Luang Prabang (part one): the city of wats

Luang Prabang is a real stunner – one of the most amazing places in the whole South East Asia. Although it is certainly a mainstream tourist destination- especially in comparison to other places in Laos- it’s still free from overcrowding experienced by Thai or Vietnamese destinations. The old town comprises entirely of the old, colonial-era buildings, all renovated and turned into boutique hotels, spas, restaurants, etc. This being said, Luang Prabang remains a very authentic and spiritual place. All 34 UNESCO protected wats (temples) are teeming with monks and child novices. Every morning, the locals participate in the ceremony of alms giving. Long columns of the barefoot monks waiting for a lump of a sticky rice is a sight not to be missed.

Gilded golden decorations on a black wall in a wat in Luang Prabang, presenting female figures riding lions and plenty of smaller figures surrounding them

Luang Prabang on a budget

Accommodation

We expected Luang Prabang to be significantly more pricey than the rest of the country but we were still surprised to discover that the room within our budget would fall so much below the Lao standards.

We were very glad the room we booked (the cheapest on Booking.com) was located near the old wats and that we stayed in a lovely heritage house. Yet, the room was tiny and very basic. It literally comprised just of two beds of differing height. The only window was overlooking a wall and the light switch was situated outside the room. The bathroom was located behind the reception desk.

An old two-storied wooden house with a veranda turned into a guesthouse , Luang Prabang

All of the above didn’t bother us much since we were the only guests at the guesthouse. Despite the noise from the nearby construction site during the daytime we decided to stay in the strict city centre, rather than get an equally unappealing room somewhere on the outskirts.

On our second visit to Luang Prabang, we visited a few guesthouses, finally deciding on a windowless room on the upper floor with an access to the common area and a shared balcony with a view at Mekong. Once more, we were the only people at the property so the ‘shared bathroom’ was in fact ours. I’d imagine finding a budget room in the peak season would be much more challenging.

Food

Luang Prabang restaurants cater for all budgets. The problem isn’t so much with finding affordable places to eat but with getting value for money. Most of the cheap restaurants and eateries have rather poor standard.

Like in the rest of Laos, the meat eaters have much more choice. We often had lunch at one of the local eateries where I could order only morning glory or mixed vegetables with rice while Sayak had dozens of dishes to choose from. The numerous khao soi stalls are another easy alternative for meat-eaters. We also searched for street stalls set up for the locals (eg. in the backstreets near the Vietnamese embassy) which had much lower prices than in the strict centre and gave us a chance to taste something authentic.

In the evening, the main road transforms itself into a huge ethnic handicraft market with some food stalls on its fringes. I was quite happy to discover a vegan buffet stall: all you can eat for 15 000 kip. The food was at best edible (though often cold) but was still a welcome change from a very limited choice I had elsewhere. There was a multitude of similarly poor standard budget stalls aiming for the meat-eaters.

Wats of Luang Prabang

It took us two days to see dozens of the truly impressive, historical wats (Theravada Buddhist temples) without hurry. We were positively surprised that most of the temples were totally deserted.

If you have to choose just one temple you want to enter, let it be Wat Xientong located at the tip of the peninsula, very close to Mekong. The temple has beautiful wall decorations (stenciling) and lovely nine cascading roofs.

A golden boat decorated with multiple snake or dragon heads  with two huge golden urns under a canopy stands inside one of the temple buildings in Luang Prabang

Opposite to the wat stands a funerary hall with an enormous vehicle built to carry the urn with the ashes of one of the kings. There is also a haphazard, dusty, cobwebbed storage of old statues and other sacred objects along the walls and at the back of the building. The temple is certainly worth a 20 000 kip entrance fee.

Dozens of standing Buddha statues of varying sizes standing along a wall in one of temple buildings in Wat Xiengtong

Wat Souvana Khiri located nearby has a distinct look among the wats of the city. It was built in a different style than the remaining temples and it also has visible French architecture influences. At the time of our visit, it housed a temporary exhibition of stunning black and white photos (archive and modern) of the monks and lay people meditating. The exhibition was free but donation was encouraged.

A whitewashed Wat Souvana Khiri with a Laotian roof bearing colonial architecture traits stands behind a white stone wall among small trees and plants

Another really nice and photogenic temple worth seeing is 18th century Wat May – the largest temple in the city. You can recognise it by the five tiered roof extending almost to the ground and a veranda attached to it. I found the 10 000 kip ticket completely justified.

A characteristic cascading multitiered roof of the Wat May in Luang Prabang dominates the temple courtyard

The sacred Phousi mountain with a stupa on the top dominates the cityscape. It’s worth to climb Phousi to admire the view at the two rivers and the surrounding mountains. I’m not sure if it’s really justified to pay over $2 just for a view, though.

A view from Phousi hill at the brown coloured Mekong, trees on the hill, red roofs of Luang Prabang and mountains in the background

Luckily Wat Pa Huak– a small derelict temple with amazing murals nestled at the foot of the hill -is accessible free of charge. Donation is encouraged as the murals are in the bad need of renovation.

An interior wall of a wat covered with faded murals and 3 seated Buddha statues at Wat Pa Huak in Luang Prabang

There are two more temples that charge 20 000 kip each and in my opinion this fee is excessive. Those are Wat Visoun and Wat Aham.

Wat Visoun’s highlight is the ‘watermelon stupa’- called that due to it’s dome- shape, typical for Sinhalese architecture and totally unique to Laos. The stupa is easily visible from the distance. The temple itself, although one of the oldest was seriously destroyed in 19th century so its current form is relatively recent.

An old stone square based stupa with a wide dome, framed with a few palm trees

What makes the Wat Visoun interesting is the collection of old Buddha statues (from various periods) carved in wood and bronze.

Wooden smiling Buddha statue with unnatural facial expression, broad nose and large ears, standing at Wat Visoun in Luang Prabang

The neighbouring Wat Aham is quite underwhelming. It’s just a small , rather simple 19th century temple covered with brigthly coloured murals.

More than the temples

Luang Prabang is a perfect place to just have a stroll and wander around. Renting a bike is unnecessary- the city is small enough to walk everywhere. It’s a pleasure to wander through the neighbourhoods consisting partly of wooden, partly of brick buildings. Some of the houses look distinctly European, some are more Asian. It’s nice to walk along both rivers, too and there are plenty of restaurants (not necessarily expensive ones) along the banks.

Large, whitewashed colonial style building with a roofed balcony and blue wooden shutters located on the main road in old Luang Prabang

Apart from the temples, it’s worth to pay a visit at the National Museum which used to be the king’s residence. It isn’t very old (19th – 20th century) but it’s quite interesting, with a very colourful and slightly kitsch mosaic decoration on the walls and lots of gold regalia. I was captivated by an illustrated legend of prince Watsamaran. Within the museum’s compound there is also a new temple sheltering the most sacred Buddha statue in Laos- the Emerald Buddha.

A monumental, white washed building of the National Museum in Luang Prabangand a row of palms leading to it

You have to leave your camera and bags at the lockers located in the theatre building (to the left from the museum) to be able to enter the museum.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Luang Prabang?

By air
Luang Prabang has an airport but the flights are sparse and expensive. The non-recommended Lao airlines offer direct flights to capital Vientiane and Pakse in the south. There are also international flights to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hanoi, Siem Reap and Singapore.

By boat
Due to the dam on the Nam Ou river you can no longer travel by boat from Nong Khiaw, unless you hire a private boat combined with a taxi which would take you around the dam which would be expensive and rather pointless.

It is still possible to get to Luang Prabang by river from Huay Xai on the Thai border. The noisy and dangerous speedboat would take only 6 hours, the cruise- 2 days with a stopover in Pakbeng.

By bus
Luang Prabang has a multitude of bus connections with the entire country and abroad. I wouldn’t recommend a non-stop journey by VIP bus or minivan to the neighbouring countries: it is simply too long. The journey to Thai border would take 12-15 hours. The journey to Vietnamese border in Dien Bien Phu would take 24 hours.

There are 3 bus stations in Luang Prabang: northern (for northern destinations), southern (for southern) and minivan station (for both north and south destinations) located just next to the southern termiinal. A tuk-tuk to any of them, would cost you 10-15 000 kip.

Some of the destinations served by the northern terminal are: Nong Khiaw (3h), Oudomxai (3-5h), Luang Namtha (10h), Phonsali (12-14h). The southern one serves: Vang Vieng (6-7h), Vientiane (8h) and Phonsavan (10h).

Luang Prabang prices [in Laotian kip as of August 2018]:
130 000 minivan Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang
105 000 minivan Luang Prabang to Phonsavan
50 000- 55 000 cheapest double room with a shared bathroom
50 000 story-telling theatre show
40 000 bus Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
40 000 cheapest Lao massage
30 000 drink+popcorn set required for watching ‘Chang’ movie
25 000 dinner at a cheap restaurant
10-15 000 tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city centre
15 000-18 000 simple meal at a cheap eatery
15 000 entrance to the National Museum
10-20 000 entrance to the wats
10 000 smoothie at the night market
5 000 portion of sticky rice
5 000 ferry to the other side of Mekong
2 000 portion of spiced noodles from a street stall

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