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Luang Prabang – a little Europe in Laos

From a dusty village to a gem of colonial architecture

By slow boat down the Mekong – Arriving in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang and its rivers - the Mekong and the Nam Kham.

Yes, it takes two whole days and you have to travel without much comfort (unless you charter a whole long boat). Still the two-day slow boat ride down the Mekong river is the best way to enter the country in the north from Thailand. It’s a unique opportunity to get a glimpse of village life and you can meet lots of other travellers. After our fabulous first day we continued our journey to Luang Prabang.

One more day on the river

After a quiet night in Pak Beng (or not so quiet for those who spent their time in or close to a bar), the boat departed around 9 in the morning. None of the seats were reserved this time so we could sit wherever we wished. There were Buddhist monks and villagers sitting in the front rows but we found some comfy seats in the middle. (You should go for the front (car) seats as the back seats are much smaller).

Undulating hills by the Mekong
Undulating hills by the Mekong

The landscape was more or less the same as on day one: gentle hills covered by plantations or pristine rainforest with a few villages thrown in for a change. This time we were less lucky with the weather but the occasional rain made the heat more bearable. We made a few stops, where locals hopped on and off and smiling villagers waved to us.

On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day,
On the second day we had a different boat so I could take a photo of the first one when it overtook us later in the day.
For these kids, the Mekong is their life.
For these kids, the Mekong is the whole world.

The second part of the journey is actually longer and we only arrived after 4 pm. Although we bought the tickets to Luang Prabang, we were dropped some 5 km before the town. Apparently, slow boat owners no longer have the right to use the port right under the Royal Palace. This means an additional tuk-tuk ride (20,000 kip pp) to the centre of town with all the hotels and guesthouses.

The city of the Golden Buddha

Luang Prabang is a real gem, a city with beautifully preserved temples, French colonial architecture and a cultural heritage. All this made it worthwhile to be listed as a World Heritage site back in 1995. The historical centre of Luang Prabang was built on a peninsula, surrounded by the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Kham. Almost al of the once decaying colonial buildings now house hotels, restaurants, bakeries, bars and art galleries. 

The high street of Luang Prabang at night
The high street of Luang Prabang at night

On arrival Anita stayed in a café (Laotian coffee is world class) while Áron and I looked for some place to stay. It was shocking to realise that Laos is actually more expensive than its western neighbour (somehow I assumed the opposite). And Luang Prabang is probably the priciest of all Laotian cities so we had a hard time. After checking a dozen places, which were either too dingy or out of our price range, I reserved a room on Booking. Villa Luang Sokxay is a pleasant hotel far enough from the main drag to ensure quiet nights yet close enough to the action.

3 things you shouldn’t miss in Luang Prabang

If you only have a few days in this lovely town like we did, you won’t have time to see all the sights in and around Luang Pragang. But if you listen to me, you shouldn’t leave without visiting some of its finest temples, the historical centre and a nearby waterfall.

These young boys live and study in the monastery.
These young boys live and study in the monastery. They usually come from poor families and this is one of the few ways of ensuring a secure life for them.

Nothing can beat the residential buildings and wats of the former Royal Palace (Luang Prabang used to be the capital before the communist takeover in 1975) in elegance. But we also enjoyed the other central Buddhist temples like Wat Siphouthabat Thippharam or Wat Pa Huak. If you don’t mind climbing hundreds of steps, you can enjoy great views of the city and its rivers from the top of Mount Phu Si. This hill has its own monastery, a cave filled with Buddha statues, a gigantic Buddha footprint and a viewpoint on the top.

The elaborate roof of the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was built with French help in the early 20th century and it was the last Lao king’s home for half a century.

As the French gained control over Laos in the late 19th century, they started to build administrative and residential buildings in the then capital. They imported European technologies and materials but successfully blended them with local and other Asian designs to create a new Laotian architectural style. Most of these buildings still exist and they are nicely restored so keep your head up as you walk the streets in the centre.

A fine example of French colonial architecture
A fine example of French colonial architecture

You like nature? Then the surrounding areas offer just as many attractions to you. We visited in the rainy season so the choice was a bit limited. For example, some of the caves were closed due to high water levels and it wasn’t possible to swim in the ponds under the waterfalls. We still decided to see one of them, Kuang Si, and we didn’t regret it. It’s about 40 minutes by tuk-tuk from the centre of town (we paid 200 thousand kip for the three of us but bargained hard). 

In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
In normal weather conditions you can swim in the pools under the falls. When we visited it looked stunning but nobody wanted to step into the whirling murky water.
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!
The flooded stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. It was quite an experience!

It must be fun to soak in the turquoise blue water but during the monsoon the waterfall is a breathtaking giant. We had a short trek in the jungle, walking around the falls. There was so much water that the stairs were flooded on the way down but it was more fun than risk. Definitely worth the time and the 20 thousand kip entrance fee.

Kuang Si waterfall near Luang Prabang

All in all, I would say that if you see only one place in Laos, it should be Luang Prabang. But why would you leave so fast when the country has so much more to see and experience?