[This is a guest post by our friends over at BrokenJawTravel.]
Although Luang Prabang may no longer be the quaint and quiet village it once was, a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site is an almost non-negotiable part of any trip to Laos. Regardless of what time of year you visit, the town is guaranteed to be swarming with visitors, some attracted by the stunning variety of temples, others by the diverse bio-culture while Luang Prabang’s buzzing backpacker scene ensures the more party-minded traveller that they’re never far from a good time and several liberal measures of Lao Khao. But while Luang Prabang may not be the secluded sanctuary you envisaged, rest assured, there is more than enough to delight backpackers of all persuasions.
So what, amid all this natural splendour and backpacking booziness does the town have to offer? Check out these five attractions to see why Luang Prabang remains one of Laos’ most celebrated tourist destinations as well as how you can make the most of your time there.
KUANG SI WATERFALL AND THE MOON BEARS
Accessible independently by motorbike, tuk-tuk or even as a prearranged tour group, Kuang Si Waterfalls and the nearby jungle pools are one of Luang Prabang’s most visited attractions. There are several places of interest to stop along the tred to the top so the walk can be taken in your own time and at your own place and, given the lush greenery of the area, you may find yourself strolling for longer than you really intended.
Once you arrive at the pools however, you’ll see why you were advised to pack your swimming costume. The emerald-green waters are fantastically inviting, almost to the point that it can be easy to forget that this is a natural formation, with locals and tourists alike, taking advantage of the pool’s revitalising waters.
And, like many attractions in Luang Prabang, it is best to try and get there early before the crowds. Although even if you do enjoy a lie-in, arriving at the pools after a trek in the midday sun can be all the more invigorating.
As well as the beautiful pools at the falls, there is an enclosure for 33 moon (black) bears rescued by local staff from the snares of evil would-be poachers. In Chinese medicine, the bile of these seriously cute animals is used to treat “internal warmth” aka indigestion. Instead of ruthlessly murdering a critically-endangered species, just chew on a Gaviscon! Anyway, watching these lazy bears for a while really adds to your day; they’re just so cute!
THE ELEPHANT EXPERIENCE
Without doubt one of the most popular attractions for backpackers in Luang Prabang are the elephant villages. While there are numerous companies operating in the area, perhaps the most respected is the Kamu Village located some 15km from the centre of town. The site allows visitors to bathe the animals as well as offering a fascinating insight into how the elephants and their mahoots co-exist.
But as with all tourist attractions involving animals, particularly in this part of the world, it is important to do your research before arriving. While all the parks around the town claim to have the creatures’ welfare at heart, with the huge number of tourists descending on the town, there will invariably be some less-than-scrupulous operators who are more concerned with making a quick buck than with the health and happiness of these gentle giants. Certainly, I cannot claim to be any kind of authority on the ethical treatment of elephants and it is perhaps best to ask around locally before deciding which reservation is most deserving of your money.
WAT XIENG THONG
One aspect of Luang Prabang that is sure to delight any visitor is the incredible array of temples dotted throughout the town. These vary in importance and grandeur but it is their presence in Luang Prabang that ensures, even with the huge upsurge in foreign tourism, that the town retains its characteristic tranquillity.
But while any of the towns temples are worth a visit, one of the most impressive is surely Wat Xieng Thong.
This temple was the site where royal coronations once took place and, as such, the site has architecture befitting its status. Although the climb to the summit is by no means easy, the gold-covered mosaics and quintessentially Buddhist statues allow those attempting the climb regular rest-stops along the way. The view from the top will more than make up for the endeavour. Sunset and sunrise are both particularly idyllic times to visit the temple, both in terms of the spectacle and also more comfortable temperatures, while those willing to set their alarm clocks a little earlier will manage to avoid the worst of the mid-morning crowds.
This early morning ceremony, a centuries-old tradition which sees the monks of Luang Prabang wander through the streets accepting alms from the townspeople, has, unfortunately, attracted more than its fair share of controversy as of late. Tourists, eager to secure that perfectly Laotian snap, all too often spurn the unwritten rules of the parade and involve themselves too closely with proceedings, an ill-mannered enthusiasm that is not only unspeakably discourteous to local customs, but also detrimental to the overall pageantry of the event.
Nevertheless, for those willing to put away their GoPro and enjoy the ceremony from a respectful distance, a genuinely humbling experience awaits. Certainly, witnessing a ritual that first occurred long before the influx of Western tourism, can be intensely moving, particularly amid the old-world setting and early morning calm of the town.
It is perhaps due to the steady stream of tourists and subsequent arrival of money that vendors operating in Luang Prabang’s Night Market are not the well-practiced shysters you might meet elsewhere in South-East Asia but rather a series of smiling faces that are only too happy to let you mull over their goods and will not prove overly insistent if you do decide to go elsewhere. This is reflected in the prices of items on display which remain reasonable, although a little non-aggressive haggling can always prove satisfying.
And while you will invariably come across plenty of the usual mass-produced knick-knacks, lot of the items on sale in Luang Prabang’s Night Market are undeniably beautiful, a whole variety of keepsakes made (or allegedly made) by those running the stall. Even if you’ve already met and exceeded your souvenir quota, meandering through the market, pausing to inspect the merchandise can be a wonderfully relaxing experience, particularly in the relative cool of the late evening.
These tips are but the tip of the iceberg; you can even go bowling until 2.30am. No matter what you decide to do in your visit to the city, you are guaranteed to leave feeling enriched, feeling that you have learned something and that you are keen to continue your Laotian adventure. In any case, I hope this guide has helped your smooth introduction to this most wonderful of Asian cities.
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