Luang Prabang has many claims to fame: The entire town was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1995; it was the capital of the Kingdom of Laos (and of various earlier regional kingdoms) off and on from 700 AD until 1975; and it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Laos. It is almost absurdly picturesque—a mix of Laotian and French colonial architecture, dotted with sparkling Buddhist temples, located on a peninsula where two beautiful rivers (the Mekong and the Nam Khan) meet, and ringed by green mountains.
Some tourists fall in love with Luang Prabang, so much so that they settle down there to live. Others describe it as overly touristy or as pokey and dull, with only enough to do for a day or two. We weren’t sure what to think, so we figured we should see it for ourselves. Plus, Laos offered us a relatively cool respite between steamy Cambodia in late November and equally steamy Malaysia in late December. It didn’t take us more than a day or two to be charmed by Luang Prabang, and throughout the two weeks we spent there, we kept finding more things to love.
One of the first things we noticed is the town’s relaxing pace, so different from tourist spots we visited in Bali and Cambodia. Streets are quiet and easy to cross; tuk-tuks are parked all around, but the drivers don’t harangue you, and they take a single “no” for an answer. Even the many street markets are more laid back than elsewhere. The center of Luang Prabang is compact and easy to walk around, with old colonial buildings and river views. In the mornings, clouds hug the mountains, but by mid-day they give way to blue skies.
Among the many restaurants are some serving really good Laotian food (Tamarind by the Nam Khan river, Dyen Sabai across the bamboo bridge, and Le Petit Nid on the main street), as well as terrific French cafes (Cafe Ban Wat Sene and Banetton), where we could get luxuries we hadn’t tasted for a while, such as real bacon and buttery croissants. In between good meals, we spent many an afternoon working with our laptops on riverside terraces with beautiful views. And when we weren’t feeling like spending much money, there were rows of stalls where, for about $1.25, we could get an assortment of cut-up fruit, a cup of freshly pressed fruit juice, a decent chicken sandwich on a baguette, or a crispy chocolate and banana crepe.
Although much of its economy revolves around tourism, Luang Prabang still feels like a real town full of real life. Kids play in the rivers, fisherman stand in their narrow boats throwing nets, people tend vegetable gardens on the river banks or run shops selling all manner of goods to their neighbors. Luang Prabang is a regional education center, with a number of secondary schools and universities that draw students from the surrounding rural areas (sometimes from many hours away). It’s also chock full of Buddhist monasteries (wats), whose graceful, if sometimes gaudy, architecture adds to the beauty of the town.
At times, Luang Prabang seems awash in young people—regular students and young orange-robed monks—all working hard to get an education. English is widely seen as key to getting a good job in the government sector, or as a teacher, or in service industries, so people are eager (despite a certain native shyness) to practice their English. We went several times to the drop-in English conversation sessions held at a local publishing house and bookshop called Big Brother Mouse, answering people’s questions about our lives, learning about theirs, discussing idioms, and explaining the differences between various English words. It felt a little surreal to be helping a monk with his homework (figuring out when to use “will” or “might” in sentences about the future).
Besides the many wats, the main things to see in Luang Prabang are the former royal palace (now a museum) and the view from Phousi Hill in the middle of town. There’s also a great little ethnographic museum (the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre) and some beautiful galleries, such as Ock Pop Tok, showcasing the best traditional textiles from Laos’s many ethnic groups. The gorgeous Kuang Si waterfalls, about an hour away, are a popular spot for picnic or a swim. The town does have a row of bars and clubs, but they close at 11:30 p.m. and are in a contained area, so they don’t impinge much on the character of the town.
It may not be exciting enough for some people’s taste, but its combination of quiet beauty, student life, and local culture—plus lots of good food—make it one of the favorite places we’ve seen so far.