tinted leaves of a similarly ancient Bodhi tree and daydreamed about the kings, warriors, princesses and monks who would have prayed here long ago.
Layer upon layer.
In a word, the temples of Luang Prabang are magnificent.
An ordinary Luang Prabang scene.
Seeking a break from the chilly late December air, I sought out a hot cup of coffee in Cafe Du Laos, one of many cafes that would fit seamlessly into a Paris street corner. I sat back and poured the rich and bitter French press brewed from beans grown in the surrounding hills. A classical guitar was picked with skill nearby. Even if travelling alone, it’s impossible to deny the romance of Luang Prabang.
Strolling down Sakkaline Road.
Revitalised from the local brew, I climbed the 190 imperfect stone steps that lead to the golden chedi atop Mount Phou Si. From here, all of the elements that make Luang Prabang so special come together in one tremendous view.
Looking southwest from atop Mount Phou Si.
Gracefully-arched temple roofs nestled up to galvanised houses. Slow-paced life unfolded on porches and in the streets. Never far off in both sight and mind, the Mekong slid past, just as it did when the area was settled many centuries ago. A surrounding vista of breathtaking green mountains rose to meet the clouds. There’s no doubt that Luang Prabang is touristy, but like Hoi An in Vietnam, the town seems to understand that preservation is vital to tourism.
Many locals earn a living by creating art for travellers.
As darkness fell, I wrapped myself in a steaming bowl of noodle soup with fresh local greens, sprouts and chillies.
The food is another Luang Prabang highlight.
At night, Luang Prabang’s markets are inescapable — the only option is to be swept into streams of fresh meats, piles of clementines and dragon fruit, spicy bamboo shoot and papaya salads, aromatic soups, grilled Mekong fish, handmade sausages and endless displays of locally-crafted silk, silver and handicrafts. In a dim market corridor that was absolutely stuffed with food, travellers huddled around tables with Beerlao, local rice wine and laughter to keep them warm.
And, of course, the markets.
After a few more leisurely hours enjoying coffee and croissants in Luang Prabang’s fabulous cafes, I returned to Vientiane the next day. Rather than endure another one of those bus rides, I opted for a relatively cheap flight with the tiny local carrier, Lao Central. Though it was just a short taste, I learned first-hand that Luang Prabang is not only the destination in Laos, but indeed, one of the most magical in all of Southeast Asia.
Read 5 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (16)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (18)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (79)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (32)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.