Luang Prabang in Northern Laos is one of Asia’s most intimate and charming cities and while it has been a firm fixture on the backpacker circuit through Southeast Asia for decades, the rest of us are slowly starting to catch on. Sandwiched between Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, Laos has its own distinct culture, interwoven with surviving elements of French colonial history. Here are nine unique experiences in store for visitors to Luang Prabang.
1. Observe Tak Bat
Every morning at dawn hundreds of barefoot Buddhist monks take to the streets of Luang Prabang to collect alms (gifts of food) from the townsfolk. It’s an incredible custom to witness. While the same ceremony takes place across Laos and in other parts of Southeast Asia, what’s unique here is the number of monks involved. Tourist interest is creating some issues and the golden rule is respect – particularly when taking photos. Keep an appropriate distance, remain silent and dress appropriately.
2. Book a boutique stay
Luang Prabang has very few large-scale hotels. Instead, the Old Town is full of tiny guesthouses – many of which are housed in restored colonial villas. One of the best options is the Sofitel Luang Prabang. It’s the smallest Sofitel in the world (just 25 rooms) and occupies the former French colonial governor’s residence. In the heart of the Old Town the 3 Nagas by MGallery offers 15 rooms spread across three heritage buildings. Look for the classic Citroen parked out front.
3. Keep your cool under a waterfall
In keeping with the heritage nature of Luang Prabang’s Old Town, hotel swimming pools are rare. Actually, they are pretty much non-existent. Your best bet for a splash in the heat of summer is a visit to stunning Kuang Si Waterfall. Here you can cool off in pristine aqua-coloured water in the heart of the rainforest. There are plenty of day tours on offer, or hire a tuk tuk driver and make your own way there.
4. Walk on water (almost!)
Luang Prabang’s Old Town is situated on a narrow peninsula formed by the mighty Mekong River on one side and the smaller Nam Khan river on the other. Locals construct two bamboo bridges across the Nam Khan in the dry season which are ingenious – although temporary – feats of engineering prowess. You pay a small fee to make the rickety crossing. In the wet season the bridges are washed away by higher river flows, and replaced by boats.
5. Enjoy the delicate fusions of Laotian cuisine
While you will be able to pick out elements of other Southeast Asian culinary cultures in Laotian cuisine, local twists and a fusion with French flavours give the food here a truly unique style. The larb (Lao meat salad) and Lao sausage are two specialties. Head for the Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang’s Old Town for a seldom-seen contemporary take on traditional fare.
6. Attend a film festival – with no cinema
There are a handful of guesthouses and cafes around Luang Prabang that hold semi-regular movie screenings, but the city has no actual cinemas. That small detail doesn’t stand in the way of a dynamic annual film festival. Held each December the Luang Prabang Film Festival showcases Southeast Asian cinema in all its forms – utilising a variety of unique venues around town. All events are free.
7. Shop for authentic northern hill tribe handicrafts
It’s getting increasingly difficult to find authentic local handicrafts in many Southeast Asian tourist centres, but not in Luang Prabang. Start by paying a visit to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC). Here you’ll gain an understanding of northern hill tribe textile work which the region is famous for. The museum shop offers genuine certified pieces.
8. Buy baguettes
The French maintained a colonial presence in Laos from the late 1800s through to the mid 1950s. One of the influences that remains firmly in place today is the widespread consumption of crusty French-style bread. Head for Le Banneton bakery in the Old Town (get there early for the pick of the pastry cabinet). While you will find French patisseries in many parts of neighbouring Vietnam, baguettes in Laos are a daily street food staple.
9. Step back in time in the Old Town
There are plenty of well-preserved historic urban centres in Southeast Asia, but perhaps none with the same palpable degree of charm as Luang Prabang. Wander at will along the small streets and narrow laneways of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town. Flowering Frangipanis and verdant mango trees shade golden wats (Buddhist temples) and beautifully restored colonial villas. It’s an intoxicating mix most visitors will find hard to resist.