Temples, Temples, Temples
I wasn’t going to go to Luang Prabang. After a busy year at work I was planning nearly three weeks off to relax and do a little bit of exploring in South East Asia. It was supposed to be a relaxing trip around Thailand but I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few days in Laos once I realised I could fly into Luang Prabang from Bangkok and back into Chiang Mai.
I am SO GLAD I decided to squeeze this into my itinerary. It wasn’t nearly enough time and I will definitely be back to see the rest of the country but I absolutely loved the time I spent there. Just about the best thing (besides the food) is that there is so much to see in such a tiny space and you can really explore thoroughly and really enjoy your time without even seeing the whole of this small town. Below is my itinerary for the 36 amazing hours I spent in this quiet and beautiful little town.
The great thing about Luang Prabang is you can pretty much visit all year as the temperature ranges from around 20 degrees on average in January (when I visited) to 30 degrees in May (although max temperatures can push into the mid 30s). The hotter months also coincide with the rain, which peaks in July / August. The driest months are October to March when the weather is cooler so these are the better months to visit.
Itinerary – Day 1
Arriving in Luang Prabang
I arrived mid afternoon on a Lao Airlines flight from Bangkok. This is a slightly pricey route a there’s a limited choice of carriers (just Air Asia, Thai Smile and Bangkok Airways / Lao Airlines at the time of writing). You should expect to pay around £150 for a return ticket and sometimes more; one way tickets typically £50 – £100. There are up to 4 flights a day depending on the day and they’re all at pretty sociable hours.
The flight into Luang Prabang is beautiful, passing over the beautiful lush Laotian countryside. On arrival at the tiny airport you will need to get in line first for a visa and then for immigration before you collect your baggage. Make sure you check the entry requirements for the passport you hold, but most countries can obtain a visa on arrival for between $30 – $40 depending on your passport. You need a passport photo and USD in cash (although Thai Bhat is also accepted). You’ll be given a form to complete when you arrive in the airport – this is in addition to the landing card you will have been given to fill out on the plane. You queue up first to hand over your form and photo and then again to pay for and receive your visa. There’s a small admin fee on top of the visa fee.
Once you clear immigration, make your way first to the bureau de change to change some money (you probably won’t be able to get Lao Kip outside the country) and then head to the taxi counter where you can buy a ticket to your accommodation in town at a fixed price of 50,000 Kip (around £5). Many guesthouses will charge a fee to pay by card so you might want to get enough money to cover your hotel bill too. I don’t remember how much money I changed but for 36 hours in Luang Prabang without including accommodation I’d recommend about 600,000 kip (around £50), which should be plenty to pay for your meals, temple entrance fees, taxis to and from the airport and leave some left over to spend in the night market. Obviously add some more if you have some other expenses you already know about, like cooking classes.
Staying in Luang Prabang
I stayed in a rather rudimentary guest house which I was fairly drab and poor value (although the location was great). You can stay in a guest house for around £20 – £40 a night for a two people. If I repeated my trip I’d go for something a bit more upmarket like the Sofitel. The location is a bit further from the bulk of the temples but the reviews are excellent, there’s a pool to relax by in the afternoons and it costs a reasonable £150 per night depending on the time of year. There’s a wealth of accommodation on offer from guesthouses to luxury resorts, including an Aman resort (Amantaka) at £950 a night. I’ve stayed in an Aman before and that price is probably completely worth it.
After a 20 minute or so trip from the airport I arrived at my guest house and after a quick shower I headed straight back out to catch the sunset with a beer before my dinner reservation at 7pm.
There are numerous bars and restaurants lining the Mekong along Khem Kong. Grab a seat at one for a beer and a great view over the river for sunset. There’s nothing like the first beer of a holiday and I really enjoyed my first Beer Lao.
Eating in Luang Prabang
I had reservations at Khaiphaen, part of the TREE Alliance (Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship) with restaurants across Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. I’ve eaten a couple of times in their Siem Reap restaurant, Marum and was very impressed.
This was to be my first encounter with food from Laos and it didn’t disappoint. I had a deliciously flavoursome and slightly spicy fried river fish dish (one of their specials of the day) and the chargrilled aubergine dip with vegetables and baguette which was simple but delicious. Like every restaurant in Laos, the sticky rice comes in a cute rice basket with your meal which seems to give the rice an added flavour. The service in Khaiphaen is attentive but not rushed – I sat there for hours taking up two covers and never felt like they wanted me to leave. This should definitely be on your list.
Day 2 – all of the temples
Climbing Mount Phousi
My first (and only!) full day in Luang Prabang and I was up bright and early to try to catch the sunrise from the sacred Mount Phousi. As I made my way through the town, preparations were underway for tak bat, the morning alms giving to the monks. I had been in two minds about whether to take part in this daily Luang Prabang routine as I’d read a lot online about some tourists being disrespectful by taking photos really close to the monks and not taking the ceremony seriously. The crowds were building as I made my way through the dark streets to the foot of Mount Phousi, literally bus loads of people onloading onto the pavements – that was enough for me and I knew I’d made the right choice to try to catch sunrise instead of staying in town.
I got the impression it was a bit of a circus and I wouldn’t have felt comfortable participating, although I probably would if I was with my husband and his family who are Buddhists. If you are thinking about attending tak bat then please do some research to make sure you do it in a respectful way and that you get good quality food from a decent supplier.
It took me a while to find the way up to Mount Phousi, finding my way in the pitch black in an unknown town. I finally found one entrance which was among some temples which appeared to be guarded by dogs – I didn’t think they would react well to random 5am strangers so I back tracked went round to the ‘proper’ entrance opposite the Royal Palace.
Even at that early hour it was a sticky climb up the 300 steps to the 100m hill right in the middle of town and I had to use my phone as a flashlight. There’s a man in a little booth half way up to collect the entrance free of 20,000 kip (about £2) which is good for the whole day, so keep your ticket if you want to head back later.
I got to the top way too early so had to sit around in the damp, dark air and wait for sunrise just before 7am. I had a poke about but couldn’t see much in the dark and a cat and I frightened the life out of each other when we met at the side of Wat Chom Si. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and so the sky got gradually lighter with no sunrise in sight and I retired down the opposite side of the sacred hill to explore the other temples littering its side before having a light breakfast back at my guest house.
On the way down you can visit Wat Pa Huak, Wat Siphoutthabat Thippharam and a shrine containing a Buddha footprint. There are further niches filled with Buddha statues around Wat Thammothayalan.
After breakfast I started from the other end of town near my guesthouse with the spectacular Wat Xieng Thong. At its centre is the large, ornately decorated ordination hall (which sometimes has a dog inside…FYI) built in 1560 The back outside wall has a huge tree of life mosaic on it which I spent ages trying to get the best picture of!
It must look amazing in the sunshine but unfortunately it was overcast the whole day! Many temples in Luang Prabang are free to visit but as one of the largest Wat Xieng Thong charges a 20,000 kip entrance fee. Wat Xieng Thong is a fairly large complex and I’m sure I spent over an hour here exploring.
Near to Wat Xieng Thong you’ll also find Wat Pakkhan (1737 but rebuilt a century ago) and Wat Souvannakhili as well as the Unesco Offices in the colonial villa that once functioned as the town’s customs house. Walking back towards the centre of town you’ll also come across Wat Sensoukaram (built 1718).
I stopped for lunch at Coconut Garden, a cute little restaurant with outdoor seating just off of Luang Prabang’s main thoroughfare, Sisavangvong Road. There are plenty of good cafes and resturants that line this road, so eat wherever takes your fancy.
The Royal Palace
After lunch explore the Royal Palace (open daily 8am – 11:30am and 1:30pm – 4pm) which is a national museum displaying the royal family’s (before they were overthrown) home and belongings. Built in 1904 it contains the furniture and every day items of the royal family as well as an interesting collection of diplomatic gifts. The grounds also contain Haw Pha Bang, the Palace Chapel temple built in 1963 (and restored 1993) to house the Pha (or Pra) Bang, Luang Prabang’s most sacred image (from which it gets its name).
There are a number of other stunning temples in the area including the beautiful Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham which is the home of the Sangharat – the head of Lao Buddhism
While in Luang Prabang you should spend the whole day aimlessly wandering and exploring every temple, big or small, that you come across, so I won’t list them all here. You should, however, visit the tiny and easily overlooked
It contains a series of beautiful 19th century wall paintings unlike the other decoration to be found in Luang Prabang’s temples and deserves a good look.
Sunset and dinner
After the amazing meal the night before I couldn’t resit going back to Khaiphaen for a mid afternoon snack and a good long sit to recharge after a day traipsing about the town. I had some delicious dumplings and a Beer Lao, of course.
After my ‘wasted’ ascent of Mount Phousi in the morning for the non-existent sunrise I was in two minds as to whether I could be bothered climbing back up in the hopes of a decent sunset. I’d already showered and changed for dinner so another climb was also going to get a fresh set of clothes sweaty! With just enough time to spare I made a snap decision and sprinted back up the 300 steps to the stop. It was absolutely rammed with people vying for position for the best shots. It was worth every step when I got to the top; with a bit of patience and clever camera angles I got some amazing photos and the experience of watching the sunset over the Mekong from Lunag Prabang’s sacred hill was priceless.
For dinner I had made a reservation at Tamarind which is a restaurant and cooking school and offers a range of tasting dishes and a la carte options both on its veranda overlooking the river and inside the restaurant.
I was lucky to get an outside table and sit in the night air. I couldn’t eat everything I ordered which was massively disappointing (the downside of travelling alone is you typically end up sampling less of the local cuisine) but it gave me a good introduction to some of the more unusual dishes I hadn’t yet found in my very short time in Laos. I’ve included the menu below for anyone interested. The food was great and I totally recommend putting it on your Luang Prabang itinerary.
Day 3 – morning market
The days start early in Luang Prabang which makes them wonderfully long. It turned my 2 nights into a relatively long time to explore. My flight was at 1pm so that still gave me a few hours to explore in the morning. I got up early again but missed the call to alms at around 5:30am and headed instead for the morning market just beyond the Royal Palace.
This was really fascinating and despite it being in all the guidebooks, didn’t seem too well frequented by tourists. Here you can see locals purchases produce to cook as well as meals cooked for them by the various vendors.
After the market I took the time to wander some of the streets I’d not yet been down and came across a number of protected ‘villages’ within Luang Prabang. They are designated by Unesco and can be identified by the inventory signs near some of the key sites.
I haven’t been able to find anything about them online although you can probably find more information in the Heritage House Information Centre (9am – 5pm Mon – Sat).
That was about all I had time for in such a short trip but I left feeling that I’d given the temples a fairly thorough visit and done justice to the amazing cuisine in the few meals I had there!
If you have more time then there’s lots more to see within Luang Prabang itself and slightly further afield. If I’d been there another couple of days I definitely would have taken a river cruise on the Mekong, booked a cookery course (Tamarind Restaurant offer them) and visited the nearby Pak Ou caves, a short trip down the river and the Tat Kuang Si waterfall, 30km from Luang Prabang.