Laos / Travel

Luang Prabang: Laos’ Most Beautiful City

After two days floating down the Mekong we arrived in the riverside city of Luang Prabang. As our tuk-tuk rattled along towards our guesthouse, we admired how lush and green the city was. We had expected it to be a little more built up, so we were pleasantly surprised. The air felt fresher than the larger cities we had recently been in when we were in Northern Thailand, and the sky was a deep blue. The city centre is UNESCO protected, and the streets are lined with beautiful French colonial buildings. Our first impressions: Luang Prabang is effortlessly chic and absolutely charming.

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We spent the first day exploring the city centre. First we visited the former royal palace of King Sisavang Vong, which is now the Royal Palace Museum. The main palace building is beautiful and the gardens, like the rest of the city, are very well cared for. Inside the palace are ornate walls of mirrored Japanese glass mosaics and golden royal thrones, which contrast with the fairly humble private dwellings of the king and queen’s bedrooms. There’s also a collection of the king’s royal cars in a building round the back. Unfortunately no photos can be taken inside the palace, but I could take a few of the outside and the gardens, which are just as impressive.

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One of the benefits of Luang Prabang being a fairly touristy city is that it is maintained wonderfully. I think tourism brings in a lot of much money to the area, so it’s important that Luang Prabang is preserved and also kept looking pretty. Luang Prabang also has many small temples dotted around the city centre, so while wandering the city we explored those too. They weren’t quite as glitzy and extravagant as the ones we had seen in Bangkok, but also not as destroyed as the ones we had seen in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. They were still functioning and beautifully decorated, but not at all busy and felt a little deserted. They were really peaceful and they didn’t feel too bombarded by visitors. The monks that lived there were just going about their daily business.

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In the centre, just opposite the Royal Palace Museum, there’s a large hill called Phu Si, which is in a great location to offer a good view of the city. We climbed the hill at around 5pm, when it was less hot and the sky was changing colour. The views were good, but it was quite busy and we went up on a fairly cloudy day. We wandered back down the other side of the hill and had a tasty dinner. At the foot of the hill is a great souvenir market, which was nice to explore in the evening. It was just a bit of a shame that it’s too early in our trip to buy lots of gifts to take home, because there was such an interesting variety of handicrafts and locally made clothes and gifts.

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Although we spent most of our time enjoying Luang Prabang’s old city centre, one day we rented mopeds to drive out of the city to visit the Kuang Si waterfall. We rode our mopeds along increasingly bumpy roads, through some picturesque countryside. Once we’d parked up and bought tickets, we strangely had to walk through a bear sanctuary in order to get to the waterfalls. Although we hadn’t come to specifically visit the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre (which is run by the charity Free the Bears), I’m glad that we did. It is home to many bears that have been rescued from poachers and provides lots of information about what we can all do to protect bears all over the world. It was informative and the bears were also very cute. We then went on to the waterfall, which is made up of lots of different tiers and vibrant turquoise pools. We arrived at a good time, and for a while had a large pool all to ourselves. We swam for a while in the pools, and then went on a steep uphill walk to the top of the waterfall, above the rainforest canopy. It was such a lovely place to visit, and even as it filled up more with visitors it was still great fun. People were swimming around, jumping from trees and generally having a great time. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Luang Prabang.

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Finally, Luang Prabang is also great for food and drink. Unsurprisingly it has lots of fancy restaurants in beautiful buildings, but backpackers haven’t been completely priced out. There are also plenty of cheaper options, including the traditional Laos barbecue, a really nice social option for dinner. The hot barbecue is placed in the middle of the table with a sombrero shaped metal lid. The rim is filled with boiling water, which you can add noodles, eggs and vegetables to, and the top is where you grill your seafood and meat. It was a fun way to have dinner, even if sometimes we were a little confused (what’s the best way to cook the egg?). Luang Prabang has lots of chic cafes and we stumbled upon a cafe called L’Etranger, an ideal place to sip great coffee, buy and swap books and it also has a room upstairs that screens films every evening (we went to see Sing Street). Shortly after we visited it was written about in the Guardian, so obviously we have great taste!

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As I’m sure is obvious, we loved Luang Prabang. We have all been traveling for between 4 and 14 months and we are all in agreement that Luang Prabang is one of the best places we have been to. I would recommend Luang Prabang to anybody, it was such a great introduction to Laos and I really hope I get to return some day.

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