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.
Luang Prabang 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 4 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now 60. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland. She 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, movies, 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.