If this land-locked country is the forgotten sibling of Southeast Asia, then Luang Prabang is the underdog that will make it rise to the top. Forget about tourist-ridden Vang Vieng and meander up the Mekong to this laid-back gem of a city. It’s perfect for you, whether you’re a backpacker, flashpacker, or anything in between. Here’s why:
1. The mouth-watering fusion food
Luang Prabang residents are big fans of sticky rice. And sticky noodles. Especially when dipped in sticky sauce. But there’s much more to the local cuisine than this! As a former French colony, you’ll find plenty of golden brown baguettes filled with fresh ingredients. This colonial chapter of the city’s history – along with influences from its neighbours – has resulted in a totally unique combination of French-Indo-Chinese cooking that foodies and philistines alike won’t be able to get enough of. Oh, and the coffee is the best you’ll get anywhere on the continent.
2. The stunning forest hikes
Laos doesn’t have the sprawling, smog-choked metropolises that other Asian countries have. Within half an hour of leaving the centre of Luang Prabang you’ll be surrounded by tree-topped hills, rice fields and the slow flow of the Mekong River. So for the traveller who loves exploring nature and hitting the trails, there’s no better place. Top of the list is the three-ish hour trek to Kuang Si waterfalls (the place you see in all those tourism photos of Laos), which passes indigenous villages, orchards, and rice paddies on the way. Cool off in the falls, then visit a bear rescue centre, set up to protect, preserve and enrich the lives of Asiatic bears who have been rescued from trafficking, on the way home.
3. The chilled out night markets
There aren’t many cities in the world where, after 5pm, streets turn into sprawling night markets. But that’s Luang Prabang for you. The city’s extensive night market is a place for locals and tourists alike to shop, eat, drink and meet. Pick up some authentic hand-crafted souvenirs (you’ll find nothing mass-produced for tourist dollars here), chill out with a few bottles of Beerlao, snack on some hot-off-the-grill street food, or just make friends with the locals. Whatever you’re into, the night market is something you’ll want to experience every time the sun sets.
4. The dazzling temples
Luang Prabang was once the royal and religious hub of Laos. As a result, this tiny little city has 30 separate temples to its name. They’re dotted all over town, some nestling in side streets and some up in the hills with beautiful views of the city and the Mekong. Not to be missed are Haw Pha Bang, the temple inside the Royal Palace which was only completed in 2006; the golden-gilded Wat Xieng Thong at the end of Luang Prabang’s old town, easily the city’s most beautiful; and Wat Chom Si. Located on top of Mount Phousi, this temple isn’t as impressive as the others but what it lacks in opulence, it makes up for with a stellar view of the city below. Stay to watch the sunset for an even better view, but bring a torch for the 300-step descent.
5. The good clean fun!
If all you want to do is kick back with a drink or two while the sun goes down, Luang Prabang is where you need to be. And we really mean ‘a drink or two’ – the party scene is so laid back here that most places are shutting up shop by midnight. Except, that is, for the bowling alley just outside of town. You’ll see tuk tuks heading there en masse when bars close, and while it may seem a little random, it’s worth the short trip; this place serves up drinks and tunes well into the small hours. If there’s one thing Luang Prabang can teach you, it’s that bowling is ten times more fun when new friends and cheesy pop hits are involved.
6. The hidden gem day trips
There’s plenty in Luang Prabang to keep any traveller entertained for days. But if you’re yearning to get off the beaten path, there’s a plethora of day trips to whet your appetite too. Most of them involve a slow boat up the Mekong, which is a worthy experience in itself. The Ban Pak Ou caves are an intriguing adventure; they’re filled with intricately carved Buddha statues. Nong Kiaw is a picturesque town north of Luang Prabang with more caves, waterfalls, hikes and adventure sports to keep adrenaline junkies entertained. It’s far from a day trip, but the Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre in the heart of Luang Prabang is also highly recommended if you don’t fancy straying too far.
Fancy checking out Luang Prabang for yourself? Visit this vibrant city on a small group adventure with Intrepid – check out our full range of trips here.
Feature photo by Torjrtrx via Shutterstock.