Since returning to the UK, many of our family and friends have asked us which destination was our favourite during our time in Southeast Asia. It was tricky because every country we visted will hold a special memory for all different reasons, but if I had to choose one, a country that instantly comes to mind when I think back to our trip, always starts with Luang Prabang in Laos.
This beautiful town, located in Northern Central Laos and translated as ‘Royal Buddha Image’ is steeped in ancient history, and boasts ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’ status.
I’d read a lot about this town before we’d flown out to Southeast Asia and it was somewhere we had even booked beforehand as our onward travel from Chiang Mai. An hour or so flight from the Northern Thai capital took us into the local airport, which we took on a small charter plane, where we got our first glimpse of the stunning country that is Laos.
Looking out from the plane window, through the hazy mist of cloud, a jungle like heaven appears, just nothing but green tree lined mountains draw your eyes in, hypnotising you to the true beauty this part of the world has to offer. It’s tropical, untouched and truly stunning.
The airport was tiny, but despite a tiring wait to get our visa’s and grind out the hot humidity, we eventually made it through, paying about $30 dollars for our 30 day visa. We only planned 6 nights here though, and had booked a small guesthouse in the centre of the town.
We boarded our minivan where we spoke to a Dutch couple and another British couple, but our eyes were being diverted to our first real taste of Laos’ lifestyle. The town is small, so just a ten minute taxi ride takes you to downtown where we were staying. The town is cute, almost with an Island like feel about it, as although it is technically the mainland, because it sits in the middle of two rivers – the Nam Khan and Mekong, the town seems almost cut off and leaves you feeling in a very serene and peaceful setting.
Our first guesthouse was a little wooden finished French chateu looking place with little shutter windows with comfortable double rooms and a lovely little balcony that overlooked one of the local streets below. It was hard to describe in words but it felt different to the chaos of big Asian cities and towns, it was really different than anywhere I’d ever been before. You almost feel part of something here instantly, the local women on the streets making crafts and selling rice, the many Buddhist monks walking around and the long narrow boats occupying the Mekong river just make you feel instantly at peace.
We were told by our host that the monks take to the streets every morning at around 5.30am and it is worth getting up for. Sitting out in our balcony as the monks made their way through the street in complete silence, almost precession-like, accepting alms from the locals was a sight to behold. And it is these types of things I loved about Luang prabang, because despite its popular tourism it still remains very true to its rituals and traditions and life just carries on as if it doesn’t exist but they still smile and want to chat to you. Of course like any popular destination there are hagglers and taxi guys around every corner offering to take you to the nearby waterfall or airport but a simple ‘no thanks’ is enough. It really doesn’t spoil the beauty of the town at all.
A week is probably enough to see the main sights here, with the Mekong river a truly marvellous sight, and we were lucky enough to stay in a second guesthouse right opposite, eating breakfast and looking out to the river and mountains beyond.
We really enjoyed our time at this place – Khem Kong Guesthouse; owned by a lovely French guy named Eric, they went above and beyond to make our stay fantastic. I’d reccommend this guesthouse if you are looking for a budget friendly stay in Luang Prabang.
One of our favourite experiences of our entire Southeast Asia trip was a visit to the Big Brother Mouse centre in the middle of the town. We got approached by a guy who ran the school which helps local Laos youngsters improve their English writing and speaking skills to improve their chances of better employment in the future. We were asked if we would like to go along, in fact you can simply walk in at the session opening hours either in the afternoon or evenings, and just simply sit and chat to them. We turned up to one of the evening sessions and actually had our own individual group and their English is outstanding. We ended up chatting to the students for about 2 hours and I came out feeling humbled and truly blessed to have met such friendly people.
It truly gives you a real insght into what their local lives entail, and the differences in our cultures and what is important to them. It’s a great experience for anyone and it really makes you realise how easy we have it in Western societies.
For such a small town, Luang Prabang really has got something for everyone. Here you’ll find families, backpackers, couples of all ages and of course the amazing and friendly locals. The town is very quiet, and you can easily walk around in peace, taking in the French influence of the buildings, the stunning river banks offering those camera shots and cute cafes at every corner.
I truly believe anyone would struggle not to warm to this place – every corner has a truly distinctive point of interest, from its former Royal Palace to the 33 Wats (temples) dotted around the town. You can even take an easy enough climb up some steps to the top of Mount Phousi located in the middle of town where you get views over Luang Prabang and the mountain and jungle in the distance – this is accessible by paying a small entrance fee at the bottom.
Now a trip to Kuang Si Falls is A MUST!!! I cannot stress this enough if you go to Luang Prabang, or even just Southeast Asia at all, please plase go and visit these falls. Around 45mins drive from Luang Prabang you will arrive at the falls. Don’t let the bear enclosure at the entrance put you off – personally I felt it was a bit cruel that the bears were behind bars but apparently they were rescued so maybe it wasn’t all so bad. Anyway once you make it through the forest and first see the flowing water of the falls, you will, like us, fall (no pun here) in love with Laos. This place is stunning, like truly stunning and hands down the best natural sight i have ever seen in my life.
The place is touristy for sure but because it is a large park, it doesn’t feel overcrowded with plenty of spots to swim, eat a picnic, or just sit quietly and take it all in. If you are fit and able enough to do so, I also highly reccommend hiking up the side of the main fall – to the right hand side is a steep trail that leads upto the top of the main fall, where even better sights will greet you. I have never been anywhere like this before, with cascading turqoise coloured water pools, one where you can even have a dip and have a go on the wooden swing.
It’s truly a paradise and please try the hike if you can; you won’t be dissapointed – just watch out for snakes on you way up or down on the forest floor – they aren’t dangerous here but just be careful! This was a day we truly died and went to Laos heaven.
Back to town and you also have the main tourist street in Luang Prabang – here you will find restuarants, cafes, gift shops and at the far end a truly authentic style local night market. Head here in the evenings to sample traditional local curries and find some really authentic jewellery and other gifts. There is also a mega drawing point for backpackers here too – food street!
This is where you will get cheap street food – anything from noodles and rice dishes, western food and all at very cheap prices. This town is not a party town at all, you will not find drunk backpackers in the street as many of the bars are more laid back and close reasonably early. But that’s not the reason to visit Luang Prabang, it’s a place where you will feel the true sense of buddhist culture, a peaceful way of living and true natural beauty that makes you realise why many people refer to it as one of the most beautiful spots of all of Southeast Asia.