The township of Luang Prabang sits on the banks of the mighty Mekong River in northern Laos. Surrounded by mountains and forests, this place exudes calm, tranquility and natural beauty. It’s a simple town, consisting of only a few streets. Yet despite its small size it is home to around thirty Buddhist temples and a large monastic population.
Traditional Lao wooden structures are interlaced with French colonial-influenced touches and Thai-like temples. Flared roof-lines glisten in the early morning light. The wide streets are bustling with locals any time of the day – be it for early morning alms when the monks make a procession to collect their food for the day; during morning markets when farmers sell their produce; or during the evening when the stall holders set up to sell their wares to the holiday makers and locals alike.
Luang Prabang is the perfect base from which to explore the surrounding area. There are some unique and beautiful places within an hour’s drive of the town, so taking a few day trips into the countryside is an easy way to fill your time here should you tire of temples and the river.
The most popular of these excursions (if you give any weight to Tripadvisor) is to Kuang Si – a stunning stepped waterfall about 30km from Luang Prabang. The series of glacier-blue swimming holes snake up the tree-covered hillside, reaching a dramatic set of falls at the top. You can take a swim in the refreshing pools and experience a fishy foot-spa for free while you’re at it. Perhaps you would like to do a cooking class with a difference – your travel agent can arrange for a special on-site class here at Kuang Si for you.
For us, we had a picnic lunch arranged and spent time relaxing and enjoying Lao delicacies while enjoying the beautiful view of the waterfalls. A refreshing dip after lunch takes the heat out of the day before you head back in to town.
While you’re at Kuang Si, make sure you take the time to visit the Bear Sanctuary. Home to 26 moon bears that have been rescued from bear bile farms and illegal animal trades, this refuge aims to educate visitors about animal poaching and trafficking in Laos and to provide these bears with a better life. Special behind-the-scenes experiences can be arranged, such a tour of the facility and feeding the bears.
The feeding session is incredible – you go in to the bear enclosure (minus the bears!) and plant food around for the animals to find. The aim of hiding the food is to create some challenges for the bears, encouraging them to fossick and get some extra exercise while looking for their meal. My children had a ball hiding wedges of pumpkin and melon in puzzle boxes, under logs, in hammocks, on ledges and in trees. They trailed honey through tire swings and along ledges – and all the while the keeper was explaining about the enclosure and the bears’ preferences and behaviours.
After planting the food, you retreat to the viewing area and the bears are released into the enclosure. Five year olds (and forty year olds!) will love watching the bears hunt for the food and follow the sweet sticky trails. It’s a brilliant experiences and definitely one for any families visiting this part of the world.
Other opportunities for day trips from Luang Prabang include near by Pak Oa Caves – two limestone caves carved out of the cliff and filled with thousands of Buddha images and statues; the Hmong village of Ban Chok; the picturesque Tad Sae Waterfalls set in the heart of the jungle. Maybe you would like to learn something typically Lao? You could spend an afternoon at the Living Crafts Centre and try your hand with a loom or creating your own batik. Or maybe you could visit the morning market and then take your ingredients to cook up a Laotian feast with a local chef. There’s also a chance to see local dancing and musical performances too.
However, if you’d rather enjoy a simpler life for a few days, regather and find your zen, then Luang Prabang is certainly the place to do it.
For accommodation, there is something for every budget here. My favourites hotels are 3 Nagas, the Luang Say Residence and Belmond La Residence Phou Vao.
However, for something really special and truly zen, you cannot go past incredible Amansara. On the edge of town, this luxury property is a tranquil, serene escape. It’s an old hospital building that has been converted into a signature Aman Resort. Each room is a villa with simple whitewashed walls and timber furnishings – true understated luxury – but the attention to detail and the service from the staff is out of this world. If you can afford a splurge, this is one place that is well and truly worth it.
x Sonia x