Luang Prabang was not only my favourite city in Laos, but easily one of the coolest places that I think we’ve been to in Southeast Asia thus far. Originally we were only supposed to stay in the city for 3 nights, but we ended up extending our stay as we found that there was a myriad of things to see and do.
The city itself is about as exotic as it gets. On our first day, we decided to walk along the main road that lines the Mekong River and stopped in at a café for an iced coffee to enjoy the view. The combination of longbaots cruising along the river, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and the fact that the other side of the river contains nothing but jungle makes you realize just how isolated Luang Prabang really is. However, it has a distinctly European feel as most of the architecture (besides the many Buddhist temples) is French. This is especially apparent on the promenade overlooking the Mekong River, and emphasized by the fact that many of the restaurants and hotels serve upscale French cuisine (not that we could afford to test how authentic the food actually was).
By far the most popular bar among travelers in Luang Prabang is Utopia, and for good reason. A number of tables offer pillow seating on the ground, and there’s even a row of mats to lay down on as you enjoy your drink while gazing out over the Mekong River. There are also tables with regular seating scattered throughout the bar as well as a volleyball court that seemed to be going more or less unused when we were there. The layout of the bar is intermingled with banyan trees, so you get the feeling that you’re getting smashed in the middle of the jungle, which is kind of cool. To top it all off, the drinks are stupidly cheap. There are a ton of bars in Luang Prabang, many of them with amazing drink specials and cool atmospheres, but they are more or less empty because everyone heads to Utopia. That is, until 11:30 pm when every bar in the city is forced to shut down for the night. Sorry, I should say nearly every bar. The bowling alley remains open until 2am and as the hordes of people flood out of Utopia at 11:30, tuk-tuk drivers seemingly appear out of thin air shouting “Bowling? Bowling? BOWLING?” Once they’ve filled their tuk-tuks to max capacity (meaning 12 people inside the tuk-tuk and two or three people hanging off the back…seriously) they head out to the bowling alley.
Prior to arriving in Laos, Jamie and I had heard about this late night bowling. It’s become something of a legend among backpackers in Southeast Asia. I think that both of us had thought that bowling was code for “party in the jungle” or some sort of warehouse type rave, maybe with glow in the dark bowling going on simultaneously. Nope, it’s literally just a bowling alley that serves beer until 2:00am. They’ve got bowling shoes and the whole shebang. It’s incredibly weird. Where else in the world would everyone head to the bowling alley for a few beers to cap off the night? Nowhere, but hey, that’s Laos.
Of all of the things that we did while in Luang Prabang, my favorite by far was our visit to Kuang Si Waterfalls. The falls are absolutely gorgeous, and are accompanied by various natural pools of sky-blue water providing for a great place to take a dip. By “dip” I mean it’s a good place to swing in to the water Tarzan style from a tree nearby, dropping about 10 feet in to the water below. Words cannot begin to describe how much fun the tree swing was. If you’re in the area, do NOT skip Kuang Si Waterfalls. In my opinion, it’ the best attraction that all of Laos has to offer.
The Falls were definitely the highlight of our time in Luang Prabang, but there were numerous other attractions that made a significant impression as well. Watching the sunset over the mountains and the reflection on the Mekong River from the temple perched on top of the hill in downtown Luang Prabang was incredible. However, you’ll have to elbow your way through eager crowds of tourists all trying to get a glimpse of the sunset and holding their iPhones in the air to get a shot without a million heads in the way. Still, it was one of the most memorable sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Many tourists will head via longboat to the Buddha Cave, which you can actually see on your right hand side not too far from Luang Prabang if taking the slow boat from Huay Xai. This wasn’t our favorite thing in the world, although maybe our opinion was marred by the fact that Jamie lost her sandal in the muck when getting out of the long boat and had to wash it – as well as her foot – off in the filthy Mekong River. Sure it’s a temple in a cave and all, but it’s a lot more impressive from the river. When you get up close and personal, it’s quite small and a bit of a letdown. Considering how long it can take to get out to there, I’d say that if you’re debating between visiting the Buddha Cave and doing something else, skip the cave.
Finally, on two of our four nights in Luang Prabang we grabbed food from a vegetarian street market buffet for a mere couple of dollars. We’ve heard other travelers complain that the food was “tasteless” but couldn’t disagree more. For a couple of extra bucks Jamie and I got a whole fish grilled with lemongrass, which was some of the best that we’ve had while in Southeast Asia. The buffet’s a cool thing to do for a night, but it’s also dirt cheap and perfect for budget travellers like us.
If you’re feeling like upgrading from street food and don’t mind splurging a bit (and by that I mean spending about $10 Canadian), a restaurant near the river called Lao Lao Garden offers meat and vegetable soup platters that you cook at your table. The waiter removes a circular section of wood from the center of your table and immediately replaces it with a bucket of burning coals. He then places a metal dish that appears similar to a giant lemon juicer over top of the coals, accompanied by a plate of various types of meat (water buffalo, chicken, and pork) as well as all of the ingredients for a traditional Lao soup. You grease the top of the dish with a few pieces of pork fat that they give you and then fry the meat on the same area. Meanwhile, you fill up the bottom of the dish with broth for the soup as well as noodles, mushrooms, an egg, lettuce, and a couple of other veggies. The juice from the meat drains in to the soup for flavor and in about ten minutes you’ve got a stupidly tasty meal in front of you. This was, by far, one of the coolest dining experiences Jamie or I have ever had.
Looking back on our time in Laos, we definitely had a few beefs with the place, no doubt. Nevertheless, Luang Prabang is one of the coolest places that we’ve had the pleasure of visiting and is an absolute must see if you’re planning on trekking through Southeast Asia. Don’t miss it!