Upon arrival at our guesthouse, just across the river from downtown, we were greeted by an exceptionally hospitable and friendly staff, bearing huge glasses of freshly squeezed fruit juice. That’s as good a way as any to ensure our happiness, which only increased as we were shown to our beautiful, wood-paneled room with a balcony. Our (complimentary) breakfast offered a wide selection of eggs, pancakes, fruit and cereals, more fresh juices, tea and coffee, all prepared to order. Moreover, every time we came in from the heat throughout the day, we were offered another cold glass of juice. It’s hard to believe what $23/night will buy you.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site, sitting on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Its architecture and heritage has a heavy European influence, mostly due to France’s colonization of Laos; self-rule was granted in 1946, and eventually full independence in 1953. In 1995, it was declared a UNESCO site thanks to the unique culture and mix of architectural styles, which has resulted in a lot of restoration of the classic buildings throughout the area.
As we eagerly headed into the town to explore our new surroundings, we had to cross the bamboo bridge. The downtown of Luang Prabang is mostly surrounded by water, so in order to service the foot traffic in and out, bamboo bridges are built across the Nam Khan river. These bridges are not particularly substantial, consisting of some large bamboo stalks lashed together with wire, with a woven bamboo mat that mostly covers the bridge and provides a surface to walk on. The bridge feels somewhat less than sturdy, and indeed, they are washed away during each rainy season, necessitating rebuilding the following year. To that end, they collect a small fee for crossing – 5,000 kip, or around $0.60 USD – to be paid once per day.
Crossing the bridge deposits you immediately in the middle of Luang Prabang’s gorgeous downtown area. Every inch of the city is beautifully kept, and the architecture is simply lovely. The French colonial inspiration for many of the buildings is immediately evident, with some streets looking like something straight out of the French quarter of New Orleans. Large wats are found throughout the city, so we spent a lot of our time wandering up and down the streets, pausing to admire the temples and old stone chedis, and taking in the quiet charm of the buildings. Wat Xieng Thong, one of Luang Prabang’s most significant temples, was exceptionally beautiful, demonstrating the signature Laotian temple architecture where the roofline nearly touches the ground. In addition to the striking wats themselves, each temple has its own ornate longboat design, traditionally carved out of a single tree. A couple of times we borrowed bikes and pedaled along the outskirts of the city, following the river and gazing at the villages and temples that dotted the opposite banks, or watching the sun sink behind the hills. Jenn especially enjoyed the bike riding, since they were equipped with handlebar-mounted bells, allowing her to cheerfully ring her way around the city, punctuated with occasional singing.
One morning, we rose early and went to watch the Buddhist alms-giving, known as the tak bat. Each morning around sunrise, the monks leave their temples and form a procession to walk the perimeter of the downtown area, where hundreds of townspeople line up on small stools to make offerings of food for the monks. The monks collect the offerings in a small basket, which forms the basis of the single meal they eat each day. The processional is beautiful and peaceful, as hundreds of silent monks clad in orange quietly meditate while they proceed, barefoot, through the streets, receiving respectful bows (nops) and handfuls of food from the townspeople.
Another spot we enjoyed in town was Mount Phousi. Though relatively short – only 150 meters high – the hill is central to the city and provides a 360-degree panoramic view, the perfect spot to watch the deep red sun sink behind the surrounding mountains. Several hundred rock steps lead the way to the top, where we also visited a small temple and the enigmatic Buddha Footprint. Supposedly, the enormous imprint – large enough to lay down in – was a footprint that Buddha left after he reached enlightenment.
After checking out some local restaurant reviews and talking to our guesthouse staff, we picked Tamarind as our first dinner, which is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in the city. It did not disappoint, and I selected a sampler of three varieties of local sausage (sai oua) – spicy pork, herbed pork and buffalo – which was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Jenn had a delicious pumpkin stir-fry, and we tried a Bengal quince iced tea with cinnamon. This meal was the first of a really outstanding food experience at Luang Prabang – it seemed that, no matter where we went, the food was simply incredible. Everything was carefully prepared, thoughtfully presented and the flavors were fantastic. Our second meal at Tamarind was just as good as the first, with Jenn being surprised that her traditional Laotian miang wraps – a make-your-own-wrap consisting of lettuce, bitter greens, rice paste, eggplant paste, rice noodles, coriander, ginger, garlic, chilies, onions, peanuts, beans, brinjal (Thai eggplant), and lemongrass – were one of the best things she had the whole trip. I tried the traditional Luang Prabang stew, known as or lam gai, which was made with Thai eggplant, chicken, local greens and chili wood – a type of naturally spicy, woody vine. This was capped off with a chili-infused Lao whiskey, a locally produced liquor made from rice, which proved nearly as spicy as anything else we ate that night. Each of these meals cost around $10-12 total for two people, drinks/dessert included. I could have easily spent another month there, trying a new restaurant every night.
In addition to the delicious restaurant meals, the street food was likewise excellent. We found most of it at the city’s extensive night market. Each night, a sea of red and blue tents flooded Sisavangvong Road, and locals displayed beautiful handmade crafts and foods. While the market wasn’t as large as Chiang Mai’s it was really exceptional and, like everything else in Luang Prabang, was incredibly meticulous and cozy. Like Thailand, fresh fruit smoothies abound, and we found a buffet where 15,000 kip (around $1.80) bought you a bowl and all you can eat from at least a dozen types of pastas, rice, vegetables and baked items. Another interesting, local street food is khai paen, sheets of dried riverweed from the mighty Mekong. Green algae is harvested from rocks in the Mekong river, washed, then scraped out onto flat sheets. Spices, fresh vegetables, and other flavorings are laid over the sheets of algae and placed in the sun to dry – a common combination is sesame seeds, tomatoes and garlic. Once dry, the riverweed is eaten as a snack, typically served with dipping sauces; it was surprisingly tasty! Overall, we both give a big thumbs up for the amazing food scene in Luang Prabang!
We were both disappointed to bid farewell to the city. It was a beautiful, peaceful stop on our trip, with some of the best food and nicest people we’ve encountered. Khawp jai lai lai, Luang Prabang… we’ll miss you!