5 Reasons I Love Luang Prabang (And Why You Should Too)!
I could feel a sense of wonder and enchantment rising inside as I peered through the airplane window.
The Mekong River, halfway through its journey from Tibet to the South China Sea, was mightily flowing along accompanied by rugged hills which looked never ending themselves. As the plane was descending towards our destination, small villages began to pop-up until a town tucked on a peninsula reared itself right before landing.
We arrived at Luang Prabang and truly fell in love after spending four fine days at this ancient Laos capital. Here are five reasons I became so enamored with Luang Prabang and why you should too!
1) It Is A Charming UNESCO World Heritage Site
Quaint French villas of brick and timber in their most elegant of Beaux Arts style.
Resplendent temples with colorful mosaics and golden-hued depictions of Buddha.
Valleys of verdant forest whose color is dependent upon the wet or dry season.
What I observed was two distinct cultures harmoniously living together side by side.
This city has been in existence since the mid-1300s and has managed not only to survive multiple wars and conquests but to thrive along a foreign power – the French – until the end of the monarchy in the 1970s. After more than a decade of relative obscurity, Luang Prabang finally opened up to the world in 1989 and has gained a cult following from backpackers to high-end travelers ever since.
I admit I have not read deeper into the sentiments of locals toward French rule but I could see their foresight in keeping remnants of their colonial master’s past just from traversing the streets of Luang Prabang. It might look like an Instagrammable attraction to you and me but to the Lao, it is a way to tell the future generation of their history and not erase it in an act of vengeance or greed.
This strong desire to preserve heritage, wherever it may come from, makes Luang Prabang a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2) It Exudes A Welcoming Laid-Back Vibe
One thing that surprised me was Luang Prabang was so laid back!
We were expecting Luang Prabang to be crowded like every other World Heritage Site these days. Mornings are a peaceful affair when the whole town is shrouded in mist and monks perambulate to collect alms from locals. We took the opportunity to go on a pleasant stroll along the riverfront in between visiting Wat Xieng Thong and grabbing scrumptious French pastries at a patisserie.
Afternoons are no different too – none of the major attractions were overwhelmed by tourists and there was always a table (or three) available for lunch. The crowd did pick up during the evening but it was not to a level where it got suffocating. The main street of Sisavangvong Road is home to a bunch of bars but these watering holes are not your typical rowdy after dark strip – they are just another place to unwind after a whole day of doing nothing much.
I could have swore that locals and visitors generally look relaxed as Luang Prabang somehow has this aura that slows down everyone’s pace of life.
3) Its Cuisine Has The Best of Both Worlds
Besides colonial architecture, Laotians have also kept and even perfected French cuisine especially its pastries.
Nowhere in Southeast Asia have I ever tasted a croissant and pain au chocolat so delectable than in the bakeries of Luang Prabang. The texture of the dough was soft and fluffy with just a little bit flakiness on the outside while the chocolate, almond and fruits used are of the highest quality. We knew these pastries are baked fresh daily because everything is sold off at half price a few hours before closing time!
Lao cooking was equally impressive and this landlocked country makes full use of its jungle and river produce.
At the heart of Lao fare is khao niao, or sticky rice, which is a Lao staple. It is traditionally served in a bamboo basket and as soon as I opened the lid, the aroma and color of the rice converted me into one of its biggest fans. We also discovered other dishes like the unique Orlam, a meat stew cooked with ear mushroom, pea eggplant and pepperwood, and the well-known Tam mak hoong i.e. green papaya salad of five different flavors.
If there is one thing I love about Lao food, everything is so green and crunchy!
4) Its Handicrafts and Ethnic Wares Are Mesmerizing
We could not believe our eyes at the sheer amount of items, from cotton slip-ons to pop-up postcards, on display along the seemingly endless Luang Prabang Night Market.
Our initial plan was to quickly breeze along the aisles and just pick one or two items from sellers who were willing to bargain. The truth was we ended up stopping by every other stall to admire the handiwork of these artisans while casually conversing about the origins of their products before arriving at an agreeable price. We eventually ended up with a bagful of clothes and crafts by the time we reached the end of the line!
Other than the night market, we also came across shops selling handicrafts around town like bamboo weaving and postcards made from the fabric of traditional Lao costumes known as Sinh of which I bought a set of three and framed them. We also checked out Ock Pop Tok‘s Living Craft Center to learn about the whole process of natural dyeing, weaving and batik canting to create the most aesthetic bags, jackets and scarves.
5) Its People Are Honest and Down-to-Earth
I’ll be very blunt here: many a times in our travels we meet locals who have a preconceived notion about foreign tourists coming to their place. We are seen to be one-off bucketlisters or moneybags ripe for the taking, even for a dollar or two.
However, our experience in Luang Prabang is quite the opposite!
I felt this sense of honesty from Laotians through our time spent shopping, be it at a shop or the night market. If I haggled and we did not agree on a price, there was no sulking – just a quick “sorry that’s the lowest I can go, thank you very much” and we both move on with life.
Another instance was during dinner – we ordered a bowl of vegetable soup containing some greens and tofu but when the soup arrived, we saw there were beef balls floating around. So we called the waiter and told him we did not want any meat in the soup so he apologized and returned with a fresh batch of soup sans the meat.
Good things happen when there is mutual respect between visitors and residents – at the end of the day everyone goes back home happy.
We really enjoyed our stay here and would definitely want to come back again – this time a much longer stay and even explore regions outside the city.
Have you been to Luang Prabang? If so, what was your experience? Do you share the same thoughts as I do? Share it in the comments sections below!