There’s a reason why Luang Prabang’s ‘theme song’ (which, no less, bellows through the town at timely intervals) sings a recurring chorus lyric that echoes, “Luang Prabang is timeless”. The UNESCO World Heritage town lies only a mere 700km from Bangkok, and yet boasts a magical charm unlike many other cities in the region. For one, the term ‘city’ feels almost inappropriate for the sweetly sleepy once-French-colonised settlement, as it hones much more the slow pace of life that is a true lullaby to the beauty of one of Southeast Asia’s lesser mainstream destinations.
From fruit stall vendors greeting you with a smiling “sabai dee”, to colonial architecture, coffee culture, temples, and monks (many monks), Luang Prabang is a romantically-hued and rightfully relaxing weekend trip from Bangkok. Located in northern Laos, the mountain town along the meandering Mekong river is just a quick two plane hours from Don Muang International Airport. Here’s why you should consider it for your next spontaneous getaway, and why you’ll swoon stories of it upon your return.
Featured and hero image credit: spyönk/Flickr
There are two ways you can go about accommodation in Luang Prabang; prefer you a colonial boutique hotel or guest house, or prefer you a contemporary luxury resort. Providing a charming best of both worlds, the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao sits atop a quiet hill as a tranquil hideaway that is still a short bicycle or tuk-tuk ride from the town centre.
The resort haven is small, boasting just a few intimate rooms and suites, all featuring sweeping views of the sacred mountains in the distance. Rooms are spacious and decked out with dark wood, silk, and fresh cotton accents, as well as a few warm Lao touches – from a sticky rice basket that acts as a mini bar, to the traditional Laotian day beds on the terrace for afternoon napping.
Breakfast and all-day meals are served at a French-influenced restaurant next to the main pool, where guests can practice their lounge poses on the sunbeds by the open-air wine bar, too. There’s a more secluded private pool next to the spa above a water lily pond, as well as a natural garden and rice plantation just below, for insight into local rice farming and agricultural activities. It’s rustic, and feels very genuine; much like the service, which is kind, helpful, and welcoming.
Due to its land-locked position, Laotian cuisine has not quite made as many culinary waves on an international level like its neighbours of Thailand and Vietnam. Nevertheless, dining in Luang Prabang is an interesting and diverse experience. Expect French, Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese influences, with a few familiars and a few not-so-familiars on the menu. Think: laap (similar to Thai larb) minced pork, som tum spicy papaya salad, baguette sandwiches, fruit shakes, and lots of soup and noodle dishes.
Cafe culture is huge here, so it comes highly advisable to visit a few of the French style coffeehouses, such as Café Le Ban Vat Skene on Sakhalin Road, the ‘East-meets-West’ Silk Road Café, or the Viewpoint Cafe by the river at sunset. Saffron Coffee uses sustainably-grown beans from Laos to make everything from aeropress to cold drip coffee, so coffeeholics need not fear any kind of withdrawal symptoms. The cafés provide an ideal resting spot between sightseeing, midday munchies, or a quick caffeine refuel.
For lunch or dinner, head to Dyen Sabai Restaurant to check out Lao-style fondue sindad, alongside many traditional Laotian food staples. The restaurant is accessed via a bamboo bridge and is composed of bamboo huts and beautiful gardens, for truly exotic dining. Manda de Laos also comes highly recommended, set over a floating lily pond, with classic Lao food in contemporary flair. Those feeling a little homesick can also head to the recently-opened Paste, honed by Bangkok’s infamous Chef Bee Satongun (Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2018) for an incredible fine dining experience.
After dinner, there’s no place like 525 Cocktails and Tapas for really great cocktails, and really great bar snacks. Obviously also try the infamous Beer Lao, or the local Lao rum – though be warned, it comes with a serious kick.
See & Do
Beyond restaurants, a great place to sample food is at the night or morning markets. Explore the fresh fruit and vegetable (and occasional chili paste, buffalo skin, and dried komodo dragon) offering at the morning market, or stroll along Luang Prabang Night Market for souvenirs, snacks, and elephant pants.
During the day, explore Haw Kham Royal Palace, once the home of the royal family, and now a well-preserved museum entailing artefacts relating to the history of the country. Visit the stunning 16th century Wat Xien Thong Temple, or make a day trip the Pak Ou Buddha Caves a little north of Luang Prabang, and uncover hidden Buddha statues within the enclaves.
To end your day, hike the 300 stairs to the top of Mount Phousi (though fret not, ‘tall hill’ is more apt than ‘mountain’ for this one), and watch the sun set over the Luang Prabang skyline. Afterwards, go for an authentic Lao massage to relax those muscles before bed. The massage is a little less intense than a Thai massage – though similar in many ways – and thereby entrancingly good.
Any photo book on Luang Prabang is likely to feature the orange-clad monks that walk through the town at dawn. And indeed, the traditional alms-giving ritual is a great one to experience when you visit. Rise before the sun and head to Sakhalin Road to take part in or observe the hundreds of monks as they walk along the street to receive alms from men and women seated along the road.
For the uninitiated who wish to participate, it is advisable to go with a local. We booked the experience with the Belmond La Residence Phou Vao, whereby we were provided not only with transportation, seating, and sticky rice as alms to donate, but also a fully traditional Laotian outfit to wear for the ceremony. Women are required to wear a special waist cloth throughout, and a lady will be happy to help in tying the traditional skirt, too.
After the ceremony (and still part of the experience), a driver then takes you to the pier to board the Belmond Sunrise Cruise, which in itself is a reason to visit Luang Prabang alone. You’ll get the entire boat to yourself, with a private chef on board to cook a full breakfast. After dining at the back of the boat, you’ll then be invited to rest away the food coma at the front of the boat, on individual beds (!) with feather duvets (!) – all while you float along between palms and beaches along the river. Beats queues at Luka and Just Another Cup on a Sunday any day.
Do not miss
If there is one thing – beyond strolls through town and street food nibbles – that anyone will tell you not to miss on your weekend trip to Luang Prabang, it is this: the Kuang Si Falls. The infamous waterfalls are located about 20km out of the city centre, and can be reached by minivan or tuk-tuk. Go in the mornings to avoid crowds, and pack or book a picnic lunch. Utterly serene and calming despite rising tourism, the waterfalls are the stuff of movies and imagination. You’re allowed to swim in them (once your jaw has been picked up off the floor) and spend the entire day in their turquoise blue embrace. Be sure not to settle for the first splash you encounter, and look for the more quiet, secret pools. Perhaps a charming metaphor for a trip to Luang Prabang in itself: a more quiet, sweetly secret, and well-worthy travel gem.