I arrived on the shores of Luang Prabang after spending two days floating down the Mekong River in a slow boat. I was backpacking through Thailand at the time and made a spontaneous decision to take a detour to Laos, mostly because I can’t resist a passport stamp, but also because I wanted to do something a bit more off the beaten path.
If you’ve never heard of Luang Prabang, you aren’t alone. Like a lot of people, I had never heard of Luang Prabang either until people I met in Thailand told me about it. In fact, I had only vaguely heard of Laos at the time. Yet, my spontaneity landed me in this city I never knew existed with absolutely no plan (a common theme in my life if you’ve read my other blog posts) and no expectations.
But, it turns out, ditching Thailand for Laos ended up being the highlight of my backpacking trip and Luang Prabang is now one of my favorite places I have ever visited. It was beautiful, yet so different from anywhere else I had ever been. It was friendly and welcoming but not overly touristy like most of Thailand was. It was full of history, culture, religion and, much to my surprise, European charm. I met so many amazing people here and had an incredible time exploring this little known city. My only regret was not staying longer.
Despite having just 2.5 days to explore the city, I managed to see and do a lot. And if hiking waterfalls, feasting at a night market, partying at a bowling alley and exploring temples all while still enjoying a good French baguette in the jungle of Southeast Asia doesn’t make you want to drop everything and go to Luang Prabang after this pandemic ends, then I don’t know what will.
Hike Kuang Si Falls
Kuang Si Falls is probably the number one thing in Luang Prabang that can’t be missed! I made some friends during breakfast at the hostel on my first full day in the city and they invited me to join them on their trip to the waterfall. We haggled with a local tuk tuk driver and soon were on our way to the falls about an hour outside of town.
When you enter the park, you first make your way through a bear sanctuary (random, I know) before reaching the lowest pool at the base of the waterfall. Even the first pool is strikingly beautiful with the gently cascading, bright turquoise water surrounding by lush, green jungle. However, as you keep walking towards the falls, the views get better and better until you finally reach Kuang Si. Although there were lots of tourists, the crowds didn’t take away from how stunning the waterfall was.
To the right of the waterfall is a trail that leads to the top of the falls. Although Kuang Si isn’t too tall, this little hike to the top wasn’t easy. The trail is unkept and required some vertical rock climbing in places, but once you reach the top, you’re greeted with stunning mountain views as the water tumbles over the falls.
I was absolutely blown away by Kuang Si and it’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen. The craziest thing about this day trip though, happened when I was leaving the park and ran into a couple I met six months earlier on the other side of the world while trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru! Visiting Kuang Si was a great reminder of not only how beautiful our world is, but how small it is as well.
Feast and Shop at the Night Market
I’ve been to a lot of night markets in a lot of different places, but the one in Luang Prabang is, hands down, one of my favorites. The night market occurs every night from 5-11 pm in the heart of the city. The roads are shut down, tents are put up and vendors sell everything from clothing, to souvenirs, to artwork, to fruit. Of course, as with any market, haggling is expected and you can get some great deals! I ended up buying a beautiful handmade blanket that I absolutely love and still regularly use.
Another highlight of the night market is the food! All markets have endless food stalls, but what made the market in Luang Prabang unique was its buffet. Yes, an actual buffet of street food! For 15,000 KIP (1.68 USD), you get a big bowl that you can put as much food as you want in. The colors were vibrant, the smells were exotic and the tents were buzzing with locals and travelers from all over the world. I filled my bowl with noodles, rice, eggs and other things I couldn’t identify, grabbed a local Lao Beer and managed to find a table with some new friends I made. While the food wasn’t super hot and there was definitely a (very high) risk of food poisoning, it was an experience I won’t forget!
Party at the Local Bowling Alley
Yes, the bowling alley. Bars close early in Luang Prabang (like, 11 pm early), so if you’re looking for a night out, you’re probably going to end up at the local bowling alley. I personally hate bowling and I usually would have zero interest in hanging out and drinking at a gross bowling alley. But, it’s what you do in Luang Prabang, so I went for it.
And what a night! After dinner, drinks and a few card games at the hostel, I hopped in a tuk tuk with a few other people and we headed to the bowling alley on the outskirts of town. It was definitely a little sketchy on the outside, but once you walked in, you were greeted with loud music, flowing beers and backpackers from all over the world. I’ve never experienced anything like it, but for once in my life, I actually had a great time bowling!
Climb Phousi Hill
Phousi Hill is located in the heart of old town and offers incredible views of the city, and surrounding rivers and mountains. After paying a small entrance fee of 20,000 KIP ($2.25), only about 300 stairs stand between you and the top of this sacred hill.
Along the path to the top, you can buy flowers and other blessings to leave at the temple or even small caged birds to set free at the top for good luck. The climb to the summit really isn’t too challenging and it’s well worth the 300-ish steps. The panoramic views are incredible and there’s a temple, Wat Chom Si, at the top that’s worth exploring. I heard sunrise and sunset are the best times to catch some incredible views from the top of Phousi Hill, but I went mid-morning and, even on a rainy day, the views couldn’t be beat!
Explore the Fusion of Cultures in Old Town
Strategically built on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang is rich in history. The city has always been an influential center of Buddhism and during the French colonial period, it became the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos. Although the city is no longer the capital of the country, Luang Prabang was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 to reflect its unique blend of traditional Laotian and French colonial culture and architecture.
With few cars and no trucks or buses, old town is easy to explore by foot or bike as you soak in the rich culture and diverse architecture. Early in the morning you can see Buddhist monks dressed in bright orange robes walking down streets lined with French cafes and bakeries in a religious ceremony called Tak Bat. You can easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the beautiful French-inspired buildings with balconies overlooking the Mekong and then turn a corner and suddenly find yourself in a vibrant local market or among a Buddhist temple. You can feast on Laotian cuisine, such as rice and noodles, or a French baguette while sipping a cappuccino. Although the roots of colonialism are undeniably troubling, Luang Prabang has embraced its history and this fusion of cultures is what makes this city so stunningly unique.