Laos – Luang Prabang and Land for Sale

We left the bedbug infested place in Nong Khiaw and traveled on to Luang Prabang by bus. The bus ride took 4 hours and cost about USD 4.5). There used to be a boat on the Nam Ou river that connected Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang. But China happened. When traveling through Laos, you inevitably see Chinese construction sites every couple of hundred meters. They’re currently building a railway, massive dams and are therefore buying up the land they can get. It’s sad and scary to watch, as the Lao people are not going to profit from the projects. We heard from locals that the Chinese buy the land, build everything with Chinese workers, who sleep are Chinese-run places, buy food at Chinese markets and leave nothing but waste behind. The dams/railway projects have a runtime from 50 to 100 years, in which China gets all the profits, before the infrastructure eventually goes back to the country they build them on. Laos is therefore covered in «Land for Sale» signs, with everyone hoping to make a little profit while they can, not seeing that they might steer themselves into a very unhealthy situation, where they’re fully dependent on China.

Chinese construction site for a dam

That left aside, Luang Prabang is called «the pearl of Southeast Asia» and the town is in fact very charming. It was listed UNESCO world heritage in 1995 for unique and remarkably well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage, a blend of the rural and urban developments over several centuries, including the French colonial influences during the 19th and 20th centuries (thank you Wikipedia). The old city center consist of 4 main roads and the town is well know for its buddhist monasteries and temples. Though closed during the day, they open up to the public at night for the evening chanting (which is a very medidative experience, if I may add).

What do/see in/around Luang Prabang

There is generally a slow pace of life in Laos and Luang Prabang (LP) is no different. The town is very laid-back and quiet and almost all things worth seeing are in walkable distance in town. Yet, there are also a few destinations a couple of kilometers out of town, best reached by renting a motorbike or tuk tuk (or joining a tour). Things get off to an early start at 6 a.m. when the monks from the various monasteries spill out into the streets to collect alms under the watchful eyes of a number of locals and just about EVERY tourist in town. Here’s a list of what to see and do, while you’re there:

What to see/do in town

Take a stroll through the Old Quarter: You will see a lot of temples, monasteries and colonial buildings. Grab a fresh fruit juice from one of the street stands or drink a beer in one of the restaurants/bars along the main street and watch life go by.

Visit the morning market: This small market is the Laotian “supermarket” where they come to buy their fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, which are proposed in showcases which are not always the way we use to see in most of our countries. Some products are coming from the jungle around, and is highly exotic for travellers from western countries (we’re talking ox-blood which is proposed in gelatinous cubes, serpents, bats, rats, grilled insects, giblets covered with flies, caramelised pork’s head, and all sorts of leaves and plants…)

Luang Prabang Night Market: The night market, in the centre of town, «opens its doors» every evening at round about 5 p.m. Meaning that a part of Sisavangvong Rd. is simply blocked for traffic. This market was only supposed to last for a few weeks back in 2002, when a few Hmongs and other craftsmen of the region sold their products to tourists. Since it was so successful, it stayed open. Since 2005 and the opening of boarders, a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese products came on the market. But you can still find beautifully handmade products, if you know what’s typical for the region.

Hike up Mount Phousi: Over 300 steps will take you uphill Mount Phousi. It’s actually more of a hill (in Swiss perspectives spoken) and the walk up is not very challenging. You can buy fresh juice and food at the bottom and take it up with you. Try to avoid sunset, as it will get very crowded. You can hike up for sunrise during rainy season (it will be cloudy during dry season, so you won’t see anything then). We hiked up in the late afternoon, when not many people were up there and the view was perfect.

Visit the UXO Luang Prabang Information Center: Did you know, that Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history? Approximately 25% of villages in Laos are contaminated with Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). More than 580’000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos. Over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. Cluster sub-munitions or ‘Bombies’ (as they are known locally) are the most common form of UXO remaining. More than 270 million bombies were dropped onto Laos. Up to 30% failed to detonate. This means, approximately 80 million (!!) unexploded bombies remained in Laos after the war!

Walk over the Bamboo Bridges: There are two bamboo bridges (only during dry season) that get washed away and built anew every year. Foreigners have to pay a contribution of 10’000 KIP. I suggest taking the bridge down by the Riverview park. You can continue your walk towards a handicraft village, where you can see how they weave and make bamboo- (and elephant poo) paper.

Join the monks for the evening chanting: As said, the monasteries will open their doors to the public for evening chanting around 5:30ish. As a visitor, you will have to remove your shoes and silently sit in the back (do not point your feet at the monks) Come and go as you please, just do it quietly and don’t wander among the monks or take pictures offensively.

Morning alms: Every morning around 6 a.m. the monks of the monasteries will go through town, collecting alms. Sadly, this has become a huge tourist attraction and we debated if we should go or not. We asked in our guesthouse and the owner pointed out a spot at the Mekong, where not many tourists were to be expected and the atmosphere was still peaceful. Yet, even there were a couple of tourists, who walked up to the monks very closely and pointed their camera in their faces. The rules to follow are diplayed everywhere around town and I simply can’t understand how some people will just do about anything to get the perfect shot. We observed the almsgiving across the street, from the distance, which was a well enough spot to witness everything. The almsgiving wasn’t as peaceful as I expected, as the monks rushed through. But then again, I would be rushing, too if I wouldn’t have eaten since 12 p.m. the previous day.

alms giving cermony with some obnoxious tourists in the back

What to see/do outside of town

Kuang Si Waterfall: Located about 30 kilometers outside of Luang Prabang, this beautiful waterfalls can be reached by tuk tuk, taxi, motorbike or mountainbike (or as part of an organized tour). We chose to rent a motorbike and the streets leading there were in relative good condition. The color of the water really is like shown on the pictures and every bit as beautiful. You are allowed to swim in some of the natural pools. We were there in December and it was a bit cold, so not many people were in there – lucky for us (but it was cold!)

Kuang Si Butterfly Park: Situated 300m before the entry of the Kuang Si Waterfall, the Butterfly Park is a project that was initiated in January 2014 from 2 Dutch people. The mission is to create a research centre studying and publishing about Laos butterflies, host plants and preservation because of environmental issues in Laos. We didn’t visit the park, but heard that it must be very nice.

Buffalo Diary Farm: You’ll pass this farm when driving to the Kuang Si falls. We stopped for some coffee and excellent cheesecake, but didn’t do the tour, which seemed fun if you were traveling with children.

Where to stay

Luang Prabang offers a wide variety of accomodation. From budget hostel rooms to up-scale luxurious hotels, it’s all there. Besides the hostels and hotels there are also many privately run guesthouses. We stayed at the latter, close to the morning market, which was right in the middle of everything. You’ll want to stay on the peninsula/old town, in order not having to walk too far. We stayed at the Manichan Guesthouse and I heard only good things about Hotel Dalabua (my mom claims it’s the nicest hotel she has ever set foot in).

Where to eat

LP also offers a wide variety of restaurants. After weeks of chicken and rice, we were craving some Western food, which we found in abundance in LP. Two restaurants that stood out were «Bouang» and «Cafe Toui» (try the curry with black sticky rice!)

How long should you stay in LP

A good lenght of stay would be around 3 full days/4 nights. But you can also easily spend 3 weeks here, if you’d like. There are yoga retreats, cooking classes, excursions, little towns to be discovered. So you won’t be bored. The most attractive sites can be covered in 3 days. Less than 3 days is doable, but you will have to pack your days and LP is all about exactly not doing that. One thing to keep in mind: During dry season, the mornings will be cloudy and cold in Northern Laos. And with cold I mean: long pants, socks and down jacket cold. Once the sun is out, it gets really hot (shorts, shirt and flip flop kinda hot), which makes dressing for a day out a bit tricky. We therefore usually slept in, hung around town until lunch and then headed out for the afternoon. We stayed in LP for 4 nights and then headed to Vang Vieng.

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