We were in Laos a total of 10 days (including the 1 night stop in Pak Being via the slow boat). As usual were determined to see as much of the country as possible. Even so, we were still only able to explore the northern part of the country making it to 3 cities: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. We spent 4 nights in the UNESCO World Heritage listed Luang Prabang, the former royal capital – initially we were caught off guard as we heard the unexpected sound of French being spoken all around us as we strolled through the famous night market on our first night.
We had done very little research prior to our slow boat ride into Laos and didn’t really know what to expect. So once we were welcomed into our hotel we set off to explore and were surprised at the crowds of French tourists in the city. Then as we looked around we noticed the influences of the French colonial era of the region that now included the architecture as well as our favorite “audience seating” at the restaurants and a few amazing bakeries.
The first real stop was for noodle soup at the edge of the night market, which just so happened to be one of the best we had in all of Laos called “Khao Soi”. Next, we strolled down the main avenue through the market. The brightly colored tents were filled with some of the nicest items we have seen in any market so far in Southeast Asia. The prices were very reasonable and the quality seemed quite good. The friendly Laotian people welcomed us through the streets, but never made us feel pressured no matter how many items we thumbed through or pointed at items in their respective areas. It was by far the most pleasant market experience to date. It was a great start to our visit to Laos.
The next morning we set off on foot about mid-morning to see the main sights. We headed first to Wat Xieng Thong. We arrived only a few minutes before a couple Chinese tourist buses pulled up and we quickly stepped in and out of each of the temples. Next, we took a look at Wat Vissounnarath which happened to be undergoing a bit of renovations, but still worth seeing the giant Buddha inside. Next, we wanted to check out Wat Xieng Muan a much smaller temple that happened to be closed, but it still had the highly detailed external facade to marvel at.
After a small lunch, a couple smoothies, we headed to the Royal Palace. The Royal Palace dates back to 1904 during the French Colonial Era when it was built for King Sissavang Vong and his family. We toured the temple grounds then toured the palace, which is now a museum.
Then, our final destination for the day was the top of Mount Phousi. A small temple built at the top of a long stretch of stairs has become the ideal spot to watch the sunset. We managed to arrive early enough to get one of the last remaining edges of the viewing area and waited as the crowds grew and the sun set behind the distant mountains.
We were absolutely starving after only indulging in smoothies for lunch and walking almost the entire city. As soon as the sun set we were on the path headed to Luang Prabang’s food market. We were able to get one of the cheapest buffets I’ve ever been to. For only 15,000 kip (about 2 USD) we could have as much as we wanted from the buffet. (Tip: don’t forget to have them heat everything up on the wok. I had the first few bites cold before I realized they would warm whatever we wanted.) After stuffing ourselves we passed by a huge gathering and movie screen right in the center of town.
One of the coolest things we ever did was visit the New York Film Festival a couple years in a row when we lived in New York City. As it turned out, the Luang Prabang Film Festival happened to be going on the entire time we were in town. What a pleasant surprise! After catching the last 10 minutes of a film, we grabbed a program and headed home for the night.
For our second day we got up a little early to take a yoga class…not my first choice of activities, but what the misses wants the misses gets (I’ve learned that much!) The class was held on the platform at the back of Utopia, a very laid back restaurant and bar overlooking the river. It was a nice little break from the usual sightseeing routine.
Afterward we wanted to take a trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfall about 45minutes south of the city. After a short discussion with the staff at our hotel we decided to rent a scooter to take a trip independently, which was definitely the way to go. We cruised out of town at our own pace and made it to the park about midday. After parking our scooter we took the path that leads past a small bear sanctuary and up to the lowest level of the picturesque limestone falls. We continued to follow the path until it opened up to the main event where the water tumbles down about 60 meters over a couple levels.
Intrigued by a couple blog posts we had read that mentioned a “secret pool” we headed up a fairly treacherous trail on the right side of the falls. The pathway is incredibly steep at some points in which we were only supported by a few vines and trees that we used to pull ourselves up. I can’t imagine even pretending to attempt this in wet weather. We made it to the top still unsure of where the “secret pool” was. We wandered around the top of the falls a bit then headed back down the same trail to see if we missed something. As we were climbing down, we noticed another group of young tourists that seemed to be taking it slow as well. I was under the impression that they too were looking for the secret trail and it turned out to be true. A group of about 8 of us pushed aside a few tree limbs clearly placed to block people from going this direction and climbed around some fallen trees until we found an old trail along the edge of the cliff walls. Then the trail leveled off at the edge of a gorgeous turquoise pool where the 8 of us were the only visitors.
After one guy jumped in and got his few pictures, Whitney and I did the same and snapped some of our favorite photos of the trip. If you are seeing these, then the secret is out!
It was a nice ride back into town on our scooter. Once back in our hotel we took it easy for a bit before heading over to Café Toui after getting a recommendation from a friend. As usual we weren’t disappointed with another superb personal recommendation.
Then to finish out the night we headed over to watch a film at the Luang Prabang film festival (for FREE I might add). It happened to be a Laotian film which added to the entire experience as the audience laughed and cheered as Whitney and I followed the subtitles. It brought back some great memories of experiences in New York.
On our final day in Luang Prabang we got up before dawn to see the famous monk’s procession. Having read about this the days before, we were a little hesitant to see it for ourselves. The tradition has become more of a spectacle here as tour groups have grown to line the street which were previously meant for devoted followers giving alms. It was sad to witness how it has transformed into a sort of tourist attraction that might be seen at Disney World. We just watched from a distance as some disrespectful tourists held their cameras high flashing in the eyes of the young monks.
Afterward we just wanted to take it easy for the rest of the day. We had breakfast at Le Banneton bakery then grabbed our laptops and headed to the bamboo platform of Utopia overlooking the Nam Khan River. We spent most of the day relaxing here with a few drinks and a small lunch to keep us going. We settled for dinner back where we started at the excellent noodle tent near the night market. It was a tasty way to end our time here.
We really enjoyed our time in this lovely city. Luang Prabang possesses a unique blend of French influence with the kind-heartedness and helpfulness of the Laotian people. We especially loved the night market and the independent road trip to Kuang Si Waterfall as they are both a must. Now we are off the Vang Vieng for a little more adventure with the Vang Vieng Challenge in our sights.