What not to do in Luang Prabang

There comes a time during any extended trip where you become so accustomed to having no responsibility or obligation that doing anything feels like an effort. I think Tom and I have arrived at that point in our journey.

Despite being just an hour’s flight from Hanoi, it took us a whole day to get to Luang Prabang, the sleepy UNESCO world heritage town in Laos. Bad weather conditions made for an arduous wait and our experience was made even more enjoyable by having to go through the Visa on arrival process at the other end. It wasn’t too long a wait but is quite pricey (US$31 for kiwis).

Luckily the tuk tuk ride to our guesthouse snapped me out of any residual grumpiness as the relaxed vibe of the beautiful town and surrounding lush jungle washed over us. I think this dog that we spotted sums up the feeling of Luang Prabang perfectly. As my friend from Cali would say – it’s chill.

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We were starving when we arrived as the promised snack on Vietnam airlines never eventuated (first world problem if I ever heard one). As we strolled through the night market later that evening I was teetering dangerously on the brink of hanger – hunger + anger for the uneducated – when what I could only assume to be a mirage appeared in front of our eyes. A fill your plate buffet as high as you can for just over $1?? Uh yes please.

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Any traces of hanger were replaced instantly by joy (and a dash of gluttony). We soon learnt that the Luang Prabang night market is famous for setups like this one. All the dishes were vegetarian and super tasty. There are about ten different kinds of noodles, fried rice, loads of fresh veges, salads and stirfrys aswell as the obligatory spring rolls and some sort of fritter things (banana and other veges). The first one we tried heated everything for you once you’d chosen but it seems like they were the only one that did it. We had a different one the following night and it was a little cold but still delicious…it also happened to be on meat street.

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The chicken was some of the tastiest meat I’ve ever had and the sausages which are a specialty of the area were amazing too. We tried a buffalo one that was so full of actual meat (!!) that it was hard to finish between two of us. You could even see the flavour.

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Surprisingly we also found room for a little dessert. These wee cakes are cooked fresh in front of you and filled with a yummy coconutty goo. They also look super cute in their banana leaf house.

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Next door to the magical buffet and meat street is an appealing bakery with beautiful looking cakes and brownies on a stall outside. Don’t be fooled though, they may look good but the ‘brownies’ that we ordered one night were dry as a bone and bland. You’d think I would have learnt my lesson by now that most Asian sweets are never as good as they look.

As well as the food, the stalls in the night market are worth a gander. This is hands down the best night market we’ve seen on our travels with loads of impressive artwork, handmade crafts, clothing, jewellery and souvenirs. The ladies working the stalls are pretty chilled out too and aside from the odd call of “ladeeee, scarf?” you’ll be left to your own devices while browsing.

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The market runs from 5pm – 10pm every night, after which most of the town packs up and goes to bed. There are plenty of bars that stay open until around 11.30pm though. On our first night we ended up watching the crushingly close game between the All Blacks and Ireland at the ‘Aussie Sports bar’ on the main pub strip in town. The drinks were more expensive than other bars but they had loads of screens and handed out free sausage rolls (the first I’ve seen in Asia) during the game which made the AB’s win taste even better!

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After 11.30pm the town really shuts up shop and all those still keen to keep downing the Beer Laos have to venture to the local bowling alley…naturally. The idea sounded amazing – bowling? great. Drinking? excellent. Together? a riot I’m sure…only problem is I can’t know for sure because we never made it. This is where that lull in motivation that I started this post with kicks in.

You see, now we’ve been on the road for over a month, even going out on the razz feels like a chore. I know you hate me right now. I kind of hate myself to be honest as I’m sure we would have had a great time but hey, sometimes you just can’t be stuffed.

Likewise, during the day in Luang Prabang, we didn’t get up to much. Generally we’d sleep in, skip breakfast and go to main street for lunch where the fruit shake and sandwich ladies reside.

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These sandwiches are the business and they pack them full of fresh avocado – something I haven’t had in a looooong time. The fruit shakes are also delicious but you’ll have trouble trying to decide between the zillion or so flavours. You can even have booze in them…although what kind of booze is a mystery, they’re just labelled (insert fruit here) + alcohol. Laos coffee on the other hand is rubbish. Coming from Vietnam my standards are high and although the serving size was generous, it just tasted like watered down filter coffee.

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Apart from eating, probably the most activity we engaged in was moving our junk around. In the four nights we were in LP, we stayed in three guesthouses. Maybe it was all the lugging of suitcases (which at this point contain our entire lives) in the heat that put us into our travel slump. It was either that or the reason why we had to move for a second time – we were robbed…or at least we think we were.

The first switch was purely to save money which is ironic considering that the day after we moved we discovered we were US$270 short. The whole situation was frustrating and is still puzzling to us. We’re still not sure which guesthouse it occurred at and also why the thief chose to leave behind our credit cards and other cash we had in the same wallet. Our only conclusion is that it had to be someone on staff and that they didn’t want us to notice anything was missing. It’s a good reminder to us at least that we need to keep everything locked in our bags, even in a locked room (we did ask for a safe or to leave our valuables at reception but this isn’t done in LP apparently).

So that wasn’t the greatest thing to happen but like I said, the vibe of the town is so appealing that we were over it pretty quickly. Maybe it’s the presence of ancient Wats and local monks on every street that creates this feeling of peacefulness.

Luang Prabang is a spiritual town and one of its most sacred traditions also happens to be a tourist attraction (amazingly). The morning alms ceremony is held every morning at dawn. Monks from the surrounding Wats walk the streets and take offerings of sticky rice from locals. It’s a silent and beautiful thing to watch…if you can ignore the dicks shoving massive camera lenses into the procession.

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There are actually plenty of things to see and do around LP, it’s just that we didn’t particularly feel like seeing or doing much. We did hire bicycles one day and had a great time biking around the town. It’s so quiet that it’s a really serene experience. Bikes would also be handy to use going between the Wats. We only made it to one though – Wat Xiengthong. If you’re lazy like us then this is the one to go to. It really was stunning.

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Another way to get in touch with your spiritual side in the town is to take a morning yoga class at Utopia – a restaurant/bar on the river. The classes run on the deck and it’s incredible waking up your body as you watch the sun rise over the Mekong and the mountains appear through the morning mist (yes, I actually made it to one class!).

On our last day we must have been feeling guilty about doing nothing so we finally gave in to the incessant tuk tuk calls of “hellooo watahfall?” and ventured out to Tad Sae waterfall. I was sceptical as I often am of places that claim to be wonders of nature (probably a result of being spoilt for natural landscape growing up in NZ). Seriously though, this place is cool. I’d never seen a waterfall like this one where it’s more horizontal than vertical. You can walk and sit on the top of the terraces and the pool at the bottom is great for swimming. It’s quite expensive to get out there (usually 150,000 kip for a tuk tuk plus a 15,000 kip entrance fee and 10,000 kip boat fee) but it was worth the trip and made us feel like we were fulfilling our duties as tourists.

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On the whole, Luang Prabang was quite a surprise to me. I was amazed at how such a historic and traditional place could also be such a tourist mecca. I didn’t expect anywhere in the country to be as developed and in tune with what travellers want. An off the beaten track experience it is not but LP is certainly comfortable which suited these travelling nanas well.

Seeing as we didn’t do much, rather than a list of things to do, here’s a list of things not to do in the gorgeous wee town.

  • Don’t be that douchebag with the flash on your camera at the morning alms.
  • Don’t fill up too much on the buffets. At least save room for this tasty snack (fried Mekong river weed with sticky rice and jaew-bong – a super spicy sauce made from buffalo skin).

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  • Don’t leave any valuables in your room unless they’re locked up.
  • Don’t dress like a ho. Despite the openness towards tourism, Laotians are still very conservative. Cover shoulders and knees when in the presence of monks and at the Wats.
  • Don’t buy sticky rice from the street vendors during the morning alms. These guys are capitalising on what should be a sacred tradition.
  • Don’t choose a restaurant on the main street over a local joint down the back streets. Thanks to a tip off from a long staying guest in our guesthouse we found this place. Mama Tao cooks all the meals fresh. The omelette was the best and I’ve never tried anything like the fried noodles she made (they’re wide like strips of pasta and fried so they’re a little crispy on the outside).

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Note our pained expressions after bumping into our friend who tipped us off about the place and insisted on an ‘action’ shot…it took about ten attempts for him to get this one (he was an elderly gent).

  • Most importantly, don’t feel like you need to do a lot in Luang Prabang, doing nothing is just as satisfying.

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