Losing yourself in Luang Prabang

Posted on May 29, 2013

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There were two distinctly different sides to the Laos I discovered, the kind poverty stricken farmers, and the beautiful gentle town of Luang Prabang. There is so much to do in the town that it’s easy to spend a week there.

Luang Prabang got on the tourist map mainly from the tradition of the locals giving alms to the monks to support them. At 6am each day the monks come out of the temples and walk through the streets with baskets which are filled by people kneeling on the side of the road, traditionally with sticky rice but now more with crackers and sweets. It’s an old custom that has become a tourist attraction.

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To preserve the tradition take note of the general rules:

– Don’t get in the monks path
– If you are offering alms, dress appropriately and stay silent. If not, or for those taking photos, stay behind those giving alms.
– Women should never touch a monk.

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Temples are a plenty with several in the town centre so it’s worth seeing at least two or three, even as a temple novice. Some monks want to practise their English as part of their education (there are many young monks whose parents have sent them from the village to get an education). You may even get blessed. The stairs up to Phu Si are worth it to get great sun sets over the mekong and surrounding mountains.

The other feature of the trip for me was a visit to the Elephant Village day to be a mahout (training/keeper) – an absolute treat. Firstly you are taught the commands (how – stop – was an important one to note). You’re quickly offered take a turn to get up on the elephants head and practise simple commands around the garden. Once comfortable, we paired up for a trek around the grounds and into the village.

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But the real highlight, after a delicious lunch over looking the river, was taking the elephants for a bath. Riding into the water, scrubbing them and generally playing: jumping of into the river- the real mahouts get the elephants to splash water everywhere.

Again, I used Tiger Trails as they are one of the few ethical travel companies in Luang Prabang.

Going as a couple I would consider staying at the Shangri Lao in the elephant village for a couple of nights. It’s a deluxe resort, immaculately kept and bungalows with decks overlook the river.

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Two other good day trips are to the Kuang Si Waterfalls (take a tuktuk), and the Buddha/Pak Ou caves (2 hrs up river, 1 back better by hiring a private boat for around 400k kip unless you are on a budget)

Every night there is a market along the main street with souvenirs which is set up for tourists. They have some great stuff there and ideal for buying presents to take home. Bargaining hard is expected although sometimes you’ll need to ask yourself whether you really want to fight over $1, especially with someone who is unlikely to have the kind if money you do. As an approx guide don’t pay more than 70% of the price you’re given, aim for 50% although start much lower to give room for negotiation. Sometimes you need to walk away to get the price you want.

Laos food is delicious (although some of what is billed at local is actually Thai). Try Laap. Be prepared to eat lots of rice, especially sticky rice – which has an art to it: take a chunk of rice in your left hand. With your right take a smaller but and roll Ito a ball. Dip it into sauce. Repeat. Do not double dip and do not lick your fingers. Manage that in your first meal or two and I salute you. I also loved the fresh fruit shakes (who doesn’t love fresh pineapple and mint mice with ice when it’s hot out?), about $1-1.50 each and fresh spring rolls, 10 for around $1.30

Tamarind, also does cooking classes $35 incl a trip to the market. A friend did it and loved it. Run buy a couple – local man (and a few of his family) and hisAustralian wife. – all food is authenticly Laos. From what I tasted and saw it’s well worth a visit.

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There is no shortage of restaurants and my favourites were street food and the restaurants by the river. The main street was often over expensive and not as good. If you are on a budget, go to the buffet alley just off the main street (left of Lao blossom hotel) and you’ll get a plate of food for $1.20 (pictured).

Massages are plentiful but again check where you go. A friend and I had a pedicure only to find a stream of men coming and going upstairs throughout. We didn’t go back!

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I stayed in LaoLu Lodge, which I loved. It’s small with no frills but cheap, with fantastic location and simply wonderful hospitality. On more than one occasion I lost track of time chatting and laughing with the guys that run the lodge. The rooms are comfortable and as the hotel is on a back street not suitable for cars, it’s quiet. Breakfast I simple but plentiful with fresh bread and jam, eggs cooked to order an fresh fruit. There is free flowing tea, coffee, water and bananas.

A friend stayed at Thongbay which she was equally enthusiastic about. It’s made up of bungalows with balconies overlooking the river, and she cited the wonderful hospitality and delicious breakfasts on many occasions. It’s a walk or a cycle out of town though so not ideal for everyone.

For more from the point of view of a long term visitor, check out the blog Falang Prabang

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Posted in: Asia, Destinations