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After spending 12 wonderful days in Vietnam we were ready to take on the neighbouring landlocked country of Laos. Our destination was the former capital, Luang Prabang in north central Laos, that we quickly discovered is full of Buddhist temples and monasteries. Our four days luxuriating in Luang Prabang, Laos in the old converted French Governor’s house was a perfect climax to our holiday.
Sometimes referred to as the town of “a monk’s life”, the enchanting Luang Prabang has a rich religious and cultural heritage and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is evidence of its French Colonial influence during the 19th and 20th century everywhere you roam throughout the town. This included our fabulous hotel, Sofitel Luang Prabang.
The Sofitel Luang Prabang was the perfect place to stay, in this historical, fully-renovated former French Governor’s residence. It was in fact outstanding and probably one of the most delightful properties in the historical city. A 20 minute walk from the old town (5 to 10 minutes away by car or bicycle), the hotel used to be the previous residence of Laos first French Governor, Auguste Pavie.
The impressive building with its elegant white washed mansions served also for a while as a detention centre. This exclusive property only has 25 suites, with high roofs, and all with a private garden and some with their own swimming pool. The suites open out onto a lush inner courtyard, filled with swaying palms, bushes of wildflowers and pink water lilies floating on a long reflection pond.
Our Luxury Escapes packaged included four night’s accommodation and extra goodies such as a daily buffet breakfast, one multi-course dinner, an interactive cooking class, a 90 minute Lao wisdom massage, afternoon tea, bike hire and airport transfers.
There are many things to do in Luang Prabang, and of particular interest is that it was once the heart and soul of the ancient Lao Kingdom and is a designated World Heritage site. It is endowed with a rich legacy of historic red-roofed temples and French-Indochinese architecture, and the idyllic location at the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
We learnt that in the early 20th century, the French started to build government buildings, such as the Governor’s Residence (1900) and the Royal Palace (1904), aimed at creating a union between the French and the Lao people.
In addition to government buildings, the French also built two-storey brick and stucco villas with pitched tile roofs and wooden shuttered windows to accommodate the colonial administrators and their families.
The best way to take in these buildings is to take a walking tour of Luang Prabang to observe and discover the timeless elegance of its local heritage. So that is exactly what we did, with a map in hand, we set off from the junction of the two rivers and explored the streets and laneways of the town.
Luang Prabang is especially renowned for its spiritual aura, undoubtably due to the 34 UNESCO-protected temples or wats, all located within a compact town centre. These temples today remain home to more than 1,000 novices and monks continuing ancient Buddhist studies and monastic rule.
The first place we came to was Wat Xieng Thong, considered the finest in all of Laos and one of the most important in Luang Prabang.
We spent a good deal of time here taking in the gorgeous details of the buildings, like gilded facades, elegant roofs and the famous “tree of life” motif in glittering mosaic.
We also photographed an extremely cute little baby monkey eating a flower.
Every street we turned down, we saw yet another wat and although they are all unique we started to get a sense of de ja vu, so we decided for a change of scenery to check out the old royal palace.
The Royal Palace was built in 1904 for King Sisavangvong, after the previous palace was destroyed by invaders in 1887, and sits amongst beautifully landscaped gardens. These days it is a museum with exhibits that include royal religious objects, weapons, statues, screens and paintings from Laos centuries past.
The grounds surrounding the old palace contain a number of other buildings including a new exhibition hall and a chapel (Haw Prabang), and a statue of King Sisavangvong. You can easily spend a few hours here learning about Laos history.
Directly opposite the Royal Palace is Mount Phousi, the scared mountain of Luang Prabang. We took the 328 steps to the top of the mountain in the heat of the day, which was not easy! However once you reach the top the views are well worth the effort.
Here you will enjoy 360 degree views over Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains and rivers. Apparently it is popular to climb the mountain late afternoon for a gorgeous sunset photo.
On the top of Mount Phousi we found Wat Chom Si with its golden 20 meters high Stupa and a few statues of Buddha. A local tradition is to purchase a small bird in a cane cage from one of the vendors either at the bottom or top of the stairs and let it fly free from Mount Phousi. The small bird release is a sign of releasing one’s bad luck. It’s rather a nice tradition, don’t you think?
On our third day in Luang Prabang we decided to take a half day trip out to Kuang Si Falls, a distance of 30kms away. As we drove through the countryside we got a glimpse of the rural life with small villages, rice fields and vegetable gardens along the way. Once we arrived at Kuang Si there were markets and restaurant/bars to attract the tourist dollar. We were told by our driver that we had to spend some money to pay for the privilege to park here!
It was only a short distance to the entry to the Kuang Si park and initially we strolled through the Bear Rescue Centre, that cares for a number of Asiatic black bears rescued from poachers and illegal wildlife traders. The cute bears live in an enclosure with lots of trees, swings and other things to play with. You can observe the animals as they play or search for food from a couple of different viewing platforms.
After spending a little time looking at the bears we embarked on a scenic hike upstream through the jungle that leads to the main waterfall that is around 50 metres high.
Water cascades down from the main waterfall in terraces that form a set of turquoise coloured swimming pools that are popular for swimming in. We found the rocky bottom of the pools to be a bit of a challenge getting into the water but were rewarded with lovely refreshingly cool water to swim in.
There are plenty of shops lining the main street of Luang Prabang that sell jewellery, local textiles and craft, clothing and the usual souvenirs. The night markets on the main street, that is sealed off from traffic for the occasion, were well worth visiting.
Eateries galore line the main street, or along the waterfront of both rivers where you can eat under the pretty fairy lights. We had an amazing Laos meal at Bamboo Tree Restaurant located opposite the Nam Khan River. The 3 Nagas Restaurant served up a delicious banquet feast, as part of our deal at the Sofitel, where we sat outside in the garden under fairy lights.
We also ate at Big Tree Cafe on the Mekong River road where there is both Lao, Western food and Korean-style dishes. Otherwise if you’re feeling like a burger try Dexter Cafe & Bar in the main street.
For lunch or a snack we found the Indigo Cafe, near the markets was not only a lovely cool place with chic decor to relax, but served up great cafe fare and good coffee. Also you must try one of the French Patisseries in town for one of their pastries and frothy cappuccinos.
We discovered the local delicacy was river weed harvested from the Mekong that is seasoned and dried. To serve, it’s fried and accompanied with jeow bong, a smokey chilli dip with small pieces of buffalo skin. At the morning farmer markets you must try the sticky rice served with coconut custard in a banana leaf – it was good!!
Luang Prabang is mostly about the monks that live and practice Buddhism at the many temples and monasteries in the town. Everywhere you look you see their distinctive orange robes, barefoot with shaved heads, either praying or strolling around town with umbrellas to protect their bare heads from the hot sun.
They are an alluring sight and I guess for most of us Westerners, their religion is very intriguing to us. Boys, particularly from poor upbringing, attend monk schools and are referred to as novices. They get their education through the monasteries, but many leave when they are around 18 to 20 years old. Hence most of the monks we saw were either very young or older men. They live very frugally by abandoning all worldly possessions and spend their days meditating, praying and chanting.
The alms giving ceremony that commences at daybreak with the monks and novices parading down the streets taking donations of food from locals and visitors, is one of the biggest tourist attractions to the town. You might even say that it is turning into something of a circus, with little respect being shown to the monks with tourists jumping in front of them to take their photo.
I found the alms giving ceremony to be both peaceful and spiritual. It gives you a wonderful opportunity to experience an ancient Lao tradition and is definitely worth getting out of bed for. But you need to be very mindful that you show the monks a little respect by dressing appropriately, having no physical contact with them and not shoving a camera in their faces.
Our four days in Luang Prabang were well spent taking in the delights of this gem of a town. If we’d had more time we could have taken a boat cruise down the Mekong River or explored the Pak Ou Caves, the elephant sanctuary or the craft village. There simply was not enough time to see and do all that this place has to offer.
Luang Prabang was a refreshing change from Vietnam with its easy pace, friendly locals and peace-loving monks. We discovered that we had visited at the perfect time of year, the quiet time, before the throngs of visitors come for the busy season. It left me with a nice peaceful and tranquil feeling of having appreciation for a life that is more simplistic and serene. Something that is sometimes hard to find in the rest of the world.
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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Lyndall @ SeizeThe Day ProjectOctober 19, 2017
Wow Kathy, such beautiful photos of your time in Laos. I really had no idea of the history of Laos – so thanks for sharing it with us. The Kuang Si Falls are just stunning! :) #TeamLovinLife
KathyOctober 19, 2017
Laos was a fascinating country. They were heavily bombed during the Vietnam War so are lucky to have any historical buildings left. The countryside is very mountainous with lush rainforests and beautiful waterfalls like Kuang Si. I could easily return to see more of this place. #TeamLovinLife
jodie filogomoOctober 19, 2017
You always amaze me with your travels, Kathy! Such a gorgeous place and your photography is so beautiful!!
It actually makes me want to jump on a plane and go visit!
KathyOctober 19, 2017
Thanks Jodie. I do love to travel and Laos has been on my bucket list for a while. I wasn’t disappointed with what this small landlocked country had to offer. #TeamLovinLife
DeborahOctober 19, 2017
Oh stunning Kathy! I’ve not been to Laos but always heard amazing things about it. I lived in Cambodia in 1997 for about 6-7mths and then visited again for work the next year but not been back to the area since. I guess the architecture is similar and you’ve reminded me of the blend of french colonial and asian styles.
KathyOctober 19, 2017
Cambodia is right nearby Laos. We flew back via Phnom Penh in Cambodia and I couldn’t get over how much water there was on the ground. I think Cambodia would have similar architecture. We would love to do a river cruise down the Mekong at some stage. #TeamLovinLife
Maria | passion fruit, paws and peoniesOctober 19, 2017
Laos looks incredible!! Thank you for sharing it with us! x
KathyOctober 22, 2017
Laos was a delight. I’m so glad we spent some time here. #TeamLovinLife
Leanne @ Deep Fried FruitOctober 20, 2017
Such beautiful photos. So many of them could be framed and hung as art. #teamlovinlife
KathyOctober 22, 2017
Thanks Leanne. Imagine it I did framed them all! I would have every wall in my house completely covered. #TeamLovinLife
NatalieOctober 20, 2017
Beautiful photos, Kathy, and it sounds like a luxurious vacation.
KathyOctober 22, 2017
Yes it was luxury all the way. We lucked out with our Luxury Escape package. #TeamLovinLife
budget janOctober 20, 2017
I’m happy to see that Luang Prabang hasn’t changed much Kathy. It is such a beautiful place and you told it’s story to perfection. :)
KathyOctober 22, 2017
Jan it was your blog that convinced me to go to Luang Prabang. I think you should get a commission! I’ll shout you a coffee next time I’m in your area. :)
Jo TraceyOctober 20, 2017
Fabulous photos (as always). Laos looks fascinating and your accommodation heavenly. I’m thinking it needs to be moved up the travel bucket list.
KathyOctober 22, 2017
Laos was very charming and I loved how peaceful the place was. I can highly recommend this as a holiday destination and I would certainly go back. #TeamLovinLife
Little Wandering WrenOctober 27, 2017
We did this exact trip in April and apart from sweating our way around the streets of Luang Prabang, I loved every minute of it! We then took the boat up the Mekong to Chang Rai. You have summed this destination up so beautifully. Living In Thailand, it was a refreshing change to travel in a less developed Country. Laos deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list. I have two friends who are in LP at the moment, I must remind them to go to the wonderful Bear Sanctuary, your baby monkey photo is adorable and did you find a cute little bunny hopping around the Sofitel?!
KathyOctober 27, 2017
We loved it too! I know what you mean about humidity and sweating. We made sure we got out and about early in the morning before the oppressive heat hit in the afternoons. I did feel that Laos was a beautiful place and far removed from some of the other popular SE Asian travel destinations. I hope it doesn’t get too touristy! Yes we saw two bunnies hopping around the Sofitel. #TeamLovinLife
Jan WildOctober 30, 2017
We haven’t been to Laos but it looks so lovely and that hotel, oh my what luxury.
KathyOctober 30, 2017
The Sofitel Hotel was divine and we really enjoyed our four days in Luang Prabang. It was a refreshing change from Vietnam.
JoNovember 2, 2017
What a fabulous time you had in Laos. The Sofitel Hotel looks gorgeous for some R & R in Luang Prabang. I expect the alms giving was very humbling, and the cooking class rejuvenating! Once home, did you cook any of the recipes? I always find it hard to replicate the exact taste, despite buying the same ingredients – it’s like a piece of magic has stayed behind in the host country!
KathyNovember 3, 2017
We loved Luang Prabang. Yes I have attempted to replicate my Vietnamese cooking classes. The Vietnamese Rolls were fine but I failed on the Vietnamese Pancakes. I think our ingredients don’t quiet have the same flavour as in Vietnam. Maybe our growing conditions are too sterile! :)