February 12, 2016 4 min read
As Laos continues to pull itself out of the lingering effects of the Vietnam War, a bustling little town in the northern region is proving to be one of the strongest and most vibrant cultural points in the country. Luang Prabang, a favorite among backpackers, is steadily overshadowing the capital city of Vientiane to become a can’t-miss spot on any traveler’s tour of Southeast Asia.
The Alms Procession
Mornings in Luang Prabang start earlier than most, with locals lining the streets before the dawn to prepare daily offerings of cooked rice for the monks. Groups of orange-robed monks, mainly youths, walk throughout the street accepting the offerings as a lesson in humility meant to teach them to forgo pride.
Sadly, tourists have turned this daily event into something of a circus attraction in many areas. On the main streets you’ll find them chasing after unsuspecting monks and snapping camera flashes in their faces and interrupting the procession, or purchasing food to give the monks themselves instead of standing back and showing respect. It’s become something of a contentious matter in the city, with locals reporting that the monks once threatened to stop the procession altogether because of it.
If you do go, and you should, stand back and do your best to remain respectful and silent as you would at a normal religious procession back home. You’ll find a more authentic experience if you avoid the main roads and watch from the sidelines on side streets, where the monks will often offer a chant and blessings in thanks to the locals who give them food.
Once you’ve witnessed the procession, you’re bound to be starving. There are numerous restaurants lining the streets of Luang Prabang, each with delicious Laos or Western coffee options. A favorite of tourists is Joma, a restaurant that serves baked goods and coffee and only sources their ingredients from local farmers.
Kuang Si Falls
After a quick bite at a local eatery, hit the streets to flag down one of the numerous tuk-tuk drivers and negotiate a price for him to take you to Kuang Si Falls. The cascading waterfall is one of the highlights surrounding the city, though the ride will take you roughly an hour outside of town. There, you can take a dip in the pools at the bottom of the falls and, on your way out, stop and check out the bear sanctuary that’s working to help reestablish the populations of the giant beasts in Laos after their habitat was destroyed in the Vietnam War.
Lunch By The Mekong
You’ll likely work up an appetite after a few hours as the Falls. The center of town is nestled between two rivers and you can spend your lunch overlooking the view if you choose a restaurant along the shore or at the convergence point. Even during low season when the water takes on a muddy hue, it still provides a spectacularly unique sight you can’t find at home.
After lunch, make your way to the Elephant Village where you can have the opportunity to help feed, wash and bathe the giant creatures. You’ll spend time in mahout training, where you’ll be guided in the process of learning how to ride one of the elephants in a safe environment.
Elephant Village is focused on conservation of the species and the staff is happy to share their knowledge of the elephants and what’s needed to help them thrive. You’ll also find a restaurant and accommodation on the premises, in case you feel inclined to stay.
Once you’ve made your way back to the center of town, it’s time for a little mountain climbing. Mount Phousi, the highest point in the city, is located near the center and is the perfect spot for a romantic evening viewing the sunset over Luang Prabang. You’ll have to climb over 300 steps before reaching the stupa at the top, but the view is out of this world.
The Night Market
Luang Prabang’s Night Market is one of the finest and largest in the country, and not to be missed. Vendors fill the streets in the town center to sell their handmade goods from traditional silk scarves to silverware and jewelry crafted from remnants of the bombs that still dot the landscape of the surrounding hills.
You’ll find thousands of unique pieces of art that’ll make perfect keepsakes or gifts for your family back home, and help the locals make a better life for themselves in the process. It’s also a great place to sample some traditional Laos food from the stalls set up outside the tents.
One could potentially spend a week in Luang Prabang without finding the time to explore every nook and cranny of this unique little city by the Mekong. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself extending your trip so you can relax and see exactly what this beautiful little town has to offer.
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