Driving into town, from the city’s miniature airport, my pulse begins to slow. It seems like Luang Prabang, this charming, sleepy city has an almost instant calming effect. We arrive at our Airbnb, a white house with wooden shutters and bamboo shades in a quiet residential lane. As I fumble with the lock, my calm has turned to hunger. I finally get the door open, launch my bags inside and head off into the night. I don’t bother with Google maps, I follow my nose through the narrow streets, floating toward the night market glowing in the distance.
The next day, sitting on the balcony, sipping on a cup of lemongrass tea, I listen to the tock tock tock of my neighbour chopping wood, cocks crowing, dogs barking, the sounds of village life. The pleasures to be enjoyed here are simple and lingering. Maybe it’s the faded colonial architecture, the cobblestone streets or the village atmosphere, but in Luang Prabang time stands still.
The old capital of Laos lies in a valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It’s known for its many Buddhist temples, some dating to the 16th century. Traditional Lao teak houses are contrasted with hints of European architecture; remnants from the French colonisation of Indochina. The city has seen a remarkable turnaround in its fortunes this past decade, precipitated in part by UNESCO’s 1995 listing as a World Heritage site. As a result, the city has seen a recent crop of immaculate boutique hotels opening in sensitively restored old shop houses and mansions. With UNESCO so closely involved and a savvy community of local business owners, the pressures of mass tourism have been held at bay, but for how long? I think we know the drill by now.
Mount Phou Si
Get your bearings with a stellar view at the top of Mount Phou Si. The large steep hill leads up to Wat Chom Si shrine and gives you an overlook of the city and the rivers. There are two entrances – take the eastern next to the Nam Khan River. It’s slightly longer than the northern entrance, but it’s less steep and has more sights to see along the way.
A trip to the morning wet market is an experience for all of your senses. There’s a colourful array of local produce, croaking frogs in buckets, chickens clucking, ducks flapping wildly, and the splashing of the latest catch from the Mekong. Most of the produce is sold on bamboo mats and plastic sheets on the ground; business is conduced at a crouch. Even if you’re not planning on buying and cooking anything, I would suggest coming here to get a glimpse of everyday Laotian life.
The market is hidden in a web of alleys just off Sisavangvong Road. Make sure you come early; it starts from about 5am and is usually pretty dead by 9.30am.
Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre
Learn about the diverse ethnic groups and minority cultures of Laos, in this compact museum located at the base of Mount Phou Si. They also run workshops on Hmong embroidery on Thursday mornings and Kmhmu bamboo weaving on Saturday mornings that are really inexpensive.
This may be a small museum, but it’s got a big heart, with proceeds going to researching and preserving Laos culture. The museum shop supports local artisans, with 50% of the money going back to villages.
Morning Alms (Tak Bat)
Every morning, as the sun rises, hundreds of Buddhist monks clad in tangerine robes, depart from the various monasteries to collect alms. Local Laotian women rise before the crack of dawn to cook sticky rice, to kneel before the monks on the streets to give them their offerings, in the hopes of receiving good merit.
This ancient tradition is best observed from afar, at a respectful distance. I wouldn’t suggest participating, be an observer.
Ban Wat Sene, Old Town, Luang Prabang 0600
Laotian cuisine is extremely regional and Tamarind is the perfect introduction to local specialties. Kaipen, fried riverweed accompanied by meow bong, smokey chilli dip with small pieces of buffalo skin, sai oua, sausages made from fatty pork, chilli, garlic and lots of herbs and sien savanh, buffalo jerky made from strips of sundried marinated buffalo meat which is deep fried until lightly crispy.
Also not to be missed is or lam which is a stew made mainly from vegetables originating from the Hmong people. There are no fixed rules about how to make or lam.”Or” is loosely translated as “to put in”, which implies that this stew is a hodge-podge of whatever ingredients are on hand – eggplants, beans, mushrooms, lemongrass, chili, coriander …but the key ingredient is sa kan, a bitter root herb.
Laotian cuisine is quite healthy – favouring bitterness over sweetness. Savoury dishes are never sweet. There is a saying in Laotian cuisine which translates to “Sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.” The portions here are generous and are best shared family style, ordering a few different dishes to share. We would suggest booking ahead as it can get very busy.
Ban Vat Nong, Luang Prabang 0600
Housed in a 1960’s colonial building, L’Elephant offers traditional as well as fusion French and Lao cuisine. Here you will find anything from coq au vin and fried frogs legs to larb and mok pa, minced fish and coconut steamed in a banana leaf, all using produce from the restaurant’s organic garden.
We spent a balmy night, on the restaurant’s wrap around terrace, the ambience was perfect. It’s on the pricier side when compared to other dining options in the city, but it definitely won’t break the bank. They also have an extensive wine list – which is good news if you need a break from Lao beer.
I stayed in this airbnb in Ahan village. This little village was the perfect window into everyday Laotian life. Quite literally. Almost every house had their doors and windows open, morning till night, as if to invite you inside. You peak in and see families watching tv, grandmothers cooking, children playing with their toys, and the village dog, who seemed to belong to no-one and everyone, hopping from house to house.
Ock Pop Tok Mekong River Villa
125/10 Ban Saylom Luang Prabang
This villa is located above the Ock Pop Tok local crafts store which supports local artisans. Its perched right on the banks of the Mekong River, with unobstructed views of the river and the surrounding mountains. The spacious, beautifully appointed rooms each have a unique textile theme and motif from one of Laos’ diverse ethnic groups.
057 Photisarath Road – Ban That Luang, Luang Prabang
Satri House was once the childhood home of Prince Souphanouvon. Over the years, his french colonial home has been lovingly restored and enlarged to become a refined boutique hotel. Cool tile floors, powder-blue walls, canopy beds, high beamed ceilings, antique furnishings, this place radiates old world charm.
/ Words and Photographs by Rosie Lee /