The laid back city of Southeast Asia
Back home in Canada, some of my closest friends are from Laos. They told us of heroic stories of them escaping the country with their parents during a time of great human tragedy. Laos is made up of three regions that were brought together under French rule from 1893 to 1949. In 1953, Laos gained independence and has been ruled internally ever since. With relations normalizing with the USA in 2004, and participation in global organizations such as the WTO and ASEAN, Laos’ future looks very bright indeed.
Laos is the only land-locked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. The city that most people have heard of is the financial capital of Vientiane, but today’s post is about Luang Prabang, the magical city where the Mekong and the Nam Khan Rivers meet. Luang Prabang has a population of 450,000 and is located in north central Laos. It has a laidback atmosphere of “anything goes” and “live and let live”.
Luang Prabang, like all of Laos, was colonized by the French for a long period of time and this is reflected in the architecture and food throughout the city. You’ll find gorgeous colonial hotels mixed amongst stunning Laotian temples. Food ranges from perfectly created and presented Lao food through to delicious and carefully crafted French food.
Like most trips, our first night of exploring started along the main street where the famous night market sets up at dawn and goes late into the evening. Here we were able to find all sorts of local arts and crafts as well textiles like beautiful blankets and scarves. Luang Prabang can get surprisingly cool at night so the scarves came in handy!
We woke up bright and early the next morning to walk around the city and came across a famous wooden bridge that crosses the Nam Khan River. This bamboo bridge is taken down every year and rebuilt after the rainy season comes. In order to recoup the costs of taking the bridge down and rebuilding it every year, there is a small cost to cross the bridge. The bridge itself makes for a great place for a portrait shot of your travel friends!
In the main part of town, there’s a small monastery at the top of a short mountain called Phousi Hill that makes for a great place to look out to the lush greenery of Luang Prabang. During the sunset period, it did get quite busy however, so make sure you go up early to get a good spot, or you may find yourself three or four people deep from the railings.
With a traditional buddhist upbringing, animals are left to their natural behaviour and are often well taken care of. This was especially the case in Luang Prabang where we came across a number of well fed, and very happy neighbourhood dogs. Our favourite was a little guy named “Ip” who would come out for some loving interaction whenever we walked by.
As with most cities in Asia, Luang Prabang is full of wonderful and warm people, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Even though it’s a small city, it still has that buzz that Asian cities are known for, but with a real laidback buzz in this case.
For our visit to Luang Prabang, we decided to stay in the royal house of Loas’ last king. The hotel, called the Victoria Xiengthong Palace, was a beautiful place to call home. The rooms are huge, with a private pool downstairs and living quarters upstairs. The location is also fantastic right next to Wat Xiengthong, one of the largest temples in Luang Prabang, and the Mekong River.
One of the big tourist sites in Luang Prabang is the Kuangsi Waterfalls. We had heard that it can get very busy during the day so we decided to go very early. It was surprisingly cold early in the morning when wearing flip-flops (more on the shoe choice in a moment) and shorts in the back of an open-sided pick-up truck.
Upon arrival at Kuangsi, it soon became apparent that we should have worn more appropriate shoes since there’s some mild hiking involved to get to the main waterfall area. Furthermore, if you want to hike all the way to the top, you definitely need decent shoes. Unfortunately, because of our shoe choice, we only got to enjoy the main falls area where the water has already descended.
The Kuangsi waterfalls were definitely worth the drive out, and since we went early, we were able to enjoy the falls pretty much to ourselves, and we were able to return back to the city before the traffic got too intense.
I think the highlight of our trip however was soon to come. We had heard a lot about elephants in Laos and how tourists are able to go for rides on them. This didn’t seem like a very nice thing to do to an elephant; I don’t know the physics of it all, but it just didn’t seem like an ethical way to treat an animal just for the sake of getting an Instagram picture or to experience the ride.
We started to do research and quickly found out about an elephant sanctuary where you can enjoy these magnificent animals up close and personal while not disturbing their regular routines. You don’t get to ride the elephant, but you do get to feed them, walk side by side with them, and bathe them.
This was easily a bucket-list item and highly recommended. You can get more information at the Elephant Village website.
We were fortunate to see a baby elephant at the sanctuary and were given the chance to get near, but not too close. We witnessed something that perhaps us humans could learn from; the adult elephants, sensing us coming near, started to circle around the baby elephant to protect him. It was awe-inspiring to see the adults (some of whom have no relation to the baby) protecting their young in this coordinated, loving and protective way.
Finally, as our short trip came to an end, we had the opportunity to watch the sun set on the Mekong River. There are several boats to choose from, and for a few USD more, you can go out on a modern and sleek luxury boat. It was a really wonderful way to end the trip with the glorious colours we witnessed that night.
One thing I didn’t mention is food. I’m not good at taking food images, but I didn’t think it’s fair to end a post about Laos without mentioning the amazing food available in Luang Prabang. Everything from Lao food through to top-tier French food, the city has it all, at very reasonable prices with top-tier service as well.
It was sad to say goodbye to this beautiful and relaxing place, but we will definitely be back again sometime soon.