Wat Xieng Thong
Last weekend, I spent three nights and four days in Luang Prabang, Northern Laos. I reckon you would need at least three full days to appreciate the city and the surrounding area. Perhaps a bit longer if you want to take it easy and soak up the local atmosphere at your own pace. Luang Prabang is not really that big. With a good strong pair of legs you can easily visit all the main attractions during one day on foot. I walked the whole time and never once took one of the tuk tuks.
I think in many ways the city lived up to all expectations. People kept telling me that Laos is Thailand 15 years ago. If they meant a slower way of life, honest and sincere people, and hardly any traffic on the road, then they are surely right. I found the Laos people in Luang Prabang to be both kind and warm and very generous in their hospitality. I had just bought a baguette chicken sandwich and was sitting down to eat when a neighbouring stallholder offered me some of her fruit to eat. Talking to other Thai people about this, they agreed that everything in Thailand has become so commercialized now.
Apart from the slow pace of life, I think the highlight was the temples and the monks. Fortunately, many of the buildings are protected by UNESCO as Luang Prabang became a World Heritage Site in 1995. This includes many of the temples, the royal palace, and quite a few of the French colonial buildings. The most attractive temple is undoubtedly Wat Xiang Thong (You pronounce the “X” like an “S”). The murals and mosaics are very beautiful. In fact, most temples I visited had an attractive attribute. Walking around town you see monks everywhere. Well, to be precise, most of them are novice monks. Many of them became novices in order to take advantage of free schooling. Quite surprisingly, there weren’t that shy and many times I was approached by young monks who wanted to practice their English. This is something that doesn’t happen so often in Thailand these days.
Phu Si Hill
When you first arrive in the city, it is a good idea to climb to the top of Phu Si Hill. There is a golden chedi at the top but the views alone are worth the climb. Nearby is the former Royal Palace and National Museum. The Royal Family was deposed in 1975 and this museum gives you a chance to look back at the glory days of the Kingdom of Laos. The guidebooks list about half a dozen temples to visit. But, you don’t really need to stick to this. Just wander around and enter any that look interesting from the outside. You might find a few surprises or just meet a local who wants to chat with you. In fact, that is what I did most of the time. I didn’t try to see everything as very early on I decided that I would be coming back for another visit in the future. And so I felt I should leave a few major locations for later. Two places I didn’t go to were day trips from the city. These were the Buddha caves at Tham Ting and the waterfalls. I also didn’t take a trip on the mighty Mekhong River which is worth doing. Though maybe when it is a bit warmer.
I flew to Luang Prabang which is quite expensive. There are cheaper overland options which include a two day slow boat ride. You can also drive up from Vientienne which I would love to do in my own car one day. It is apparently possible to take your own car across the Thai border though obviously there is a lot of paperwork involved. Once you arrive there then your holiday can be quite cheap. My guesthouse was only about $10 per night. Food and drink is also inexpensive though most of the major temples and the museum charge about 20,000 kip entry ($2) which starts to add up. Particularly when some temples you want to go back two or three times at different times of the day. A fair amount of English is spoken though I used Thai for most of the time. Most Lao and Thai numbers are the same which makes shopping easier for people coming from Thailand. I would say the city is safe though if you are looking for night life then you will be disappointed. Most people are in bed by 11 a.m. But if you are looking for a good side trip from Thailand then I would highly recommend Luang Prabang. Probably visit Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai first and then go from there.